Wheat flour crisis
THE current crisis had been in the making for quite some time. Wheat flour shortages were looming large as the gaps appeared obvious. There were clear signs that warned of disruptions to supply in several parts of the country; once the projections proved correct, the increase in the price of wheat flour was inevitable.
Yet, the authorities concerned remained silent, showing little inclination to take steps to protect the consumers from the rising cost of the staple food. Reports of growing shortages in major cities were dismissed nonchalantly by the very people who were supposed to take action to remedy the situation. No surprise then that a full-blown crisis has gripped the entire country.
The government woke up at the prodding of the media which showed images of people queuing up outside shops to buy wheat flour at exorbitant rates. Since then, we’ve been told that wheat in large quantities was being released from the federal stocks and urgently dispatched to Sindh, KP and Balochistan — the areas that officials say face an acute shortage. The Economic Coordination Committee has also allowed the import of 0.3m tonnes of grain by the end of March to cover the shortages and manage market sentiments until the next harvest.
A debate has ensued on the reasons that might have led to the crisis. The government and the opposition blame each other, while the consumers continue to suffer as a consequence of poor governance. In fact, no single factor or actor can be blamed entirely for the crisis, which originated in Sindh and spilled over to the rest of the country.
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The Sindh government didn’t procure wheat during the last harvest. It says it did not lift wheat stocks because of a cash crunch resulting from the centre’s failure to release funds. But that is not quite the explanation to satisfy an earnest inquiry.
Similarly, Punjab needs to come up with plausible reasons for its own inaction against the hoarders said to be responsible for hiking grain prices in the market. The abrupt restrictions it imposed on the inter-provincial movement of wheat and its products had also halted supply to KP and elsewhere.
Above all, the federal government cannot absolve itself of blame. Its decision to allow excessive wheat exports in summer despite the lower-than-targeted harvest has forced it to import wheat to cover the shortages for the next two months.
Unchecked smuggling of wheat flour across the porous borders with Afghanistan, and major supply disruptions caused by weather conditions and a strike by goods’ transporters played their part in complicating matters. More importantly, it is poor management and lack of coordination among different tiers of government that led the crisis to overwhelm the poor to low-income population groups, who are already struggling to cope with the rising cost of food. It is they who are suffering the consequences of the rulers’ indifference.
LAST month, the Islamabad High Court constituted a commission to look into human rights abuses within prisons, particularly with regard to inmates’ health issues. The commission has now published its findings in a report, and the situation seems to be even worse than previously thought, though perhaps it is not too much of a surprise to those who have been advocating for prisoners’ rights for some time now. According to its investigation, the commission found that over 5,000 out of a total of 73,661 prisoners suffered from some form of disease: 2,100 inmates suffered from physical ailments, while nearly 2,400 were infected with contagious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Additionally, it found a host of mental illnesses festering within prison confines and around 600 prisoners were said to be suffering from psychological disorders. Equally worrying, nearly half of the medical jail staff seats remained empty, along with a shortage of appropriate medical equipment and laboratories.
Under the Prison Rules and the Code of Criminal Procedure, prisoners are entitled to compulsory medical examination; release upon old age or illness; and transfer to hospitals in case of serious illness. All these health issues and discrepancies are linked to one overarching malaise in the criminal justice system: overcrowded prison conditions, which are the result of over-incarceration caused largely by delays in trial. In other words, prisons are packed beyond their capacities. Last year, a report to the Supreme Court found that there were a total of 77,275 prisoners held in 114 prisons across the country, which only had the capacity to house 57,742 people. In Punjab, 47,077 prisoners languished in 42 jails with the capacity to hold 32,477 people. And in Sindh, 17,239 prisoners were crammed into 24 prisons, against a sanctioned capacity of 13,038 people. The more recent statistics provided in the report vary somewhat, but once again underscore the problem of overcrowding, while confirming that the majority of prisoners are undertrials and often forced to share space with serious offenders. In Punjab, 55pc of all prisoners are undertrials; in Balochistan, this figure rises slightly to 59pc; and in Sindh and KP, a massive 70pc and 71pc of all prisoners have yet to be declared guilty. The government must start creating more prisons, detention and juvenile centres, but the law-enforcement and judicial systems have to consider their part in the problem as well and attempt to correct their failings.
THIS year, Pakistan was represented at the Youth Olympic Games 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland by 16-year-old Swiss-Pakistani Mia Nuriah Freudweiler, an alpine skier in the slalom and giant slalom events. During an interview, the young skier expressed a wish to promote winter sports and human rights in Pakistan by encouraging young girls to pursue their dreams of becoming athletes. She also indicated her own interest in becoming an instructor and teaching young girls in Pakistan how to ski in order to prepare them for national and international competitions. It is commendable that the young athlete from Switzerland aspires to work towards promoting skiing and encouraging women to take up the sport in Pakistan, the birth country of her mother Tania. There is a lot of untapped potential for winter sports tourism in the country and teaching skiing to young girls will no doubt help more women take up winter sports professionally while also boosting the provincial and district governments’ overall efforts to promote winter tourism.
For several years now, international skiing competitions have been organised in the scenic Naltar valley in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Malam Jabba resort in Swat valley. For the past couple of years, the Ghizer valley and Altit area of Hunza valley have also witnessed winter sporting events, thanks to a few local organisations. In fact, there has been enthusiastic participation by local residents including young women. However, the lack of adequate resources, infrastructure, training institutes and sporting equipment — combined with a still uncertain security situation in those areas — pose serious hurdles for the country to establish itself as a leading destination for winter sports enthusiasts. Hopefully, the two winter sports schools, one in Madaklasht (Chitral) and the other in Malam Jabba, inaugurated by the Winter Sports Federation Pakistan last year will bridge this gap by enabling more male and female athletes to pursue their professional ambitions and train for international competitions. Perhaps Ms Freudweiler could also be approached for beginning her coaching career from one of these institutions.