Wheat and sugar investigations
PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan is to be commended for keeping his word and releasing the findings of two investigations into the recent sugar and wheat flour shortages that led to an increase in the price of these items. The reports were made public without delay or alterations, even though they incriminate people close to the prime minister — something unheard of in previous dispensations.
And yet, the ensuing shakeup in government ranks has raised several questions. For instance, a number of ministers, advisers and bureaucrats linked with the damning probe have been given other portfolios — was this reshuffle essentially a face-saving exercise? Indeed, any action at this stage is a little premature.
The reports expectedly spawned demands from the opposition for immediate action against those believed to have benefited from the shortages and price hikes. In response, the premier rightly advised them to wait for the completion of the forensic audit of the scams.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, he said he was waiting for a detailed forensic report on the matter before taking action against anyone. A high-powered commission is expected to finalise the audit by April 25. He also said that “after these reports come out no powerful lobby would be able to profiteer at the expense of our public”.
A careful reading of the two inquiries underlines the need for patience as these reports — especially the one on the steep increase in the price of domestic sugar prices last year — while pointing to certain beneficiaries of government policies and decisions, do not fix responsibility. All this has only added to the mystery of the reshuffle.
On their own, the two reports do not contain anything new or startling. Most of the information contained in them has been extensively reported by the print and electronic media over the past few months. But what the reports do confirm is the deep connection between politics and the sugar and wheat trade as a whole.
The investigators appear reluctant to pin direct blame on the politicians and officials linked to the ruling party for fear of influencing the federal and provincial policies on sugar and wheat. And yet it is hard to dispute that those in the political corridors of powers have benefited from these policies.
A look at the report shows that it is not only sugar mill owners linked to the government who are beneficiaries of the billions doled out in the name of export subsidies, but also those associated with the PML-N and other parties. Governments need to break this nexus between politics and the sugar and wheat trade through extensive policy reforms if such crises are to be prevented in the future. That will mean a substantial reduction in the government’s own role in the sugar and wheat trade and greater reliance on market forces.
IN a move that portends danger and has far-reaching consequences, the Punjab government has decided to reopen some businesses which had been shut as part of precautionary measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. The provincial government through three notifications has given the green signal to businesses — which include pharmaceutical and surgical goods, as well as textile, leather, sports equipment, laundry and money exchange services — to resume operations subject to the “implementation of precautionary measures”. The industries have been asked to restrict staff to a minimum and ensure measures against the spread of the coronavirus. However, the orders fail to say how these restrictions will be enforced. The death toll in Punjab stands at 15 and there have been more than 1,800 confirmed coronavirus cases there, with a spike in recent days that has been greater than in the other provinces. The provincial government’s decision to reopen these businesses and go back to ‘normal life’ could not be more ill-timed. Given the rise in cases in Punjab and the global reality of Covid-19’s devastating effects, the rush to go back to routine life is perplexing. What is more alarming is that the decision has come at a time when a team of Chinese doctors in Lahore has advised exactly the opposite. The experts from China have suggested a 28-day extension of the lockdown, and invalidated theories that the coronavirus would fade in the summer. Furthermore, they said that social-distancing measures play an important role in containing the infection. Punjab’s chief minister and health minister both met the visiting delegation and said the province would undertake all necessary measures to ensure the successful implementation of the Chinese model. Yet, businesses have been allowed to reopen without any clarity on the enforcement of precautionary measures.
While the negative impact of a lockdown on the economy is a valid concern and reopening pharma and surgical companies reflect the government’s healthcare concerns, allowing other businesses to start functioning at this point betrays a lack of wisdom. Punjab must reconsider this decision and heed the advice of Chinese doctors who are all too familiar with the virus’s spread. The province must also take note of the remarks of PTI leader Asad Umar, who has acknowledged that while the economy has taken a hit, a lockdown is effective in slowing the number of coronavirus cases. The country’s healthcare system simply cannot cope with an escalation, which is likely if precautions are not strictly enforced.
IN a peculiar move, a presidential ordinance last year dissolved the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council — and matters only got stranger from that point on. The abrupt announcement came after an earlier attempt to pass the PMDC Ordinance 2019 failed in the Senate, due to resistance from the opposition parties. Later, in a television interview, the former PMDC registrar narrated how he got a call in the evening last October from health ministry officials, telling him they had ‘taken over’ the body, and all employees were to go on a week’s leave. However, when the 200-plus permanent and contractual workers studied the ordinance, they learnt that they had been fired from their jobs. Police constables barged in and seized the building — “as if it were a coup”, the former registrar noted in the interview — while officials from the National Health Services sealed the premises. And then, a new authority was formed, called the Pakistan Medical Commission, with the stated aim of modernising the medical education curriculum. The PMDC workers filed a petition, and in February, the Islamabad High Court declared the ordinance null and void, called the PMC illegal, and demanded that all dismissed employees be reinstated. And so, on March 31, the NHS de-sealed the PMDC building.
Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, however, the government is yet to restore the original body. The PMDC was not only responsible for upholding the registration of doctors and dentists, it also oversaw the standard of education in medical schools. The confusion of recent events has caused uncertainty for the future of thousands of students. In a recent report in this paper, health practitioners expressed their dismay at the present state of affairs, which they said was unnecessarily complicating the war against the coronavirus epidemic. To make matters worse, doctors in Quetta yesterday clashed with police over the non-availability of personal protective equipment. When will the government note that the health sector is ailing?