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Dawn Editorial 7 February 2020

Wheat crisis

IT appears that the country’s wheat troubles are far from over.
The government’s — delayed — intervention through resumption of supplies of the subsidised grain to mills from its stocks may have eased the shortages in parts of the country and helped contain the increase in flour rates, but many consumers still continue to pay exorbitant sums for wheat.
Read: Rate of wheat climbs down but no cut in flour price
The demand for wheat flour as a major staple is inelastic. This means that a hike, no matter how large it may be, does not reduce its consumption, or at least does not effect too much of a change in eating routines. In fact, people will cut expenditure on other items to pay for flour. Little wonder then that it is easier for wheat stockists and flour millers to raise their prices without loss in sales in times of both real and artificial scarcity — even at the risk of causing unrest among the people, especially the poor who spend more than half their monthly income on food.
A debate continues as to what caused the grain’s prices to shoot up in the first place.
The usual suspects include corporate greed and/or blunders by the government that allowed the export of wheat and wheat flour between August and October despite a ban imposed on July 30. It is hard to blame a for-profit business for exploiting an opportunity. But governments are expected to regulate the markets in a way that minimises the chances of anyone fleecing the people.
Unfortunately, the ruling PTI has repeatedly proved itself inept on this score.
It all started with a sharp surge in the price of tomatoes because of supply disruptions a few months back, pushing food inflation for the poorest segments of the population to above 20pc.
Just when tomato rates started tumbling, we had reports of wheat shortages pouring in from across the country with forecasts of a significant rise in flour prices.
Even in Punjab, where there was no scarcity of wheat, the price of wholegrain flour shot up to Rs70 a kilo on the back of rising wheat prices.
Following the wheat crisis was a very sharp jump in sugar rates, which have skyrocketed to Rs85 a kilo in the retail market from less than Rs70 a kilo a few weeks ago. Each time the people saw an administration standing on the sidelines, helplessly watching the market batter consumers.
The elevated food rates seem to have entrenched themselves and there is little likelihood of prices dropping back to previous levels. It means the poorer segments of the population will be forced to cut their health, education and other essential spending to meet food expenses.
In a country where more than a third of the population lives under the poverty line, it is painful to imagine how the vast majority is coping with rising food prices rooted in rampant market greed and poor governance.


Water woes

THE Supreme Court-mandated commission formed in 2016 to look into Sindh’s water and sanitation issues had a gargantuan task. Not only did it have to identify the problems, it had to make recommendations and oversee their implementation. The Supreme Court has now dissolved the commission, while directing the provincial government to implement the body’s suggestions — included in its report submitted to the court in early 2018 — and file a compliance report within a month. One of the commission’s recommendations is that the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board conduct a fresh survey of all water supply and drainage schemes and prepare a master plan for water distribution and sanitation in the city. Other suggestions include, among many others, an oversight body to monitor the KWSB, an overhaul of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, a survey of industrial areas by the revamped Sepa, and establishment of appropriately located landfill sites across Sindh.
Official apathy and corruption in the government apparatus — the massive fraud that is the RO plant initiative is but one example — have led to a stage where water and sanitation issues in Sindh are directly responsible for a steep decline in the quality of life. One does not have to travel far in the country’s largest urban centre before the consequences of this criminal neglect become obvious. Drains and natural waterways choked with overflowing garbage, roads inundated with sewage water, etc are all part of the ‘Karachi experience’. The commission’s findings were nevertheless an eye-opener. For instance, it seems there are 750 points of confluence between raw sewage and freshwater bodies — turning the entire 8,000km-long provincial irrigation network into a conduit for faecal material and hazardous organisms. Around 2,000 rural water supply and drainage schemes were found to be dysfunctional largely due to bad governance and the local councils’ incapacity to operate them. None of the sewage treatment plants in Karachi were in working order. Therefore, while the government ostensibly spends billions of rupees annually on these schemes, the people are forced to consume contaminated water and endure unsanitary conditions, thus increasingly falling prey to various water-borne ailments eg hepatitis, typhoid, diarrhoea, etc. The commission’s recommendations have kick-started work to rectify some of the problems, but the Supreme Court must ensure that the Sindh government does not slip back into its old ways. Moreover, those responsible for the dire state of affairs should be held accountable for their crimes.


Liver transplant


IN an appalling new development, the liver transplant facility at the Shaikh Zayed Hospital in Lahore was shut down when a string of post-operative deaths caught the attention of the Punjab Human Organ Transplant Authority. Most recently, a mother and her donor son passed away after undergoing a liver transplant at the facility. The regulatory body is now carrying out an investigation to ascertain why donors and patients keep dying after being admitted to the institution. In a recent report published in this paper, it was brought to light that the death of another donor in 2018 had led to the facility being shut down temporarily once before, but perhaps if strict action had been taken, many other lives could have been saved. The post-operative period after a liver transplant is a particularly sensitive phase and all necessary precaution must be taken to prevent infection, bleeding, blood clots and a host of other complications resulting from the surgery or the drugs prescribed. It seems that such preventative measures were not being taken by the unit. Globally, the number of patients waiting for a healthy liver is far greater than the number of people willing to donate, and incidents like this one present yet another blow to the lifelong efforts of campaigners such as the SIUT’s Dr Adib Rizvi and the late Abdul Sattar Edhi.
This is especially worrying in the context of countries like Pakistan that have not developed a culture in which live or deceased organ donation is anywhere close to the norm, and the number of transplants carried out legally have resultantly remained very low. These failures of medical practitioners also inadvertently strengthen the presence of a large racket for human organs. For instance, in 2016, 24 donors were rescued by the police from a locked-up apartment in Rawalpindi. They had agreed to sell their kidneys to those desperate to live in exchange for money to escape their own terrible poverty. What a cruel cycle to perpetuate.


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