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Local residents buy wheat flour sacks at government's control price along a a street in Peshawar on Monday. Pakistan's Economic Coordination Committee has approved a proposal to import 300,000 tons of wheat to overcome a nationwide shortage that had dramatically raised prices of the food staple. Image Credit: AFP

Islamabad: Pakistan on Monday approved the import of 300,000 tonnes of wheat to relieve a shortage of flour supplies which has forced people to buy the staple at Rs70 (Dh 1.66) per kg in Peshawar and Karachi.

Prices of flour and bread shot up last week as the ingredient disappeared from shops and wholesale markets, while bread makers shut in protest at what they called government pressure to sell the staple at controlled prices.

“It is not possible for me to sell bread for eight rupees a piece if I buy flour bags at high prices,” said Sheraz Khan, a shopkeeper in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, the capital.

“Gas prices have also shot up multiple times since this new government came into power,” he added estimating that the bill for his gas-powered oven had increased four times.

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Labourers load sacks of wheat flour at a market in Karachi on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

Growers hold the flour mill owners and the provincial governments responsible for the wheat flour crisis.

How did the flour shortage start?

The crisis hit the country, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Sindh last month when transporters went on strike in Karachi protesting against the increase in petrol prices thus affecting flour supply in the local markets of Sindh.

Another factor that led to wheat flour shortage in KP was a ban on the inter-provincial movement of wheat between Punjab and KP.

The provincial government attributed unchecked smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan as the main reason behind clamping down on inter-provincial movement of the commodity.

What has the government done?

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday took a detailed briefing over the emerging crisis of wheat flour shortage from senior officials of the National Food Security & Research and leaders of his party directing immediate measures to restore smooth supply of wheat flour to the markets all across the country.

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A worker fills a sack with four at a market in Rawalpindi on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

On the directions of the prime minister, Federal Federal Minister for National Food Security & Research Khusro Bakhtiar at a hurriedly called press conference Sunday shrugged the rumours of a crisis like situation.

Consumers would witness a decline in wheat and flour prices within a couple of days, Khusro Bakhtiar said and insisted that the prices and artificial shortage of wheat and flour would come down after the government’s effective measures.

He said both the causes—transporters’ strike and ban on inter-provincial movement of wheat— were addressed and the wheat supply was restored.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Khan Buzdar too on Monday approved supply of 5,000 tons of wheat daily to the KP so that ‘artificial’ shortage of wheat could be dealt with.

After attending a high level meeting in Lahore, the chief minister of Punjab in a statement asserted Punjab would play its role of the elder brother and continue to supply wheat to the province unless its crisis is over.

What do the people say?

Pakistan Kissan Ittehad chairman Khalid Khokhar while talking to Gulf News said it was because of sheer negligence and incompetence of the government that wheat crisis deepened mainly because of the flour millers and those involved in smuggling wheat to Afghanistan via Torkham border.

He said the crisis began as the government had not procured adequate wheat from farmers at the support price of Rs1,300 (Dh 30.85) the rate that had not been revised for many years despite massive increase in production cost.

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Local residents wait in a queue to buy wheat flour sacks in Peshawar. Image Credit: AFP

If the food department had sufficient reserves of wheat, the crisis could have been averted timely, he said.

Punjab’s flour millers on the other hand are of the view the commodity shortage emerged in the open market after massive consumption of wheat at poultry or animal feed mills across the province. “There is no issue with us as we are selling flour at the regulated prices.

The food department is providing 25,000 tons of wheat daily to us and the issue is at flour grinding units (Chakis) and not with us,” Asim Raza, an office-bearer of the Punjab Flour Mills Association, said.

The flour grinding vendors (Atta Chakki owners) have refused to sell flour below the price of Rs70 per kg keeping in view of massive increase in 40kg-wheat price to Rs2,150 (Dh 51.0).

“While we are buying wheat at Rs2,150 per 40kg, how can we sell it below Rs70 a kg. We bear Rs8 per kg grinding and Rs2 per kg wheat cleaning cost,” said Atta Chaki Association General Secretary Abdul Rehman.

Will prices fall soon?

Meanwhile, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) senior leader and in the business of agriculture himself, Jahangir Tareen has assured the nation flour price would soon come down as the “federal government has decided to allow duty-free import of wheat”.

Tareen, who was part of a PTI team formed by PM Khan to meet and address its allies’ concerns, said the federal government had provided 400,000 tons of wheat to the Pakistan Agriculture Storage and Services Cooperation (Passco). The supply was made some two months back when the crisis had just begun. He claimed that Passco still had 300,000 tons of wheat and the government would transport 10,000 tons of wheat on a daily basis to Karachi and Hyderabad through the National Logistics Cell (NLC).

Tareen also advised the Sindh government to lift wheat from Passco.

- With inputs from Reuters