Mar 10 - 16, 2008

While officials claim that they have overcome the wheat flour crisis in Balochistan, the local mill owners are closing their mills for short supply of wheat from provincial food department. At least 15 out of 33 flour mills in the provincial capital Quetta have closed their operations due to short supply of wheat, which is not compatible with their grinding capacity. It is feared that the rest of the mills are likely to be closed down in next few weeks and the people, who are gradually recovering from the worst flour crisis of January, may witness flour shortage in the province.

"Presently there is no flour crisis in the province", said Azam Baloch, the Balochistan Food secretary. While talking to this scribe, he said, "We particularly increased wheat supply to the areas like Turbat, Pasni, Gwadar, Kalat, Nokandi, Pishin, Kila Saifullah, Dera Murad Jamali, Panjgur and in other parts of the province where wheat shortages were getting acute."

Secretary Food told this scribe that provincial food department took pro-active measures to control the recent flour crisis in the province and the Chief Secretary Balochistan, K.B Rind took personal interest in managing the critical situation. "What has been our real success in comparison to other provinces is that we managed the crisis within our normal supplies by strengthening and ensuring monitoring at all levels of the wheat supply chain," he said.

Provincial food department provides wheat to one third of population in the province at subsidy rate and this fiscal year a subsidy of Rs. 174 for 100Kg was given. Azam Baloch told that government could not provide subsidy to entire population due to lack of financial resources. Some sources from the provincial food department on the condition of anonymity told this scribe that the wheat subsidy was being provided through Bank loans, as the provincial finance department had not been releasing the required amount for subsidy for the last many years. One can simply understand why the province is trapped in debt and interest payments. It is the financial indiscipline that has been a potent reason behind the financial woes of the province.

"Currently, 34000 metric tons of wheat is being supplied on monthly basis to the flour mills in the province. "Normally, we supply 24,000 metric tons monthly to the flour mills, but we have made an increase of 10,000 MT in the critical situation," said Azam Baloch.

On the other hand, the flour mill owners in Quetta complained that they were only getting wheat from Provincial food department, which is not supplying wheat according to the grinding capacity of their mills and the department is even unable to maintain the level of supply to mills. "We presently depend only on Provincial food department for supply of wheat, as the government has banned supply from the private parties," said Zahoor Agha, the Vice President of Balochistan Flour Mills Association. He told this scribe that the level of supply of wheat was at 72,000 MT from Food department to the flour mills on monthly basis during the years 2001 and 2002. He said, "Our mills are working only for one hour, against a working capacity of 8 hours." "But we are bearing expenditures including labour charges, transportation charges, salaries and electricity charges," he added.

Balochistan has 57 flour mills and 957 Chakkies with a storage capacity of 181,500 MT. Out of the total 57 mills, 33 are located in the provincial capital Quetta. The flour mills in Quetta are grinding wheat for only one hour on a daily basis to meet the demand. They are incurring losses for short supply of wheat, as the public sector is not able to meet their demand. Presently, only 20 to 25 flour mills are functional in Quetta and rest of the mills has closed their operations due to financial crisis. The functional flour mills are also considering to close their operations if the required level of wheat supply was not maintained. "We are being forced to close mills as we are not able to bear losses any more," said Zahoor Agha.

A plan for imposing ban on the establishment of new flour mills and expansion of the existing mills is reportedly under consideration of the government. Balochistan simultaneously faces absence and concentration of flour mills in different districts. For example, there are 33 flour mills out of the total of 57 in Quetta, but there are 18 districts, where no flour mill exists to meet the requirement of the local population. Concentration of flour mills in one district and their surplus capacity certainly creates a mess and some unscrupulous owners of flour mills may get involved in hoarding and smuggling of wheat.

Some people hold flour mill owners responsible for the wheat shortage and the escalation of its price and accuse them of hoarding the commodity. They say that though the government provides wheat at the lowest rates to millers, yet they sell wheat flour at the increased rates. Had the flour millers stopped buying wheat from the open market and depended on the government wheat, the flour prices would have declined. Federal Food Committee (FFC) has advised the provincial governments to establish control rooms to monitor the situation and has also given special powers to district administration to tackle the situation. The Frontier Corps personnel have been deputed at more than 60 flourmills and 45 godowns of Balochistan. FFC had even asked the provinces to find out from electricity bills of the flourmills that how much they are grinding extra wheat above from government quotas.

Were the flour mill owners responsible for the recent flour crisis or were they found as scapegoats? While defending the flour mill owners, Abdul Wahid Baraich, the Chairman of Balochistan Flour Mills Association said, "Grinding wheat is our business. We grind, not hoard, as there can develop no friendship between horse and grass. What will the horse eat if it befriends the grass (food), he argued.

The government has imposed a ban on the export of wheat to Afghanistan by the private sector. The Frontier Corps have also been deployed to check the smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan via border town of Chamman. Some people deem "smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan" as the reason for recent wheat shortage in the province. They accuse the anti-smuggling authorities on Pak-Afghan border for patronizing the smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan.