HOW TO COMBAT WHEAT CRISIS

M.R. CHAUDHRY
Apr 21 - 27, 2008

The government had fixed an ambitious wheat target at 24 million tons for the year, 2007-08 while the signs and symptoms as gathered from credible reports tell that the production is likely to show a considerable downfall, for various reasons. Among these are shortage of irrigation water for wheat crop, reduction in the area of wheat cultivation, starting late crushing of sugarcane by sugar mills, resulting in non-availability of land for sowing wheat crop in time, increase in the prices of inputs including electricity, oil, DAP and other fertilizers. The DAP price was Rs.900 per bag last year. It shot up to Rs.1400 per bag when wheat sowing season started and then it touched the highest price level of Rs.1400 per bag. Power shut downs for 10-12 hours a day have been badly affecting both industrial and agriculture sector. Although some of the industrial units have their own independent power generation units to meet their needs, agriculture sector has no such arrangements. The province of Punjab, which is the major producer of wheat was expecting to harvest 18 million tons of wheat this year, now estimates that there will be a shortfall of 1.5 million tons, meaning thereby the production in the province of Punjab will be 16.5 million tons. We still feel that this estimation is on the higher side as the weather seems to be unfriendly to the wheat growers in Punjab. While Sindh has already harvested its wheat crop, farmers in Punjab were preparing to harvest the crop when heavy rains, wind storm and even hail storms at some places have made it impossible for them to go ahead with timely harvesting. On the other hand the rains, wind-storm and scattered hail storm have made the crop to recline on the ground at various places where rain water has accumulated and is still standing. It is very difficult for farmers to drain out this water from the fields. They will only be able to resume harvesting crop when standing water dries, the sun shines and weather becomes somewhat conducive to harvesting. It is still to be assessed as to how much damage has been caused to the crop due to this hostile attitude of the weather. No doubt this is an Act of God and is beyond any body's power to avert it.

While the farmers were expecting to reap the fruit of their ceaseless toil and investment of time and money to get a better price of wheat at Rs.625 per 40kg, as announced by Yousuf Raza Gillani, Prime Minister of Pakistan, all their hopes have been dashed to the ground as they will not be able to get full crop production because of the damage caused to the standing crop. How much damages has been caused or will still be caused may be determined by the Agriculture Department in collaboration with Kissan Forums and Farmers Associations. People with sane thinking will agree with the scribe that these poor farmers, whose crop has been badly damaged, must be given financial relief by the government so as to alleviate their distress and disappointment in this situation.

The rain-fed areas where about 14 percent wheat is cultivated may be the main beneficiary of the rains.

The overall wheat production this year may hardly be 21 million tons.

The World Bank officials at their semi-annual gathering disclosed that up to 100 million people around the world are pushed further into poverty because rising food prices are unaffordable for common man to purchase its essential commodities to keep his body and soul together. There are two factors, which need to be given a serious thought. One is availability of food. And the other is affordability of a common consumer to buy this food to meet his bare minimum need. While the poor man lives to eat, the rich and affluent live for eating, drinking and merry making. This socio-economic gap between the have and have-nots is too big to be bridged. Pakistan has been listed as the 36th country that is facing a dreadful food situation.

As a new development, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Yousuf Raza Gillani has been kind enough to declare Rs.6,000 per month as minimum wage of a worker. Briefly but not irrelevantly, it is pointed out that a common man of this country after paying his utility bills (electricity, water, telephone) hardly finds any money left to feed his family. It would still become harder for him when atta will be available at much higher price prima facie the wheat price fixed by the government at Rs.625/- per 40-kg. Transportation charges, grinding charges of wheat, cost of labour, carriage of flour to retail shop etc. will raise the price of flour from Rs.750 to Rs.800 per 40 kg. Then again a common consumer would expect a subsidy on flour to make the price somewhat affordable. We wonder if the government is doing something in this connection.

It is appreciable and commendable that the Punjab Government has used a strict safeguard by imposing a ban on anybody to purchase wheat and only Food Department and PASSCO have been authorized to purchase wheat. One more strict and most desirable measure would be to seal the borders for transitional smuggling of wheat to India, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian countries. Only a couple of days ago there has been an exchange of fire between our Border troops and Afghan troops over a few trucks, carrying wheat/atta to be smuggled from Pakistan to Afghanistan, which have been halted by our troops. Even some trucks carrying wheat from Hafizabad to be smuggled across the border were stopped by the Administration at Attock. From this, it is evident that smuggler, boarders and black-marketers have their own vicious circle to play hell with the poor people of the country.

Although there is no magic wand with the present government to change the situation for better, the new administration has a plethora of problems and challenges. Supply of flour at affordable price may be considered at the top and it is the right of our common people to get it regularly and sufficiently wherever he lives in this country, without any "pick or choose".

The total requirement of wheat for the present population of the country would be approximately 21.5 million tons. Setting aside a minimum of ten percent to be kept as strategic reserves, the total quantity would work out at 223 million tons against the target of 24 million tons and possible availability of 21 million tons. In case we still take into account the possibility of cross-border smuggling of wheat into our neighbouring countries, Afghanistan, Iran and India, it may be about 1.5 million tons. Thus the total required quantity would come to 23 million tons.

More strict and stringent measures need to be adopted to regulate and maintain the flour supply to our countrymen. As a futurist, our government must be responsive to agriculture sector, which is claimed to be the backbone of country's economy and is the mainstay of our 70 percent population. The World Bank has reminded Pakistan several times that unless big water reservoirs are constructed at the earliest, the country would be badly suffering shortage of irrigation water and a drought like condition as in Somalia and Ethiopia. India, on the other hand, is constructing dams and barrages on Chenab, Jhelum and Ravi rivers and is endeavouring to suck every drop of our rivers. As a new development, India is going to steal water from the Indus River by constructing a tunnel in Kargil. It is a very sorrowful state of affairs that our former rulers including President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz never raised the issue properly to stop India from this international hooliganism that is in total violation of international norms and ethics and the Indus Basin Treaty. Our present rulers must take up this issue at the proper forum, without any delay so that our people may not starve for wants of food because of lack of water to produce food.