FOOD CRISIS IN PAKISTAN

AGRICULTURE SECTOR BE GIVEN FIRST PRIORITY

M.R. CHAUDHRY
June 30 - July 06, 2008

It is unfortunate that Pakistan, which is one of the ten largest wheat (and other food products) producing countries of the world, is in the grip of food crisis. Its one province, Punjab used to serve as the food basket for the entire Indo-Pak Sub-Continent. Now millions of our citizens are badly affected by the food shortage.

Major food items in use of our people are wheat, rice, gram, sugar and vegetable oils. The Federal Committee of Agriculture (FCA) had set a target to produce 24 million tons of wheat for 2008 Rabi crop, however, they had realized that there would be a substantial decline in production by 15 percent. The factors attributed to this downfall were:

- Late start of sugarcane crushing by sugar mills

- Delay in completion of cotton picking

- Unprecedented price hike of DAP and other fertilizers

- Excessive rise in diesel price (used in tube-wells, tractors and other agricultural machinery)

- Insufficient supply of certified and approved wheat seed

- Shortage of irrigation water in canal irrigated areas.

- Extreme frosty and stormy weather during the winter

Although the Government is trying its best to make wheat and atta available at the specified rates, their main hold is in big cities where red atta is available at Rs.20 and, special/white atta at Rs.23 per Kg. In small towns, cities and villages, the situation is graver for want of administrative check up. There has been a great "hide and seek" game going on between the government agencies, hoarders, black-marketers and smugglers and perhaps it will continue unless the culprits are given a deterrent punishment.

A naan, which was previously available at Rs.3, now costs Rs.5. Daily wage earners, who come from suburbs to big cities Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad etc. for earning their livelihood, face great difficulty in meeting both ends. An unskilled labourer usually gets Rs.250 a day. He can hardly save anything to take home after taking two meals a day at his work-place and after incurring conveyance expenses both ways from home to town and back home. Sometimes it so happens that the poor daily wage earner does not get any work/job for days and days.

Rice is another food item popular anywhere in the world. The price of Basmati rice, which was previously Rs.36-40 in the country, shot up to Rs.125 Rs.130 per Kg. In spite of its price has shown a downward trend recently, downed to Rs.120 per Kg, it is still unaffordable for common citizens. The general observation about this upward trend in rice prices is that rice was excessively exported by our exporters to earn handsome profits, without giving any consideration to the indigenous needs, as prices of rice abroad were very lucrative. It is desirable that the Government must give first priority to its own people so that food supply to its own people at affordable prices is ensured.

Gram - White and black grams are used in our villages and towns. A combination of food known as "Naan Chholay" is very popular locally. However, due to the rise in gram prices, the price of this popular food combination has also shot up. The price of white gram (chickpea), which was previously Rs.40-45 per Kg, has now risen to Rs.60-65. Black gram was previously available at Rs.30-32 per Kg. It price has now risen to Rs.48-50.

Sugar - Price of sugar which was Rs.20 per Kg is now Rs.30. Sugar mill owners have great political influence in the government as their kith and kin are in power. They neither take care of the genuine interests of farmers nor of poor consumers. Almost every year they start crushing very late, with the result that wheat crop is badly affected, which affects the food chain of the country. They also use other unethical ways to cause inconvenience to poor farmers, like short weighing of sugarcane, under-invoicing and late payment to sugarcane growers. Besides farmers, ultimate sufferer is common man.

Edible oils: Edible oils are used daily in our kitchens, canteens, hotels and eateries. Edible oils production of Pakistan is meeting only one third need of the country while two third is met through imports by spending billions of dollars. Our import bill on the import of edible oils was as high as Rs.39.28 billion in 2002-2003. These expenses can be minimized by increasing the cultivation of edible oil seeds within the country in rain-fed areas of Potoar and some areas of Balochistan, which have great potentials for oilseeds cultivation and production.

The price of Canola oil in the market is Rs.140 to Rs.165-170 per liter, in accordance with their qualities and brands.

Besides the above basic food items, prices of vegetables and fruits at times show excessive upward trend and become inaccessible for common man. Amongst the nourishing foods like milk, the price of which was Rs.20 a while ago, has now gone up to Rs.35 per liter. A cup of tea, which would cost Rs.5, is now costing Rs.8-10.

ANALYSIS AND SUGGESTIONS:

Although the government has been reassuring the people that there would be no foods problem insofar their supply and prices are concerned, the position warrants more and more vigilance and checkups. It has become awfully impossible for a common citizen of this country to keep his body and soul together because of the price-hike prevailing in the country, especially in respect of basic food items. Increasing salaries of government servants would ease out problems of government employees to some extent but what about other overwhelming majority of people.

It is the right time that the provincial and federal governments think of starting "Roti plants" wherefrom roti may be available at subsidized and affordable rate to our common man so that he and his children could satisfy their hunger. "Roti Plant" concept was once introduced during the regime of President Muhammad Ayub Khan.

Other measures to subsidize food items at times mentioned by the government authorities must also be taken without fail and without any delay. As a futuristic approach, agriculture sector should be given first priority. Farmers" problems should be solved without delay. Irrigation water supply should be ensured with adequacy and regularity. Certified and approved seeds should be supplied to farmers in adequacy and in time. Diesel oil for their tube-wells, tractors and agricultural machinery should be made available at subsidized rates, as also power at nominal tariffs. Credit facilities/bank loans should be given to farmers at nominal mark-up on easy terms. Technology gap between Pakistani farmers and of other developed and developing countries should be bridged over by providing extension services with knowledge of modern technology at their door-step. Crop insurance should be facilitated. Farmers should also be given necessary relief and compensation as and when their crops are affected by natural calamities like earthquake, floods, drought, extreme weather conditions, and locust/pests attacks. Support price should be announced as soon as a crop is sown so that farmers may work harder and harder to get maximum production. If these recommendations are implemented in letter and spirit, there is every scope that Pakistan will become self sufficient in food production.