Imran Khan under fire as Pakistan’s flour prices soar amid wheat shortage

The prime minister has been forced to fend off opposition accusations of economic incompetence

epa08146940 A man buys wheat flour from a sale point during wheat flour dealers strike in Peshawar, Pakistan, 21 January 2020.  Pakistani authorities on 20 January decided to import around 300,000 tons of wheat amid the shortage of commodity that is widely used in almost every household. Pakistan's flour crisis has become acute, affecting major cities such as Karachi, Hyderabad, and Lahore and with prices shooting up to 70 Pakistani Rupee a kilo in some areas.  EPA/BILAWAL ARBAB
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Soaring flour prices in Pakistan caused by a nationwide shortage of wheat are causing a political headache for Prime Minister Imran Khan, forcing him to fend off opposition accusations of economic incompetence.

Surging prices of a staple for Pakistani households have dominated television headlines while bakeries have hiked the cost of naan bread and roti.

While Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government accuses the opposition of scaremongering, shoppers complain prices of flour have risen by more than half in recent weeks.

The country has seen months of painfully high inflation as the economy has weathered a plummeting rupee and rising power prices. But resentment appears to have crystalised around a shortage of wheat, in a country that prides itself on being largely agriculturally self-sufficient.

Pakistan earlier this week approved the import of 300,000 tonnes of wheat to relieve the shortage of flour supplies.

Shoppers at Najam market in central Islamabad, told The National that flour had rocketed from 40 rupees (0.95 dirham) per kilo at the end of last year to 75 rupees (1.78 dirham) this week.

“It's shot up. Everything is so expensive, but the government doesn't seem to be doing anything to help. The government is supposed to control the prices of such staples to help the common man,” said Asad Akhtar, a cook in his fifties.

Opposition leaders have seized on a series of awkward interventions by senior government figures to accuse the government of callousness and ignoring the plight of the poor.

Sheikh Rashid, the railways minister, was asked at a press conference on Saturday why flour was selling at such high prices. He explained that people in Pakistan “eat more bread in November and December".

When President Arif Alvi was asked about the crisis he said he was unaware of it.

Mr Khan himself has blamed profiteers for deliberately hoarding flour stocks to boost prices and sell at exorbitant rates. On Saturday, he called for a “grand operation” to tackle the problem.

Pakistan exported more than 600,000 tonnes of wheat from late 2018 to June 2019, its statistics bureau says.

Although the government banned exports in July last year, 48,000 metric tonnes was still sent overseas in that period until October 2019. The shortage has led to unconfirmed accusations that politicians and organised crime mafias have been flouting the export ban and selling wheat to neighbouring Afghanistan.

The shortage has been seized on by opposition parties who in the first 18 months of Mr Khan's government have been pre-occupied with an anti-corruption purge targeting their leaders.

“It's pure government incompetence,” said Palwasha Khan, deputy secretary for information in the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party.

Shehbaz Sharif, president of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party, called for an investigation into how much wheat had gone abroad and who had benefited.

“After snatching electricity, gas and jobs, the government is now on the spree to deprive the impoverished masses of their basic needs,” Mr Sharif said.

It is not yet clear where Pakistan will import the extra wheat from, but the first shipment is due to arrive in mid-February, officials said.

Pakistan has suffered double-digit inflation for the best part of a year, with the country's poor and lower middle classes bearing the brunt of galloping price rises. Austerity rules accompanying a $6bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund have seen a sharp rise in electricity and gas tariffs, causing further pain to businesses and households.

The latest inflation monitor report by the State Bank of Pakistan put price increases at 11.1 per cent in October.