Pakistan: Farmers announce nationwide protests as wheat import scandal explodes


Kissan Ittehad Pakistan says thousands of farmers will join protests on May 10 along with their tractors, trailers, cattle, families Khokhar blames caretaker govt for causing Rs400 billion loss by importing $1bn worth of wheat Ex-caretaker PM Kakar denies any wrongdoing Says if summoned he is ready to appear before inquiry committee.

LAHORE/MULTAN/ISLAMABAD: Farmers on Sunday announced that they would launch nationwide protests from May 10 over the wheat price crisis. The move comes just one day after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif promised to address their grievances.

Farmers in Punjab province, which produces most of the wheat crop, are demanding the government stop wheat imports that have flooded the market at a time when they expect bumper crop.

They say the import of wheat in the second half of 2023 and the first three months of this year resulted in excess amounts of the commodity in the country, leading to reduced prices. On Saturday, PM Sharif took notice of the matter and formed a committee under the Ministry of National Food Security and Research to address farmer grievances, Pakistani state media reported.

“On the 10th [of May], after the Friday prayers, we are initiating protest from Multan and this protest will be expanded to the whole of Pakistan,” Khalid Khokhar, who heads the Kissan Ittehad Pakistan, said at a press conference.

“Thousands of farmers will come, there will be hundreds of tractors, trailers. Animals, cattle and children and women will also be accompanied.”

The prices of wheat have dropped in recent weeks and are much below the government’s support price of Rs3,900 per 40-kilogram bag.

“We do not have any option other than this. The mafia made Rs100 billion, Pakistan’s $1 billion worth of foreign exchange was spent and the farmers incurred around Rs400 billion losses,” Khokhar said.

“They slaughtered 60 million farmers just for the sake of corruption.”

The crisis saw the farmers resort to protest in Lahore and several other cities last month, followed by the government launching a crackdown against the protests. Reiterating its resolve, the farmers’ alliance said that the protests against the crisis will be relaunched countrywide.

“I have approached many farmers’ groups and we have decided that we will protest. Not for ourselves, but to save the country,” said the body’s president Khalid Khokhar .

Addressing a press conference, Khokhar blamed the caretaker government for causing a loss of over Rs400 billion to the national exchequer by importing $1bn (approximately Rs277bn) worth of wheat amidst a forex shortage.

“I cannot even describe how these farmers are suffering right now,” Khokhar said. “I submitted applications to the prime minister, the chief of army staff and the director general of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) and showed how much damage this wheat import has caused.” He warned that when farmers are suffering financially, it affects other crops such as rice and cotton. “If farmers have no money, how will they invest in other crops?”

“Where was the state when they said they would protect farmers?” Khokhar asked. “Those who sit in power do not make the right decisions.” Quoting urea as an example, he said there are five different rates for the commodity due to a lack of government regulation.

Khokhar said that the Kissan Ittehad would lead nationwide protests against the government’s wheat policy. “I don’t want to protest because it causes inconveniences to the people,” he said. “But the state does not think farmers are important. Our only goal is to extend relief. Without agriculture, we are nothing,” he stated.

‘Former caretaker PM’

While denying any wrongdoing in the import of wheat, former caretaker prime minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar said that he is ready to join the investigation into the excessive import of the staple crop that triggered a crisis in the country. “I will appear before the wheat [inquiry] committee if it summons me,” the ex-premier said in an interview with a local TV channel on Sunday.

During the month of March, the private sector was allowed to import 6.91 million metric tonnes of wheat worth Rs57.192 billion.

Kakar who has became a senator now also said that no new law was introduced to import wheat during his tenure and his government only “encouraged the private” sector to import the staple crop.

The former caretaker premier said the private sector was allowed to import wheat under the Statutory Regulatory Orders (SRO) that was issued during the tenure of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government.

Kakar said his administration only encouraged the private sector to import the wheat under the same SRO in a bid to save taxpayers’ money.

The former PM also said the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) estimated that 3 to 4 million metric tonnes of wheat are required in the country. He also denied the allegations that corruption or any wrongdoing was committed in the import of the staple crop.

Responding to a question that the excessive wheat imports caused a Rs400 billion loss to the exchequer, the former interim premier said such allegations were akin to “inspector Jamshed stories that he heard in his childhood”.

The federal government has been caught in a fix as the Balochistan and Punjab governments are unable to purchase wheat from farmers due to a surplus in stock which, so far, is being attributed to excessive import of the crop.

Due to the non-purchase of wheat by the provincial governments, wheat is being sold at a lower price than the official rate — a matter of grave concern for the farmers.

Meanwhile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government will start wheat procurement from Monday (today). According to the Food Department, twenty-two wheat procurement centers have been established across the province for this purpose. The government has allocated more than twenty-nine billion rupees for the wheat procurement. The wheat will be received on a first come first served policy basis.__The News