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Flour shortages deepen Pakistan’s turmoil

While terrorist attacks have left hundreds dead, it is flour shortages and rising food prices that will be the most pressing issues in Pakistan's elections next month.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the delivery truck finally arrives, laborer Sher Nawaz joins about 400 Pakistanis scrambling to buy a sack of wheat flour.

He returns empty-handed.

"We were told there was a bumper crop of wheat this season, but look at us," says Nawaz, 45, his voice trembling with anger. He waited three hours in a crowd of bearded men wrapped in woolen shawls and burqa-clad women at a Peshawar bazaar, only to have the state-subsidized flour run out before he and 100 others got any. "This is because of mismanagement by the government."

While terrorist attacks have left hundreds dead, it is flour shortages and rising food prices that will be the most pressing issues in elections next month in this poor nation of 160 million people.

Food prices jumped by about 14 percent in 2007, on top of double-digit increases for the two previous years. Now Pakistanis wait in long lines at state-subsidized stores to buy flour for the flat bread usually eaten with every meal.

In Peshawar, the main city in northwestern Pakistan, the market price of a 45-pound bag of flour has jumped from about $4.30 to $8 in less than two months. There have been similar price increases in other cities, particularly in southern Pakistan, where rioting that followed the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto exacerbated shortages.

Hoarding and smuggling abroad blamed
The government blames hoarding by unscrupulous suppliers and smuggling of local wheat to Afghanistan and India where it can fetch higher prices. It has set up an emergency food committee that sends millers enough wheat every day to feed about 120 million people, according to its chairman, Farooq Ahmed Khan. About 5,000 paramilitary forces now guard flour mills and escort supply trucks.

But many Pakistanis blame a controversial decision by the government in early 2007 to export a half-million tons of Pakistani wheat. Supplies later ran short, and Pakistan was forced to import wheat from Australia and Russia at 70 percent higher prices. The decision led to accusations of incompetence and corruption against an administration that has taken pride in managing an economy targeted to grow 7 percent this year.

Qaiser Bengali, an independent economist, says the government predicted a bumper crop in January 2007, two months earlier than such estimates are usually made. It projected a harvest of 23 million tons of wheat, about 1 million tons more than it got.

"The decision to export was plainly wrong," says political analyst Shafqat Mahmood, a former agriculture minister. He noted that even with faulty predictions, the wheat harvest is usually completed by May, so the government had six months to prepare for shortfalls by the year's end.

"Maybe somebody made money off of this, but I think more than corruption it was incompetence," he says.

Power outings and spike in food prices
The crisis will hurt the prospects for the ruling party in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. It is already suffering from its close association with Musharraf, who is detested by many for his alliance with Washington and his purging of the judiciary to cling onto power. The party also faces allegations that it was behind Bhutto's killing — a charge it denies.

The flour crisis adds to voters' gripes over steep rises in the price of cooking oil, rice, fruit and vegetables, and frequent electricity outages.

"If people don't get flour, they are going to hold the government responsible," says Mahmood. "It is going to have a huge impact on the ruling party (in the elections). For the low- and middle-income people in Pakistan, this is the number one issue."

Critics also blame the government in part for flour smuggling because it eased restrictions on transportation of wheat between provinces in 2004 to promote an open market.

"Now there are huge stocks of wheat lying near the Afghan border," says Abid Sulheri, an economist and senior researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He says it is virtually impossible to gauge how much was spirited over the frontier.

Hunger weighs heavy
It doesn't help that the flour mills are owned by families with ties to both government and opposition parties, feeding into public suspicion that politicians and bureaucrats are making money off their suffering.

"Whether it is Musharraf, (former prime minister) Nawaz Sharif or whoever, nobody is sincere about changing the lives of the poor," says Abdul Qayyum, 59, as he lugs home two 25-pound sacks of subsidized flour after waiting hours at a state-run grocery store in Karachi. "Our miseries are rising day by day."

For day laborer Nawaz and others waiting in line at the Peshawar bazaar, such worries trump concerns about rising attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida. Like many in Pakistan, Nawaz lives hand to mouth. He earns about 200 rupees — just over $3 — a day as a laborer, not enough to pay for the roti, or flat bread, required to feed his 10 relatives.

"When my kids are hungry, how can I think about terrorism, the election and politics?" asks Nawaz. "These are the issues of people who have something in their stomachs."