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Pakistan official’s advice amid economic crisis: Drink less tea

The suggestion has been met with scorn in the South Asian nation, which is struggling to pay for tea imports as foreign currency reserves dwindle.
Image: A man drinks a cup of tea at a roadside restaurant in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 15, 2022.
A man drinks a cup of tea at a roadside restaurant in Islamabad on Wednesday.Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The government of Pakistan has come under criticism after an official urged people to drink less tea to help the country’s struggling economy. 

As Pakistan, the world’s largest tea importer, grapples with surging inflation and a plunging rupee, Ahsan Iqbal, the minister for planning and development, told reporters Tuesday that his countrymen should “cut down the consumption of tea by one to two cups because we import tea on loan.”  

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His comments were greeted with a mixture of memes, mockery and strong criticism in the South Asian nation of 220 million people, which bought more than $640 million worth of tea in 2020, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an international trade data site. 

“The problem is Pakistani elites will impose heavy taxes on the masses and snatch our cup of tea, but they will never leave their lavish life,” Hameed Khan, a 45-year-old journalist from the northern city of Peshawar, told NBC News on Wednesday. 

Pakistan has been in political and economic turmoil for months, with foreign currency reserves falling sharply and an increase in food, gas and oil prices further pressuring the nation’s already battered economy. A devastating heat wave has added to the challenges as temperatures reached as high as 124 degrees Fahrenheit last month.

“There is no power and no drinking water in this sizzling hot weather,” said Gohar Ali, 47, a civil servant from the city of Mardan. 

He added that his monthly salary had run out after two weeks and he wasn’t sure how he would cope for the remaining fortnight.

Managing the economic crisis is a huge test for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who took power in April after his predecessor, Imran Khan, was ousted by lawmakers.

Khan, a cricket star turned Islamist politician, had faced mounting criticism of his performance, including his management of the country’s finances. 

Image: An employee pours tea  for customers at a restaurant in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 15, 2022.
An employee pours tea for customers at a restaurant in Islamabad on Wednesday.Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images

Last week, Miftah Ismail, the country’s finance minister, announced a new budget that he said would raise taxes for the wealthy, battle tax evasion and privatize government assets when it comes into force on July 1. He also barred government officials from buying new cars for personal and official use to reduce fuel consumption.

The measures appeared to be designed to encourage the International Monetary Fund to restart a bailout program worth $6 billion that was negotiated in 2019 after years of stagnating growth. The program has been on pause amid questions about Pakistan’s finances.

One of the key steps toward meeting the IMF’s conditions, the removal of costly fuel subsidies, has already been implemented by the Sharif government, with fuel prices being raised 40 percent.

IMF staff and Pakistani officials are due to meet this month.

While cutting back on tea is not official policy, financial analyst Mohammad Irfan Khan, 35, from the Mohmand tribal district, said he was not only surprised by the request but also hurt.  

“In my life, Pakistan has never come out of an economic crisis,” he said.