Late last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan boasted that his country had the lowest fuel prices in South Asia. “We have further reduced petrol, light diesel oil, kerosene oil prices. Now we have the cheapest fuel cost compared to other states in South Asia,” he tweeted on May 31. “India is almost exactly double. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Nepal are all 50 to 75 percent more expensive than us.”
But thousands of Pakistanis are now queuing in gas stations across the country to buy the cheap but unavailable petrol. Many customers say the normal unleaded gasoline that Khan said should now cost less than 50 U.S. cents a liter is simply not available at most gas stations across the country of 220 million people. Instead, many consumers have been forced to buy the much more expensive Super Unleaded or high-octane petrol, which costs more than $1 per liter.
The fuel shortage comes amid a growing health crisis as Pakistan struggles with one of the fastest growing current coronavirus outbreaks in Asia. It has dealt another setback for a government that is already struggling. Pakistan’s agricultural industry, the mainstay of its economy, has been threatened by an unusual locust plague.
Petrol prices have reached historical lows because of an unprecedented drop in demand during the global coronavirus lockdowns. The price break offered Khan’s administration a rare opportunity to deliver some relief to Pakistanis reeling from soaring inflation amid an economic slump.
But the fuel shortages, petrol in particular, have left it scrambling for answers. On June 11, Omar Ayub, Khan’s petroleum minister, attempted to placate worries about the issue as he promised a top court in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that authorities would end the crisis within three days by acting against hoarders and ensuring supplies.
“This is the first time that action is being taken against this mafia,” he told journalists in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “We are warning the cartels doing this for making profits that we will arrest you and send you to jail.”
Pakistani media reported that in a stormy cabinet session on June 9 Khan had ordered swift action against the crisis.
“The government is ultimately answerable; be that inflation, fuel shortage or the [growing] coronavirus crisis even if others are responsible,” daily Dunya reported, adding that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Asad Omar, minister of planning, and the aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, were vocal in their dissent. “The prime minister is responsible for holding people accountable and punishing them [for these crises],” they reportedly said. “People just want to see their problems solved.”