As the government in Pakistan scrambles to relieve a shortage of wheat, Pakistanis are protesting the scarcity of flour and high bread prices.
The outrage comes amid a rapid increase in the prices of flour and bread, which is a staple in local cuisine across the country of 210 million people.
“How can we survive without flour and bread?” Ezat Ullah, a protestor in the southwestern city of Quetta, asked Radio Mashaal. “We can survive without gas, electricity, or even running water, but how can we live without bread?”
Prices of wheat flour now hover around 50 U.S. cents per kilogram, which adds up to nearly $100 a month for the average family. This amount is considerable for poor families already reeling from the high cost of living. With the rapidly fall in the value of the Pakistani rupee since 2018, inflation has skyrocketed. The rising prices of utilities, healthcare, education, and transport pose additional problems.
“The bakers are incurring great losses because the price of flour has increased dramatically,” Muhammad Iqbal, head of the bakers association in the northwestern city of Peshawar, told Radio Mashaal. “In addition, we are also forced to burn wood or coal to heat our ovens,” he added, explaining that it is no longer viable for them to sell the food staple at controlled prices.
Iqbal says most Nanbais, as the bakers are called locally, have already gone on strike in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Peshawar is the capital. He says their strike will extend to the entire province on January 21. “We have repeatedly negotiated with the authorities, but they seem to make fun of us.”
Nanbais are ubiquitous across Pakistan. They typically make different varieties of flatbreads that make a meal when served with curries, lentils or meat dishes. Their closure amid the flour shortages is not a good omen for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration, which promised a turnaround in average Pakistanis’ economic circumstances.
Public protests and mounting criticism, however, has forced authorities to act. On January 20, the government’s Economic Coordination Council approved the import of 300,000 tons of wheat to alleviate the crisis.
“I want to assure you that Pakistan has all the wheat that it needs,” Khusro Bakhtiar, the federal minister for food security told journalists on January 19. “Currently the government has 400,000 tons of wheat in stock.”
Wheat is one of Pakistan’s top crops. The country exported more than 600,000 tons over a year from late 2018 to June 2019 when a government ban was imposed. An additional 48,000 tons of wheat were sent overseas until October.
But opposition politicians are alluding at a scam in which senior government figures have profited from the crisis. “Someone made billions.? lawmaker Khwaja Asif, a leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) said.
“Who is benefiting from this crisis? Was the stock smuggled?” PML-N leader Shehbaz Sharif said. “Where exactly did it go and who is responsible for this massive incompetence which has impacted the entire country?”
Opposition parties, independent economists and civil society leaders have called for a probe to determine what caused the crisis and who benefited from it.
Radio Mashaal correspondents Ayub Tareen and Shabbir Jan contributed reporting from Quetta and Peshawar Pakistan.