Pakistanis see red over bread as vote looms

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Already furious at President Pervez Musharraf over a crackdown on opponents and emergency rule, Pakistanis from middle class housewives to the poor have a new gripe just weeks ahead of an election — the price of bread.

Prices of wheat and flour have soared and supplies are short as officials blame hoarders and smugglers for depleting what they say has been a bumper crop to cash in on prices that are higher abroad than in the domestic market.

The staples are used to make roti and naan, or flat unleavened bread, which is the central component of the Pakistani diet from the rugged tribal north to the restaurant tables of the capital.

“There is no atta (flour) in the market for the past many days,” said Yasmin Shaheen, a housewife, struggling to feed her four children, who dislike eating rice three times a day.

“We curse Musharraf every day as only he is responsible for this shortage.”

Musharraf is facing a backlash as Pakistan heads towards a January 8 parliamentary election, with many voters outraged at his imposition of emergency rule on November 3 and purging of the Supreme Court to safeguard his re-election as president.

Many voters blame Musharraf for inflation, which hit a 2-1/2-year high in October, though analysts say rising food prices are to blame.

A caretaker government, installed to oversee affairs until after the general election, is struggling to ensure adequate wheat supplies and check rising flour prices.

“The gap between domestic and international prices prompted hoarders and smugglers to exploit the situation, which in turn created the shortage,” said Seerat Asghar, a senior official at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

“We have apprehensions that wheat is being smuggled to neighboring Iran and India.”

ESTIMATES DISPUTED

Some millers dispute the official wheat output estimate of 23.3 million tons for the 2006/07 crop, which compares with an annual demand of around 22 million tons, saying that accounts for the shortage.

“The estimates appear to be incorrect as they are not done scientifically,” Khaleeque Arshad, a former chairman of Pakistan Flour Mills Association told Reuters. “We are not responsible for the shortage.”

The government has increased supply from the official quota allocated to mills, but Arshad said it was not enough and that they had to buy wheat from the private sector at almost double the official price.

This in turn was hurting consumers as flour prices had risen to almost 340 rupees per 20-kg (44-lb) bag on average across the country from around 260 rupees a few months ago.

“My husband is a laborer and I myself work as maid in several houses, but even then we find it difficult to feed our children at least two times a day,” said Noreen Rashid, who lives on the outskirts of Islamabad.

For some millers, a government decision in January to lift a two-and-a-half year ban on wheat exports imposed to protect domestic supplies, was one reason for the supply shortage.

The ban was reimposed in May after a surge in domestic prices of wheat. In September, Pakistan decided to issue tenders to import 1 million tons of wheat to maintain its buffer stocks.

About 60,000 tons of wheat bought through these tenders have already arrived, and officials expect shipment of a total of 9.71 million tones of wheat by the end of February, when the new crop comes to market.

“The arrivals are too slow,” said Arshad.

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