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June 22, 2019

Ramazan package in south Punjab: NAB starts probe into ‘misuse’ of subsidised wheat by flour millers

National

June 22, 2019

LAHORE: The Punjab Food Department has swung into action to collect data of subsidized wheat worth billions of rupees released to flour mills since 2016 under the much-touted Ramazan Package, following an inquiry initiated by the combined investigation team (CIT) of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) about alleged misuse of grains.

Referring to a letter written by the NAB Multan office to deputy directors deputed in Southern Punjab Divisions of Bahawalpur, Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan dated June 14, 2019, it has been conveyed to respective district food controllers to submit complete record as per given format to the NAB CIT by June 21, 2019.

As per subject of the letter, the latest inquiry is being initiated under Section 19 and 27 of the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999 against officers/officials of the Punjab Food Department and flour mill owners located in Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan Divisions and others. It is stated in the letter, the bureau is conducting an inquiry on the allegations of corruption under the relevant provision of NAO 1999.

It is pertinent to mention that Punjab gives around Rs 8-10 billion subsidy on provision of cheap flour to consumers during the month of Ramazan every year. However, complaints about alleged slippage of highly subsidised wheat have been raised by various quarters. It is claimed that a significant portion of subsidy given by the government actually does not reach consumers. Instead, flour millers sell highly subsidized wheat in the open market for earning easy money.

It has been voiced by a whistleblower in a letter last year to the NAB that a big part of highly subsidised wheat flour is unlikely to reach consumers in Punjab during Ramazan because of alleged misappropriations at the hands of food officials and flourmill owners. Owing to lack of transparency and absence of monitoring mechanism to check the grinding of wheat by flour mills and its subsequent supply under the Ramazan package, this initiative may not make a real difference for consumers.

The letter was issued last year in response to a proposed package of the provincial government, wherein the volume of subsidised wheat was to be increased to 0.8 million tons from 0.5 million tons, by raising the subsidy to approximately Rs17 billion from the earlier sanctioned outlay of Rs 11 billion.

There are rampant complaints about the subsidised wheat being issued even to closed flour mills’ owners, who sell it in the open market and pocket big money with the connivance of the Food Department staff.

Some circles blamed that one-third or almost half of the subsidy was embezzled every year by officials of the food department and flour mill owners. Sources said this misappropriation can easily be checked by comparing electricity bills of the mills grinding the wheat with the ones not doing it. The whistleblower also accused the officials concerned of being too generous in releasing wheat quota and not bothering to verify grinding of the wheat.

It may be recalled that in 2017, the Punjab government supplied 6.8 million flour bags to 319 Ramazan bazaars in the province under the Ramazan Package. The previous provincial government claimed to have provided relief to people by giving a subsidy worth Rs 9 billion under the Ramazan Package. Under the package, a 20kg flour bag was subsidized at Rs 250 while a 10kg flour bag was subsidized at the rate of Rs 125 in Ramazan Bazaars and in ordinary marketplaces.

Asim Raza, who spearheads the Ruling Group of the Pakistan Flour Mills Association (PFMA), while downplaying the fresh inquiry over subsidized wheat released for Ramazan Package by the provincial government, said there is nothing new as the Food Department has already conducted investigations over the issue. Some flour mills could not provide proof about grinding of wheat as they had not electricity bills with them.

However, later, they submitted corrected bills and their matter was resolved accordingly. He admitted that some mills could not prove grinding of subsidized wheat and grains were recovered from them. If the NAB still wants to conduct the inquiry, it is their right to do so, he observed.

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