A crisis in the making

Flour prices surge in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over supply fears

A crisis in the making


ighlighting the problem of wheat shortage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has vowed to address the issue.

Addressing a public gathering in Bisham area of Shangla district, the PM promised to provide adequate wheat supply to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the same price as in the Punjab.

Flour and wheat shortage has been a recurring problem in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The province, rich in natural resources, depends on the Punjab for its wheat supply. In the past, such shortage have ended up creating political tensions between the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was in power at the Centre, wheat supply had a smooth sailing. Now that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) heads the government, we are again in trouble. It seems that a deliberate attempt is on to put pressure on the PTI’s government in KP,” Ahmad Faraz, the KP Atta Dealers’ Association vice president, says.

The history of the flour crisis in the province is as old as the history of the country. The first flour crisis in Pakistan in general and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular occurred in 1953. Due to that crisis, the inter-provincial movement of flour was banned. Since then, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has faced similar restrictions. The annual requirement of the province is 4.8 million tonnes. According to the KP government statistics, the province produces only about 1.2 million tonnes. Independent sources put the figure at only 800,000 tonnes.

In October last year, the Punjab banned wheat and flour supply to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For the past two decades, the provincial government has been pursuing an open market policy as no subsidy is provided on wheat to keep prices under control like in the Punjab and Sindh.

Because of this, consumers have to pay open market rates by buying flour produced in the Punjab. Only a limited amount of wheat is provided to local flour mills that cannot meet the market demand. This results in a fluctuating flour supply.

In the Punjab, the price of a 20 kilogram bag of flour has almost doubled. The price hike is also affecting the prices in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A 20 kg bag is now selling in Peshawar for Rs 1,400. Local traders say restrictions on wheat and flour deliveries from the Punjab are responsible for this price hike.

“This could further pressure the traders. The price can even rise to Rs 1,600,” says Naeem Butt, an office bearer of the KP Flour Mills Association.

According to flour dealers, they are convinced that the supply of flour from the Punjab to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been deliberately throttled.

Ahmed Faraz, vice president of the Flour Dealers’ Association of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that flour is shipped from the Punjab via two points. “One is via Attock bridge and the other is through Darya Khan bridge. Currently, the authorities are not allowing any wheat and flour transportation to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through both these points. Vehicles carrying flour to Pakhtunkhwa are being stopped at the motorway interchange,” he says.

In the Punjab, the price of a 20 kg bag of flour has almost doubled. The price hike has also affected prices in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A 20 kg bag is now available in Peshawar for Rs 1,400. Local traders believe that restrictions on wheat and flour deliveries from the Punjab are responsible for the price hike.

“Earlier, there were only check posts at these crossings. Now patrolling has been started to stop delivery of flour to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Aren’t we the citizens of Pakistan? Don’t we have the same identity cards?” he says.

The freight costs have also risen. A vehicle bringing flour from the Punjab to KP used to charge up to Rs 36,000. The charge has now doubled.

On the other hand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Minister Atif Khan has denied reports of a flour shortage in the province. “The people have nothing to fear. We will not allow prices to rise or a shortage to be created,” he says.

According to the Food Department, the market has been provided with 707 trucks of flour that carried 11,127 metric tonnes of special fine and 4,542 metric tonnes of special flour. They have also been supplied with 17,554 metric tonnes of locally produced flour.

“There is a sufficient quantity of flour in the market,” Atif Khan says, adding that people should not fear any shortage or hike in the prices of the commodity.

“Some people are spreading rumors regarding a shortage but masses should not pay heed to them,” he says. “Food Department officials have been directed to take stern action against those spreading rumors and hoarding of the commodity.”

Food Department sources say flour continues to be supplied from the Punjab. “Due to Eid holidays, flour dealers had stopped their activities. There is no other problem in the supply,” the officials say.

The KP Atta Dealers’ Association has expressed concern over the provincial minister’s statement. “The KP government has refused to accept the ground reality. This will just make matters worse. It will also provide an excuse to the Punjab government not to lift the ban,” the association has said.

Wheat and flour smuggling to Afghanistan has also been a problem. Flour was smuggled to Afghanistan through several routes in Bajaur, Mohmand, Kurram and North and South Waziristan. However, flour smuggling has been reduced drastically following the fencing of the Pak-Afghan border. There are also concerns about the newly-merged tribal districts. Earlier, these areas were under the administration of the federal government and had special permits for wheat and flour transportation. Now this has to be taken care of shifted by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.

The Pakhtunkhwa Flour Mills’ Association has been in contact with the federal government over the interruption in the supply of wheat. Out of the 200 flour mills in the province, 70 have had to close down their operations.

“We have repeatedly asked the provincial government to make arrangements for stockpiling wheat in the province. Such arrangements are necessary when a shortage is likely. These current inter-provincial restrictions are unconstitutional and illegal,” Naeem Butt says.

“There is already an industrial crisis. Investors have left the province. It is only the flour mills that provides mass employment to people. The federal government should be aware of the situation in the province,” he says.

Some observers say that the price hike in KP is the result of rising demand for wheat in the country. Wheat production is projected to fall short by almost three million tonnes this year. This shortfall is the result of reduced crop area, shortage of water and fertiliser and delay in the announcement of support price.

Experts say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also having an effect on regional wheat prices. Ukraine and Russia are among the biggest wheat exporters of the world. The war is pushing up wheat prices. Droughts, flooding and heat waves also threaten harvests in the US, Canada, China and India.

According to a report released by the Global Report on Food Crises, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces are suffering from acute food shortages.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer on conflict and peace development. He can be reached at frkakakhel@gmail.com

A crisis in the making