Had Benazir Bhutto been the prime minister of Pakistan, she would surely have said, why don’t they eat cakes in response to people rioting in Peshawar for flour. Nawaz Sharif of course is no Marie Antoinette. Nor for that matter is Abida Husain, the aging and quite wholesome food and agriculture minister.
The food situation in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), must be desperate to force them into such drastic measures. The people of Pakistan are not given to impulsive acts. Unfortunately, they also take a lot of abuse from the ruling elite.
Is this about to change?
Food riots paralyzed the city on April 7, forcing the government to order special trains to take wheat there. Police said they used batons and tear gas in several areas of Peshawar to break up demonstrators who looted stocks and blocked roads, protesting against the non-availability of wheat flour for several days.
About 5,000 demonstrators, many carrying sticks, looted a State-run utility store in Peshawar and hundreds tried to attack two flour mills in the west and north of the city on the second day of riots, according to police sources. Similar scenes were witnessed in Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital. A truck loaded with flour was looted on a street in Peshawar where police chased protesters into narrow alleys.
The government blamed smugglers and hoarders for food shortages. There is certainly some truth in this. But smuggling has been a part of life in Pakistan. Both the eastern and western borders of the country are porous and smuggling is rampant. Rangers and militia stationed on the borders take their regular cut from this lucrative trade.
What has exacerbated the current situation is the food shortage in neighbouring Afghanistan. Quick money can be made by smuggling wheat and flour across the border. Ironically, the Taliban were installed in Kabul with the help of the former Pakistani government, albeit ousted from power now.
Beyond the riots lies the more serious problem of Pakistan’s economic outlook. The country is endowed with fertile land and a vast irrigation network. Yet its performance has been dismal.
Prior to 1947, the Punjab province alone produced enough grain to feed the entire population of India totalling some 400 million people. At partition in August 1947, Pakistan inherited half of the Punjab province but only one-sixth of the total population, spread across two wings. The rice consuming eastern half looked after its own needs. So the Pakistani Punjab only had to produce enough to feed 40 million people.
A number of dams have since been built at enormous cost - Mangla, Tarbela, Warsak and Guddu barrage, for instance - to bring more land under cultivation. Southern Punjab and large tracts of desert in Sind have been turned into greenaries. Yet food production has not increased substantially.
It is a measure of the incompetence and greed of the feudal lords that while paying no tax on agricultural produce, they have reduced Pakistan to penury. Last December and January, Pakistan had to import 300,000 tonnes of wheat from Australia. More is in the pipeline.
Even senior government officials - president Farooq Leghari, for instance - have candidly admitted the failure of successive governments. On the day the Peshawar food riots erupted, Leghari addressed an international conference on human development in Islamabad. ‘I think Pakistan has done worse than any other South Asian country, our social indicators are amongst the worst in South Asia and perhaps worst in the world,’ he told the conference. He described the situation in Pakistan as a collective failure of thinkers, economists and governments.
This is quite an admission from the head of State. But will it make any difference to the situation in Pakistan or the plight of the common man?
The food riots are a precursor of things to come. While prices continue their upward surge, the man in the street is being crushed under its burden. There is no relief in sight. In fact, the misery index is likely to climb higher as interest on Pakistan’s external debt repayments come due within the next few months.
Pakistan faces expected repayments of US$600 million in June and July. Foreign reserves would be under pressure due to higher imports after a 10 percent regulatory duty on imports is abolished on July 1. Pakistani importers are holding back because of the reduction in tariffs to 45 percent from 65 percent and abolition of 10 percent regulatory duty on imports effective from July 1.
The State Bank of Pakistan said on April 4 that cash foreign exchange reserves slipped to $945 million in March from $1.0 billion in February. Further, some $300 million to $400 million placed with the State Bank in high yield special accounts would be maturing in June putting more pressure on the reserves.
Financial experts believe that Pakistan needs to increase its reserves to at least $2 billion. It will require an additional $3 billion during July to December for payments on external debt. It is this unenviable position that is gradually making the people realize that they have been taken to the cleaners over the years.
The food riots in Peshawar and Lahore may be the warning signals of the lava that is building up in Pakistan. It will require more than soothing statements from officials to contain the situation. Some observers are already predicting the beginnings of a revolution. Where it will lead to is anybody’s guess since there is no leadership nor an Islamic movement to channel the people’s genuine concerns in the right direction.
Muslimedia - April 16-30, 1997