THE Federal Cabinet, at its meeting in Islamabad on Thursday with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the chair, took important decisions with far-reaching implications for the general public. It approved the Hajj Policy 2023 and National Clean Air Policy besides a record increase in the support price for procurement of wheat, Ramzan Package through the Utility Stores Corporation (USC), amendments in the accountability laws and publication of Tosha Khana record.
Prompt and timely approval of the Hajj policy will, hopefully, help facilitate the Ministry of Religious Affairs in making preparations for the grand exercise. This is for the first time after 2019 that the Saudi Government has announced to hold a full-fledged Hajj with no Corona-related restrictions for pilgrims which means restoration of due quota for all countries including Pakistan. However, it is a matter of concern that a majority of the aspiring people will not be able to perform this religious duty mainly because of a record increase in the Hajj expenses in the backdrop of unprecedented dive in the value of rupee and inability of the government to arrange the required foreign exchange. These constraints made the government decide to distribute the quota equally between the government and the private tour operators besides offering a substantial share out of the government quota to the Overseas Pakistanis. As for the substantial increase in Hajj expenses, we have been emphasizing in these columns that the expenses can be reduced by shortening the duration of stay in the holy land and involvement of more international airlines in the Hajj operation. This has become a priority in the given circumstances and the Ministry of Religious Affairs should prepare a comprehensive policy in consultation with all stakeholders. The reasons behind the decision to jack up the wheat support price by Rs. 1,900/- per forty kilogram (from the existing Rs. 2,200 to Rs. 3,900 per 40 kilogram) are understandable. In fact, the market price of wheat was manipulated by the influential mafia and it is traded even at rates higher than the figure of Rs. 3,900/- forcing the Federal, Punjab and Sindh governments to increase the support price substantially. The decision may, however, lead to a phenomenal increase in the price of wheat flour causing great hardships to the people. No doubt, it is unfortunate that Pakistan, being an agrarian country, we have to import wheat (and also other food items) and an increase in support price might help increase the production. However, this would happen only when the government reforms the entire process of wheat procurement as benefits of an increase do not reach the farmers and are normally pocketed by middlemen or millers. It is also worrisome that there are no proper storage facilities for wheat and rice and crops are damaged under the open sky at different levels. Establishment of more silos in public and private sectors is the need of the hour and their availability should be ensured on urgent basis. As usual, the Cabinet also approved a package for the forthcoming Ramzan during which people would be offered essential items on subsidized rates. The package assumes much relevance in the backdrop of unimaginable increase in prices of all items but in view of the financial conditions of the government, the overall volume and scope of the scheme has been restricted, depriving a majority of the people of its benefits. The Ministry of Climate Change deserves appreciation for coming out with a Clean Air Policy as reports suggest air pollution has risen to dangerous levels in all big cities. According to the Air Quality Index Report 2022-23, Karachi and Lahore were the cities most affected by air pollution. It also mentioned that due to air pollution the average life of people was reduced by 2.7 years. As per the 2016 report of the World Bank, Pakistan’s economy was suffering huge losses because of the air pollution problem. In recent years, the number of accidents caused by smog in cities and different diseases has spiralled. Now that we have a national policy on the issue, it is hoped the Ministry, in consultation with provinces, will ensure its implementation right from the coming budget, which should include programmes and plans for the purpose. The decision to publish Tosha Khana details every year through the website of the Cabinet Division is a step towards transparency but the real issue is revision of the procedure for disposal of gifts in a transparent and judicious manner.