Unprecedented indeed

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PRIME Minister Imran Khan has termed release of the much-talked-about inquiry reports on the sudden price hikes of sugar and wheat as ‘unprecedented’ in the history of the country, vowing not to spare those who were found guilty of creating and profiting off the sugar and wheat crises once he received the detailed forensic reports from the FIA-led Commission. He emphasized that once these reports come out no powerful lobby will be able to profiteer at the expense of the general public. The publication ofthe crucial reportisindeed an unprecedented and courageous step by the Prime Minister as in the past either such reports were manipulated or swept under the carpet. In the first place, according to credible reports, the Prime Minister was under immense pressure to stop the inquiry but he vowed to take the issue to the logical conclusion at all costs as shortage of wheat and sugar along with unjustified hike in their prices hit the people hard and dented popularity and image of the Government. Then the PM had the option not to make the findings public especially when it pinpointed some influential personalities in the governmental alliance responsible for the crisis and also major beneficiaries. Now, true to his reputation of being honest to the core, the PrimeMinister is expressing determination to take stern action against all those behind the crisis. It is hoped that the matter would not become victim of political pointing scoring or trading of allegations when the report is crystal clear as to who benefitted from the recent crisis. The opposition and many others might have benefited during tenure of the previous governments but grant of subsidy for export of an item itself is the option exercised by governments all over the world to support their farmers and exporters when commodities are in surplus. What makes it a crime is the fact that the decision to export and grant subsidy is taken at the expense of local needs which happened in the present context. Apart from taking action against all those who manipulated things, it is hoped that in the light of the findings of the Inquiry Committee as well as its recommendations, the Government should review the entire policy governing pricing of commodities and criteria on which decisions are taken by the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet (ECC). The report has concluded that exporters of sugar gained benefit in two ways – first they were able to gain subsidy and second, they made profit from the increasing sugar prices in the local market. The finding of the Commission that the whole information system used for decision making by the government is totally dependent on the information provided by the sugar mills is pathetic, highlighting the urgency to institutionalize the input to the ECC by assigning the task to a neutral body as generally officials prepare summaries whimsically and under political or other clout. Specialized bodies like Agricultural Prices Commission can play an important role in preparing merit-based studies and recommendations provided they enjoy complete autonomy and are immune to outside influence. Another aspect that needs special attention of the PrimeMinister is the circumstances that led to sharp increase in the price of wheat flour, which is staple food of Pakistan. There is more focus on sugar and the opposition too is making hue and cry over this aspect as it involves big names but wheat pricing also requires detailed examination and effective action as profiteers increased the price of the commodity by at least Rs 300 per 20 kilogram bag taking advantage of the situation arising out of Corona Virus. The Committee was of the opinion that failure of public procurement was the prime cause of wheat shortage, price-hike, leading to a crisis-like situation. Once report of the forensic audit is available byApril 25, all stakeholders in federal and provincial governments should be made to sit together, discuss it threadbare and formulate a coordinated and coherent strategy to protect interests of both the framers as well as the consumers. It would also be in the fitness of things if penal action is taking against all those who made wrong assumptions and took wrong decisions benefitting individuals and harming interests of the general public.

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