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Pakistani wheat farmers protest 'state negligence'

Punjab farmers say they are struggling after the government slashed its food grain procurement target in half
Pakistani workers harvest wheat in a field on the outskirts of Islamabad on May 4, 2017.

Pakistani workers harvest wheat in a field on the outskirts of Islamabad on May 4, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 14, 2024 08:47 AM GMT
Updated: May 14, 2024 10:11 AM GMT

About 300 farmers took to the streets of Pakistan’s Punjab province to protest what they called state negligence that has left thousands of tons of harvested wheat grain to rot.

Angry farmers blocked the main road in front of Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (PASSCO), a federal government-run food storage facility, for an hour in Punjab’s Mohsinwal village on May 13.

Organizers say the protest is part of an agitation program stemming from the government’s failure to procure wheat at a reasonable price, unlike in previous years.

Farmer Muhammad Muneer said he is worried about 7,500 kilograms of wheat grain lying in his field and house since last month's harvest.

Hundreds of farmers like Muneer in Punjab, dubbed Pakistan's "bread-basket,"  are struggling as the provincial government has not procured wheat from them this year.

“It is the most difficult phase of our lives. The PFA [Punjab Food Authority] hasn’t bought a single maund [40 kgs] of wheat from us,” he told UCA News.

Many farmers have left their grains to go to waste on roads because they cannot afford the vehicles to carry the bags back home, he said.

Reports say that while PASSCO purchased some wheat from farmers this year, the PFA, a provincial body, did not procure any wheat.

On May 10, hundreds of angry farmers burned wheat stalks outside the Multan Press Club in Punjab during an anti-government protest.

A farmer’s group, Kissan Ittehad (Farmer United), expressed solidarity with the protesters and called on the Punjab government to ensure that fresh produce is not wasted.

Wheat is a staple food in Pakistan, and local farmers can meet up to 80 percent of the country's total wheat demand, according to government data.

Every year, after the harvest season, the government buys about 40 percent of wheat (about 4 million tons) from farmers in late April.

However, this year, the authorities have slashed the procurement target by half, claiming that a carryover stock of 2.3 million tons is in storage.

There are 227 federal government-run food procurement centers in four provinces: 205 in Punjab, 14 in Sindh, 7 in Balochistan, and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Citing government sources, local media reported that state storage facilities cannot take additional wheat from farmers.

This has prompted many farmers to sell wheat to middlemen and flour mill owners at a lower rate than the official rate of 3,900 rupees (US$14) per 40 kilograms.

Farmer groups warned that a network of middlemen and mill owners stockpile food grains to manipulate the market and sell them later at higher prices.

The caretaker government of Anwar Ul Haq Kakar, which oversaw general elections in February, has been blamed for causing problems with food grain storage.

Dawn newspaper reported on May 6 that the administration lost about 330 billion rupees (US$1.1 billion) by importing wheat between July 2023 and March 2024.

The government allegedly allowed private companies to import wheat without fixing a limit while enjoying customs duty and general sales tax exemptions.

This allowed private companies to sell wheat at lower prices than the government-fixed minimum price

On April 29, police arrested at least 1,000 farmers in Punjab’s capital Lahore at a protest. They were released the next day.

A protest march from Rahim Yar Khan in southern Punjab to Lahore is planned for May 16.

The farmers’ crisis comes as debt-ridden Pakistan faces one of its worst economic crises. The country has seen the cost of living and daily essentials skyrocket amid a huge depreciation of the currency, causing misery for millions of poor and low-income people.

Last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved the last installment of Pakistan's US$3 billion bail-out package, which was intended to prevent the nation from defaulting on its external liabilities.

Sajawal Khan, 27, a Catholic farmer, said he was forced to sell 40kg of wheat at 3,200 rupees on the open market. He said he will no longer grow wheat but plant vegetables and maize to avoid such a loss again.

“The government lowered the wheat price after a year during which fertilizer and electricity bills doubled. Now we are not getting it [the minimum sales price] either,” said Khan, who owns 3.2 hectares (8 acres) of land in Khuspur, Punjab.

Catholic charity Caritas Pakistan urged the government to solve the wheat crisis, saying farmers are crucial to ensuring food security.

A failed food policy allows middlemen to become rich and farmers struggle for survival, said Amir Irfan, national coordinator of Caritas-run Smallholder Adaptive Farming and Biodiversity Network.

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