[b]South Asia Hit By Severe Grain Shortages[/b]
KARACHI, Jan 11 Asia Pulse - People across South Asia are struggling to cope with a severe shortage of affordable wheat and rice. There have been queues outside Pakistani shops in towns around the country, and flour prices have shot up, reported the BBC on Wednesday. Wheat flour is a staple foodstuff in Pakistan, where rotis or unleavened bread are eaten with almost every meal.
Last week Afghanistan appealed for foreign help to combat a wheat shortage while Bangladesh recently warned it faced a crisis over rice supplies. Global wheat prices are at record highs. Problems have been compounded by crop failures in the northern hemisphere and an increase in demand from developing countries.
Afghan Commerce Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang said wheat shortages could lead to serious problems during the winter. His call came amid rising discontent inside Afghanistan at the spiralling cost of wheat and other basic foods. Afghanistan does not grow enough wheat to feed all its people and is partially dependent on imports. On Thursday, the chief of the Bangladesh army, Gen Moeen U Ahmed, said that he was very concerned about the problem of rice supplies which he said must be redressed immediately.
Many people in the country have been hit hard by spiralling food prices, which in some cases have doubled over the last year, mostly because of damage caused by heavy monsoon rain. A delegation from Bangladesh is now in India to discuss importing rice to offset the shortages. Pakistan's government says it has no lack of wheat supplies and blames distribution problems and hoarders, as well as smuggling by suppliers. Officials say the price is fixed in consultation with representatives of flour mill owners.
The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Karachi says that the Pakistani government buys wheat in bulk at the time of harvesting, and then releases stocks to flour mills according to a pre-determined quota. It now says it has increased the quota allocated to the mills, warning them of penalties if they are found selling flour at prices higher than fixed by the government.
Pakistanis consume an estimated 22m tonnes of wheat annually, and last seasons yield was more than 23m tonnes.
Officials accuse suppliers in Punjab, the breadbasket of Pakistan, of smuggling wheat intended for domestic use to Afghanistan and Central Asia to take advantage of price differences. Flour ran short in Pakistan when many areas saw rioting after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in late December. With the security situation in Pakistan now calmer, correspondents say it is not clear why apparent problems in distributing flour are persisting. One reason cited is frequent power cuts which have led to flour mills stopping work.
Initially, flour shortages pushed up the price on the open market in Pakistan to as much as 60 rupees (about $1) per kilogram in some areas. The average day labourer earns only 100 rupees a day. The state-run Utility Stores Corporation has been selling flour at 18 rupees per kilogram, but it does not have enough outlets to serve the population of 160 million.
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SI Moderator - Greg Gordon