(AFP) – Jan 13, 2008
ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Queueing for hours to buy bread for his family, Liaqat Ali dismisses the US-led "war on terror" as an election issue come crucial February 18 polls -- for him it's all about flour.
On top of suicide bombings and Islamic militancy culminating in the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month, Pakistan is in the grip of a wheat shortage.
In a country where the roti -- a soft, flat, circular bread made from wheat flour -- is the basis of almost all meals, the shortage can damage the government's credibility far more than any militant attack.
"I don't care if the Taliban rules or someone else comes here, I'll be happy as long as we get roti to eat," said Ali, a 38-year-old father of five in Lahore who queued for flour for 13 hours only for the shop to run out.
"This government has brought a curse on us. Bomb blasts, strikes, unemployment, inflation and now they're snatching bread from us."
Officials loyal to President Pervez Musharraf have tried to play down the wheat crisis, but every day -- when suicide bombings don't grab the headlines -- Pakistani media carry images of desperate people queuing for bread.
Like a form of Chinese water torture on the psyche of an already traumatised and downtrodden nation, analysts said it could play a decisive role on election day.
"The wheat shortage occurred because the government ignored domestic consumption of 22 million tons per annum," Khaleeq Arshad, a senior member of the All Pakistan Flour Mills Association, told AFP.
Arshad, who owns his own mill in Lahore, said the government exaggerated the yield of last year's "bumper crop."
It then compounded the problem by allowing the export of 1.6 million tons of wheat, against a target of just 500,000 tons, he said.
The result was a handsome economic windfall for some, and seething frustration for millions of ordinary Pakistanis.
"The prices have doubled and now the most basic food item is available only at exorbitant prices -- it's a disgrace," said 30-year-old school teacher Sakina Batool.
"I don't know how they claim credit for fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda when they're killing their own people through starvation."
Labourer Mazhar Khurshid, 42, said he earned 80 rupees (1.25 dollars) a day and the price of roti had doubled in his area of Islamabad to eight rupees apiece in just the past month.
"I have a family of seven to feed and it's not every day I get employment. We were already living on the edge," he said.
"I will never vote for anyone even remotely connected to this government," he added.
Lawyer Omar Irshad said the party backing Musharraf would be hard-hit by the wheat crisis, as well as worsening shortages in electricity and gas.
"The shortage of wheat, electricity and gas will boomerang on their faces," he said.
"We claim to be an agrarian country and yet we're told we don't have flour -- somebody will pay dearly for this."
Political analyst Hasan Askari, former head of political science at Punjab university, said the opposition could use the crisis to hurt the government at the polls.
"If the opposition parties articulate this grievance they can cause havoc to the pro-Musharraf political party because the price hikes and the shortage of wheat flour have hit people all over the country," he said.
Agriculture ministry spokesman Shahid Hassan denied there was any wheat shortage and said the government maintained stocks of 1.9 million tons.
But he said authorities would import two million tons to ease supply pressures until the new crop was harvested in March and April in Sindh and Punjab provinces.
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