By Mazhar Iqbal

Azad Kashmiris generally and Poonchis particularly do not hesitate to give a protest call on any matter that has a public influence. We have an army of activists and social mobilizers in every corner of the tiny state. Last month, we saw a clamoring coverage of the bizarre tackling of protesters, campaigners, and social activists in Rawalakot city. The dramatic handling of a tiny protest over a local road project hugely tarnished the face of the administration.

Now, as I see the temper of people protesting in multiple Azad Kashmir cities against the ruthless hike in prices of wheat and flour, I have memory flashes of people taking similar strike actions against the hike in bread prices in Sudan a couple of years ago. The protestors in Khaigala in the outskirts of Rawalakot- after a daylong show of public power – have given the deadline of 21st December to the government to launch a larger protest campaign if their demands are not met.

Are we going to offer another opportunity to news-hungry local and international media for an insane coverage of another rowdy control of the protestors in multiple smaller cities of Azad Kashmir? Things can get worse if they are not tackled professionally and responsibly. How?

Around 20 people had died during one of the deadliest clashes over fuel and bread prices in Khartoum in December 2018. Comparable strike action was taken recently by the residents of Abuja- the capital of Nigeria, where people were protesting against the increased scarcity of bread. The strike action in Nigerian Capital in September 2020 hugely affected the lives and livelihood of thousands of people who were relying on bread for a breakfast staple.

Azad Kashmir has no comparison with Easter or Western African nations. Yet, the issues of food scarcity or shortage of enough supply of staple food in almost all poverty-stricken countries are causing civil unrest at an exponential level. After maize corn and rice, wheat is the third largest staple in the world and it constitutes a 15 percent share of global caloric intake from all sources. Pakistan’s average daily per capita consumption of wheat flour is 240gm. Pakistanis are a wheat-producing nation; yet, the total yield is not enough for the population. Additionally, the wheat crop suffers huge losses due to wastage, spoilage, storage, transportation, and processing.

The local media in Azad Kashmir reported on Wednesday that the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir was involved in profiteering over wheat prices. The total wheat requirement of Azad Kashmir is 300,000 tons per annum, whereas the government purchased only 139,000 tons in June 2020 leaving options for government officials to manipulate the price mechanism. The government however is blaming the private sellers for upward flight in flour prices ultimately putting pressure on government stocks.

Are the rulers waiting for violent clashes in Azad Kashmir? Khaigala is located on the periphery of picturesque Banjosa –famous for a picnic resort and tourist attractions. The historic town of Khaigala serves as a meeting point for the people of numerous small and large villages in the Rawalakot and Sudhnoti region. The community here has a rich sense of belonging to a place of natural and scenic beauty. In this backdrop, showcasing their area as a focus of an unruly and uncivilized herd would be the last thing that they would like to choose. Rather, they would love to be remembered as residents and friends of a place of heavenly attraction. In past, the rural communities around the Banjosa natural resort have been campaigning for the uplift of this area.

Unsurprisingly, they are taking strike action against the exponential hike in the price of wheat flour as their patience has run down. The residents of smaller cities have been protesting against the unbelievable rise of flour prices for the last few months. The price correction is not regulated by the government here. This leaves a huge space for marketers, hoarders, shopkeepers, dealers, and flour-mill owners to manipulate the prices for their own benefit.

The clashes over a price hike in commodities in the poorest countries of the world have some links with the overall security situation. But it should not be the case for countries and regions where the security establishments are the most powerful and controlling the economy. The unusual price hike in food commodities in Nigeria has numerous reasons, mainly the rising insecurity and inflation of 14.9 % in November 2020.

Life was never a bed of roses for hardworking but self-sufficient people of the remote areas of Azad Kashmir. However, despite all the hard work, the majority of people rarely have the luck of earning more than their actual needs. The Coronavirus pandemic has already impacted heavily on their livelihoods and the economy has multiple other sour points. Yet, people are resilient and adamant to overcome the hardships as usual. For most families, the most compelling need that comes after food is the education of children.

What we see on daily basis is the unimaginable difficulties in ensuring the continuity of education of children in the wake of rising prices of food and other commodities. Azad Kashmiris are among millions of others in Pakistan that are facing the menace of food security in recent years. The food-related inflation in Pakistan is much higher than the general inflation rates. According to the latest figures of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the cost of food has risen up to 23 % in rural areas. Almost one year ago the inflation was recorded at a nine-year high at 14.6%. The government says over 75 million people will be reaching the poverty line in Pakistan by the end of 2020.

When Imran Khan-led PTI to take over the helms of governmental affairs in August 2018, the flour crisis was brewing but it came to the surface in January 2020. Onwards, we have seen a blame game between the government, flour mills & the distributors.

The highest public sector body in Pakistan to manage the public stock of wheat in Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (PASSCO) that ensures the provision of food security at the national level by maintaining strategic reserves of wheat and other specified commodities. PASSCO also maintains the Saarc Food Bank reserve stock in Pakistan.

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