Dawn Editorial 1st May 2024

Wheat protests

THE crackdown on farmers protesting in Lahore and several other cities against the government’s ‘flawed’ wheat procurement policy and delays in the commencement of the grain’s official purchases in Punjab is deplorable.

Scores of farmers were manhandled and detained by police across the province on Monday, particularly in Lahore and south Punjab. The protesters appeared to have taken to the streets as a last resort after the authorities ignored their calls for help. Wheat rates have plummeted in the market, and are much below the support price of Rs3,900 per 40kg. The recent rains have added to the farmers’ woes.

And yet, the government continues to play down the problem, with its spokesperson dismissing the protests as politically motivated. This is not how governments treat those who grow food for the entire country, and the ruling PML-N may, sooner or later, have to pay a big political price for neglecting the plight of farmers, especially smallholders, who have already announced plans to block highways with the opposition’s support.

Indeed, the provincial administration has valid reasons for streamlining its wheat purchases through digitising the process, slashing the procurement target for the current harvest, and delaying official purchases far beyond the date announced earlier.

There are also no two opinions that the existing policy of excessive government intervention in the wheat market by fixing a minimum support price and procuring a larger portion of tradable surplus brought to the market by farmers each year has run its course and become a burden on the government budget. These interventions are ostensibly to support growers, and ensure price stability and food security.

In fact, they benefit only the middlemen, and flour millers, especially those who operate only for a few months, and that too on subsidised wheat quotas from official stocks. This policy must end.

However, a sudden curtailment of the government’s role will prove harmful for farmers amid collapsing wheat prices resulting from record production and unseasonal rains that are threatening the crop. The government should withdraw from the wheat trade gradually, replacing the existing market support mechanism with an effective new one over the next several years.

Many believe that the previous caretaker set-up’s reckless decision to import over 3.2Mt of grain when the harvest was approaching is responsible for the restricted official purchase target. This is largely true.

If the Punjab government did not have stocks of over 2Mt, it might have raised its procurement target for the ongoing harvest without much fuss to avoid protests. Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal also blames unnecessary wheat imports for the present market volatility. The authorities, therefore, must investigate the motives behind this reckless decision and fix responsibility.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2024

Polio drive

THE year’s fourth polio drive has kicked off across Pakistan, with the aim to immunise more than 24m children under the age of five. This latest campaign stretches across various districts — 10 in Punjab, 24 in Sindh, 26 in KP, and 30 in Balochistan. Despite concerted efforts, Pakistan, along with Afghanistan, remains one of only two countries, where polio is still endemic. This year, in March, two new polio cases emerged from Balochistan within a mere two days, marking the end of the province’s polio-free status since 2021. This resurgence is evidence of the tenacity of the disease and of the hurdles Pakistan continues to face in combating it. The threats are manifold: extremist groups targeting polio workers under the false belief that vaccination drives are foreign conspiracies, parental refusal of vaccines, and the constant movement of populations across the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Recently, the coordinator to the prime minister on National Health Services advocated for a results-oriented dialogue with Afghanistan on polio, given this migration of unvaccinated populations facilitating the virus’s spread.

However, achieving a polio-free Pakistan requires more than cross-border cooperation. It necessitates an approach that addresses both vaccination resistance and virus transmission. First, we must ensure the safety of our polio workers. These front-line heroes face significant risks, and their protection is essential for the continuity of immunisation drives. Second, addressing vaccine hesitancy through education campaigns is crucial. Misinformation and distrust have led to a high rate of vaccine refusal, even among well-educated families from Karachi, research has revealed. Overcoming this requires tailored communication strategies that resonate with various demographic groups. Moreover, enhanced surveillance must be implemented to promptly detect and contain virus outbreaks. Poliovirus has been detected in multiple sewage samples across the country, signalling environmental contamination and potential for new infections. While Pakistan’s efforts in polio eradication have seen significant progress, the road ahead is riddled with difficulties. The people must be made to understand that polio is a life-changing disease and can only be prevented with vaccines. Hence, ensuring that every child receives the polio vaccine is the only pathway to a polio-free future.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2024

Workers’ struggle

FACED with high inflation and bleak economic prospects nationally, the workers of Pakistan have little to celebrate this May Day. However, the state can at least resolve to improve the lot of the toiling masses, and work with the representatives of the working classes, as well as civil society, to translate lofty promises into reality. Trade unions have historically not been strong in Pakistan, and today the number of unionised workers is negligible.

Moreover, a changing global scenario — starting with the fall of the Soviet Union and continuing with the triumph of neoliberalism and globalised capitalism — has resulted in labour issues falling further on the list of national priorities. In Pakistan’s case, questionable laws, such as the Musharraf-era labour ordinance (which has been repealed) as well as infighting and lack of capacity within unions has harmed the workers’ cause.

Yet the struggle to secure a living wage — and decent working conditions — for the toiling masses must continue. As labour has been devolved since the passage of the 18th Amendment, the provinces need to pick up the gauntlet and deliver on workers’ rights. For a start, each province must enforce a minimum wage that keeps pace with roaring inflation. Tycoons have resisted the enforcement of minimum wage, but the state must stand firm in this crucial area. Moreover, the state needs to ensure all employers meet occupational health and safety criteria.

Far too many labourers work in hazardous conditions, and lack the relevant safety nets should accidents occur. Pressure from international unions and activists has helped change the situation for the better in the textile industry; other sectors must follow suit. The state should also bring all workers into the social security net, particularly those in the informal sector, who form the largest percentage of Pakistan’s labour force. And if multilateral lenders prescribe more ‘austerity’ for the country, the government should protect the working classes from its fallout.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2024

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