Agriculture is the backbone of our country. Those growing crops can be called the ‘spinal cord of the state,’ supporting the body politic with food. But sky-rocketing prices of urea are breaking our backbone.
The ongoing urea crisis resembles the sugar and wheat flour crises of 2019, which impacted the everyday consumer. However, the victims of the current urea crises are the farmers. Urea shortages and subsequent soaring prices have left multitudes of farmers with no option but to plant their crops without adequate fertiliser. As the state looks on, a corrupt mafia plunders public money and diminishes prices through hoarding, smuggling and artificial shortages. The provincial and federal governments have surrendered to these corrupt actors, effectively giving them a license to print money.
Urea is a concentrated nitrogenous fertilizer, which is a major plant nutrient. Fertiliser is a combination of three elements which crops need to grow: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potash (K). Plants which are not fertilised on time or are inadequately fertilized do not grow as well or yield as much output. As a result, we may have a low wheat harvest, and subsequent shortage of wheat flour, in the coming months.
At that time, the authorities will undoubtedly give the nod for imports of wheat, citing shortages, along with a subsidy on imported wheat. Thus, on one hand, dishonest urea dealers are fleecing farmers; on the other, importers will receive tax-payer money in the form of subsidies from the government.
There is a network of disadvantages undermining farmers. When crop-growers take their produce to market, they are compelled by way of cartelization to sell their produce at under-valued prices. Fair pricing is still a distant dream for farmers. Once the product leaves the hands of growers, prices balloon in the market. This is how money gets into the pockets of investors, not farmers.
Are farmers not entitled under our democratic framework to raise their voices against unjust and exploitative government policies? Are only political parties empowered by the constitution to hold protests?
Many tillers and farmers put thrashing of their paddy on hold this year in hopes of getting better prices. But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes. The recent spell of rain destroyed their hopes, damaging the un-thrashed paddy. Rain thus joined the hands with the dealers. Refusing fair prices to farmers along with persistent urea crises is tantamount to economic murder.
Reportedly, urea stock was released early in the market this year. Since only an estimated three to four per cent of farmers can afford to stockpile urea, it stands to reason that hoarders and/or dealers must have capitalized upon the early release of urea for later petty profiteering. In the open market, a bag of urea has soared to Rs.3000 per 50 kg; the price of Di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) has also reached Rs.10,000 per 50kg bag, the highest price on record in Pakistan. Urea is reportedly smuggled to Afghanistan and Iran. Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI) President Khalid Khokhar minced no words when he said, ‘the only explanation here is hoarding and smuggling.’ After all, we have porous borders both geographically and administratively.
Bad governance has unquestionably fuelled the current crises. Federal ministers continually say the price of urea is higher in neighbouring countries, and all over the world. More intriguing is the provincial reaction. In Punjab, trumped-up cases have reportedly been registered against farmers protesting the fertiliser shortage and increasing prices. Are farmers not entitled under our democratic framework to raise their voices against unjust and exploitative government policies? Are only political parties empowered by the constitution to hold protests? This speaks volumes to the historical vials of wrath poured on those who demand fairness in business. As Mark Twain said, when the rich rob the poor, it is called business; when the poor fight back it is called violence.
The country can save a considerable amount by ensuring the availability of urea, instead of depending on imported commodities.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has organised a ‘Kissan March’ in Sindh in solidarity with farmers. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari attended in Larkana and Hyderabad, respectively, where they accused the federal government of causing the urea crisis. This is token solidarity with tillers and farmers who have been pushed into the cruel jaws of capitalists – the smugglers and the hoarders. Taking assertive action against those involved in illegal business is the domain of the provincial government. PPP leadership should put their own house in order before blaming others.
The federal government’s attempts to gaslight the public and the PPP’s political-point scoring show how both levels of government are deaf to the urgent needs of farmers. Both are equally duty bound to stop corrupt practices through good governance and the rule of law. Passing the buck never yields positive results.
The wheat window is closing. The wheat crops this year, which did not receive enough fertiliser, or received it late, will not yield as much output. Logical questions then arise: Why was urea stock released early in the market? Where is the fertiliser going? Why wasn’t the urea smuggling stopped? Who are the beneficiaries of such smuggling? The ruling elites likely have direct involvement, or they are eager bedfellows with those responsible. What message do we send the world when we exploit the already exploited? Under such a climate of impunity, various mafias thrive in this country; they are so powerful that the state surrenders before such big business owners.
To pull wool over the public’s eyes, committees will be constituted to counter unscrupulous business practices. This is a compromise, and tantamount to wrapping dishonest characters in cotton wool. There is a nexus between bad actors and the authorities responsible for ensuring fair prices. Has any corruption mafia been brought to task in recent history? If the reader can recall, I would be happy to hear of it.
It is high time for introspection. The government of Pakistan spends Rs.200 billion each year on fertiliser subsidies to offer low prices of essential commodities (i.e wheat, rice, maize and sugar) to low-income groups. Instead of depending on imported commodities, why not ensure that production can be done locally? The country can save a considerable amount by ensuring the availability of urea, instead of depending on imported commodities. As Khokhar lamented, “our repeated pleas to keep politics out of agriculture fell on deaf ears, and disastrous results are here for everyone to see.”
The government must protect the backbone of the country. The hands responsible for risking national food insecurity with their petty profiteering must be strictly dealt with.