Monday, March 31, 2008

Gillani Acts On Wheat, Energy Crises

With global commodity prices and inflation hitting new highs, Pakistan and other emerging economies are faced with serious challenges. The rising inflation of staples such as wheat has already claimed Pakistan's former ruling coalition as a victim. Many other developing countries' governments are likely to fall as well unless these challenges are addressed effectively.

Knowing the importance of wheat for Pakistanis, the government of Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani has begun to take steps to alleviate the wheat crisis. The first steps, announced yesterday by Ministry of Food and Agriculture, deal with providing incentives to farmers to grow more wheat. The price of 40Kg of wheat has been raised by more than 20 percent to Rs. 625.00 (US$9.90) from Rs 510.00 (US$7.90). The government plans to build a 5-million-tonne strategic reserve from the 2007/08 crop, but farmers had rejected the procurement price of 510 rupees per 40 kg as below domestic and international market levels. In addition to price support, the government has announced support for agriculture equipment purchases with the first batch of 50 bulldozers (out of total 300) arriving from China in July this year. These would be put on trial for two months in difficult terrain of NWFP and Balochistan to increase wheat production.

Pakistan saw a surge in wheat and flour prices in the domestic market after a shortage in September and had to import nearly 1.6 million tonnes in spite of producing 23.3 million tonnes of wheat in the 2006/07 crop year.

The south Asian country of 160 million people consumes about 22 million tonnes of wheat a year, according to Reuters.

For the financial year 2007/08, the government has fixed a wheat output target of 24 million tonnes, but farmers and food ministry officials say that target is impossible to achieve and estimate output will be 21 million to 22 million tonnes.

Industry officials say lower-than-expected output may force the government to import between 1 million and 2 million tonnes for stocks and domestic needs.

In addition to the wheat crisis, the other major crisis angering Pakistanis is the continuing brown-outs resulting from 2500-3000MW electricity shortage. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is all set to ink the first-ever power sector pact of his government with a Chinese company, Dong Fong, today for setting up 525 MW thermal power plant with an investment of $450 million at Chichoki Mallian (Sheikhupura), sources close to the Private Power Infrastructure Board (PPIB) managing director told Business Recorder, Pakistan's Financial Daily Newspaper.

Business Recorder is reporting that its sources have expressed serious concern over the cost escalation, saying lower project cost could have been negotiated by a team of experts. The Dong Fong was already in the process of setting up thermal power plant of 450-500 MW at Nandipur (Gujranwala), though several questions had been raised by the Euro Dynamics International, a Lahore-based firm, that the second lower bidder joint venture of Chinese company does not meet the qualification and requirement of combined cycle plant.

Earlier, former prime minister Shaukat Aziz had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) and the Alstom-Marubini to set up 450-500 MW thermal power plant at Chichoki Mallian, but a couple of months ago, the pact was terminated when the sponsors did not come up with tariff petition.

Notwithstanding allegations of cost escalation and possible corruption, these are all steps in the right direction by Mr. Gillani's new government. The real question is: Would these steps be sufficient to address the severity of the two crises? Or do we need a more comprehensive plan of action beyond these first steps? A comprehensive, long range plan that addresses the underlying issues of the impact of growing population, increasing global demand and rising inflation that show no signs of abating? Let's wait and see what Mr. Gillani's "first 100" days deliver.

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