Scores held in Punjab for protesting govt’s ‘unfair’ wheat policy.

• Farmers claim hundreds detained across Punjab, police say 46 people in custody
• Kissan Ittehad leader announces plans to block highways across province; PTI lends support
• Punjab likely to unveil wheat policy in assembly today

LAHORE: As farmers from across the province thronged The Mall to record their protest against what they believe to be an unfair wheat procurement policy, a heavy contingent of Punjab police in anti-riot gear rounded up scores of their number, on Monday.
The farmers had taken to the streets against an inordinate delay in the purchase of grain and the decision to reduce the provincial procurement quota from over 4 million tonnes to 2.3m tonnes.

The protesters, led by Kissan Ittehad Pakistan, managed to assemble at the GPO Chowk on The Mall and attempted to march towards the Punjab Assembly, where a heavy contingent of police intercepted them. Police not only blocked the road by placing containers, but also arrested several protesters.

Kissan Ittehad Pakistan General Secretary Mian Umair Masood, who led the demonstration, told Dawn that more than 250 farmers were arrested by police in Lahore. He, however, managed to evade arrest himself.

There were reports that arrests were also made in Rahim Yar Khan, Khanewal, Vehari, Kasur, Multan, Sadiqabad, Pakpattan, Muzaffargarh, and Sahiwal districts. Police sources, however, claimed 46 protesters were taken into custody: 30 from The Mall and 16 from Manga Mandi.

‘Province-wide protests’

Mian Umair said they were planning to block highways across the province with the help of their families and livestock, which would be brought to roads. The protesting farmers have also found their allies in the opposition, particularly the PTI and the Jammat-i-Islami, as well as in lawmakers from the treasury benches who are apprehensive about the procurement policy.

The farming community has found allies in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Jamaat-i-Islami, whose farmer wing Kisan Board is scheduled to hold protests on Tuesday (today), while those ruling PML-N MPAs belonging to the countryside have also expressed their concerns at the present procurement policy.

The government, however, continued to play down the issue, with its spokesperson Azma Bukhari claiming that the police had not taken any protest leader into custody from anywhere. She said that the government was in contact with “real representative bodies” of the farmers and accused the workers of a political party of launching the protest for “political purposes”.

Procurement policy faults

Punjab — the bread basket of the country — procured over 4 million tonnes of wheat every season to meet its yearly requirements. But, this year the authorities decided to slash the procurement target by half, claiming that there was a carryover stock of 2.3m tonnes already available.

The caretaker government — tasked with the day-to-day affairs and overseeing the elections — imported around 3m tonnes of wheat, which was more than the province’s needs and led to a huge carryover stock leaving little storage capacity.

Likewise, the government had also changed the procedure for applying to sell wheat to the food department. Unlike in the past when the growers were required to submit written applications to procure gunny bags used to pack and transport wheat to procurement centres, the government launched a mobile application for the purpose, conveniently ignoring the fact that a majority of the rural population is not well-versed in technology.

Even then, over 400,000 growers applied for gunny bags; but the government said it would issue six bags per acre and only to those who owned up to six acres of land.

Mian Umair said the government’s decision was mala fide. “Owners of up to six acres of land rarely sell their wheat to the government because they retain almost half of the produce for domestic use and the rest is meant for the aarti (middlemen), fertiliser, and pesticides dealers from whom they had made purchases for their fields on credit.

Similarly, the procurement campaign has also been unusually delayed this year, crashing the local wheat market with middlemen exploiting the situation by buying wheat from the growers at much less than the officially fixed minimum support price of Rs3,900 per 40kg.

These steps raised many an eyebrow even among the ruling party’s elected representatives. The issue also resonated multiple times in the Punjab Assembly and a general discussion was also held.

‘Above normal moisture’

Without clearly committing when to start the procurement drive, Food Minister Bilal Yasin defended the delay saying due to rains the grain carried above normal moisture up to 18 percent. “After drying up this produce will lose weight causing financial loss to the provincial kitty,” he claimed.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to appease the farming community by feeding information that it is considering a Rs130 billion package and also planning to give a subsidy between Rs400 and Rs600 per 40kg instead of increasing the procurement target.

But Kissan Ittehad leader Khalid Batth voiced his suspicion, saying the government would use this policy “as a ploy to relieve pressure” from the farming community for the time being.

Such dilly-dallying measures are disturbing even for the ruling party members, who are under pressure from their rural electorate. Punjab Assembly speaker Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan refused to prorogue the ongoing assembly session, which was to be put off sine die on Monday, when the finance and food ministers said the government would give a wheat policy on Tuesday (today). The speaker suspended the proceedings till Tuesday morning, as some MPAs suggested that the government should pay for wheat in phases if funds were unavailable.

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