Wheat is an important staple crop, essential for food security and economic viability of many nations around the world. In the form of bread, it lies at the core of our social and economic activity. Former US President Woodrow Wilson rightly said: “Witness the fact that in the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbour on an empty stomach.” The wheat’s importance is not lost on our government that spends billions subsiding it through the Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (PASCO), a subsidiary of the federal government. Unfortunately, this system has fallen prey to the corruption of officials and middlemen, who rob farmers of their just compensation.

If any crop is vital for the society’s prosperity and tranquillity, it certainly is wheat. Its history is as old as the history of civilisation. Adaptability and ease of storage made it a pivotal factor in the establishment of city states and civilisations. Today, worldwide, it is cultivated on more than 200 million hectares, and in commercial terms, it is the most traded agricultural commodity.

Each year, our farmers produce millions of tons of wheat (in 2011, we produced 24.2 million MT and in 2012, our wheat yield has been around 23 million MT), placing Pakistan in the list of top 10 biggest wheat-producing countries.

A portion of this crop is purchased by PASCO and provincial food departments, at above market price, selling it afterwards to flour mills at lower price. By purchasing at higher price, the government offers an incentive to growers, while selling it to millers at lower rate ensures cheap availability of flour and bread in urban areas.

This year, before the procurement, a senior PASCO official announced that to fulfil domestic requirement, the corporation would acquire wheat through a network of nationwide centres. He stressed that on the basis of land record, gunny bags (bardana) would be distributed among small farmers, in a fair and transparent manner.

The officials may make tall claims in pressers, but reality often bites and at PASCO centres, it bites big time. The fact is that the system of wheat subsidy is manipulated by PASCO staff, land revenue officials, and middlemen, to the detriment of government, taxpayers and farmers. According to the President of the Farmers Association of Pakistan, Tariq Bucha, this year, farmers have lost 10 to 20 billion owing to the government’s poor purchase policy and unfair gunny bags distribution.

The odyssey of corruption begins at the land revenue’s office, where farmers obtain their parcha malkiat from patwaris after oiling their palms. These documents are submitted at PASCO centres, where officials declare that if farmers want to obtain gunny bags, they should pay the bribe. This year, in some parts of Punjab, gunny bags were sold at Rs 30 to Rs 70 per bag. After obtaining them, growers bring their produce to the centres, only to receive further demands from PASCO examiners, who threaten to reject the produce unless more wheels are not greased.

Discouraged by high-handedness and corruption of PASCO officials, many growers prefer selling their produce in open market. This dilemma is exploited by middlemen, buying wheat cheaply, and with collusion of patwaris and PASCO officials, sell their stock to the government at higher price, thus siphoning billions of rupees from public exchequer that is a just entitlement of farmers for their effort and hard work.

To address this situation, first of all, provincial governments must computerise the land record, and curtail the arbitrary role of patwaris in issuing ownership documents. Maximum number of gunny bags that can be issued to one land holder may not exceed 200. The government should increase the procurement quota that will allow more farmers to avail the subsidy. Better monitoring and accountability mechanisms must be put in place to check the corruption of PASCO and food department officials.

The State Bank’s third quarterly report stated that, this year, wheat yield in Pakistan has declined because of the decrease in area under cultivation and rising costs of inputs. If government does not take immediate steps to provide relief to wheat growers and make wheat cultivation more attractive option, it would jeopardise our food security giving way to more political and economic commotion in the country.

n    The writer is a freelance             columnist and has worked as a         broadcast journalist.

    Email: adnanfalak@gmail.com