Continuing with its poverty alleviation and relief measures for the masses groaning under the impact of the hydra-headed inflation, the government announced yet another relief package of Rs.10 billion for the next five months-- which envisages to provide substantial subsidies on wheat, sugar, rice, grains and edible ghee in addition other items of daily use-- through outlets of the Utility Stores Corporation (USC).

In addition to providing subsidies on food items, other measures announced by the government to supplement the package include opening of 2000 youth stores with the support of USC under the umbrella of ‘ Kamyab Jawan Programme’. The youth will be provided working capital in the shape of interest free loans for the purpose and the government expects employment opportunities for 40,000,00 youth under this initiative while 80,000,00 benefitting from it indirectly.

Opening of USC’s 12 cash and carry stores in big cities, provision of basic commodities to nanbais at subsidized rates, establishment of five free zones along with the Afghan border to check smuggling of basic commodities and issuance of ration cards before holy month of Ramadan to help the poor and deserving people to buy commodities of day to day use at 25 to 30 percent cheaper rates than the markets price, are other steps to be put in place to ensure that the under-privileged sections of the society are provided adequate relief making their lives easier. The envisaged steps are beyond reproach. However, much will depend on their implementation in letter and spirit.

The foregoing measures and the ones already announced by the government strengthen its credentials as a pro-poor set up, particularly Prime Minister Imran Khan who seems really perturbed by the unjustified price spiral in the country that has hit the poor masses. He is an honest man and means business.

The reality is that the burgeoning increase in the commodities of daily use, to a great extent, is attributable to the unethical machinations of the cartels and mafias who manipulate the market forces as also pointed out by the Prime Minister. These cartels and mafias create artificial shortage of commodities through hoarding and smuggling of wheat and sugar to Afghanistan. The warning by the government to the hoarders to bring their hidden stocks to the market or face strict punitive action and setting up five free zones along Afghan border to check smuggling, lifting of ban on import of sugar, putting embargo on export of sugar are credible initiatives to rectify the supply situation of the essential commodities, particularly wheat and sugar.

The prevailing situation to a great extent represents failure of the provincial governments and district administrations which are actually responsible to ensure that the unscrupulous elements do not make the lives of the people miserable through their unethical and illegal business practices and hoarding. It is unbelievable that they failed to envisage the emergence of the manipulated price spiral. The unprecedented increase in the prices of vegetables which are locally produced is simply intolerable and speaks volumes about the indifference of the district administration to the plight of the people.

While it is true that the harsh and unavoidable economic initiatives taken by the government to rectify the maladies afflicting the economy, structural reforms put in place designed to broaden the tax base, documenting the economy and withdrawal of subsidies on certain items set in train the inflationary trend but the fact is that the situation has been aggravated by the cartels and mafias.

The government is contemplating action against these mafias and the Prime Minister has already ordered a probe for ascertaining the real causes of the situation and identifying the elements behind it. But the harsh reality is that the wheat and sugar supply situation is mostly controlled by the politicians on both sides of the isle. They have been exploiting the inbuilt avenues of corruption in the existing system of governance. They also have been instrumental to the make and break of governments. In the numbers game they are in an advantageous position to black-mail the sitting government and thwarting initiatives designed to damage their vested interests. Our parliament is dominated by the feudal lords and the elitist classes which have developed vested interests and fiercely resist any change in the system of governance.

The relief measures taken by the government without any doubt will ease the situation in the short term but they are not the solution of the problem on permanent basis. Whether the Prime Minister will be able to take punitive action against the politicians owning the flour and sugar mills, who are part of the problem at the risk of losing their support, remains to be seen.

Honesty and commitment of one man at the top cannot change the permeating culture of exploitation and manipulation by the vested interests. For that the country needs drastic systemic changes in regards to breaking hold of feudal lords and the elitist classes on political power. The real change in the fortunes of the poor masses can occur only when the system ensures the entry of people from middle classes and poorer sections of the society into the parliament. The current system of single constituency is the real problem. It provides guarantee to the feudal lords and moneyed people to contest and win elections due to the cost involved which according to a conservative estimate involves spending six to seventy million rupees. This system is the root-cause of all the maladies afflicting our political polity. Switching over to system of proportional representation provides the best alternative.

People have seen governments come and go including the rule of the military dictators but nothing has changed the situation for the poor masses. Imran Khan has been voted into power by the people with the hope that he would change this exploitative system and set in train a sustained process of promoting the well-being of the people. That can only come through a people friendly governing system. The rest follows automatically. If Imran Khan can deliver on that he would be remembered as the greatest benefactor of this hapless nation.

Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The writer is a freelance columnist.