Pakistan: Police arrests several farmers amid protests against wheat procurement policy

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Islamabad [Pakistan], April 30: As farmers in Pakistan’s Punjab reached The Mall to hold a protest against what they termed to be an unfair wheat procurement policy, a heavy contingent of Punjab Police in anti-riot gear rounded up scores of them on Monday.
The protesters, led by Kissan Ittehad Pakistan, gathered at the GPO Chowk on The Mall and tried to march towards the Punjab Assembly, where a heavy contingent of police intercepted them. Police blocked the road by placing containers and arrested several protesters.
The farmers had taken to the streets against delay in the purchase of grain and the decision to reduce the provincial procurement quota from over 4 million tonnes to 2.3 million tonnes.
Speaking to Dawn, Kissan Ittehad Pakistan General Secretary Mian Umair Masood, who led the protest, said that over 250 farmers were arrested by police in Lahore. He, however, managed to evade arrest himself.
Reports have claimed that arrests were also made in Khanewal, Vehari, Kasur, Rahim Yar Khan, Multan, Sadiqabad, Pakpattan, Muzaffargarh, and Sahiwal districts. Police sources have claimed that 46 protesters were taken into custody, 30 from The Mall and 16 from Manga Mandi.
Mian Umair said they were planning to block highways in Punjab with the help of their families and livestock. The opposition, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Jammat-i-Islami, as well as lawmakers from the treasury benches, have offered support to the protesting farmers.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz’s (PML-N) Members of the Provincial Assembly belonging to the countryside have voiced concerns regarding the present procurement policy. However, the government has played down the issue with its spokesperson Azma Bukhari saying that the police had not taken any protest leader into custody from anywhere.
Azma Bukhari said that the government was in touch with “real representative bodies” of the farmers. She accused the workers of a political party of launching the protest for “political purposes.”
Punjab procured over four million tonnes of wheat every season to meet its yearly needs. However, the authorities have decided to reduce the procurement target by half, stressing that there was a carryover stock of 2.3 million tonnes already available.
Pakistan’s caretaker government overseeing the elections had imported around 3 million tonnes of wheat, which has more than the province’s needs and resulted in a huge carryover stock leaving little storage capacity.
The government also changed the process for applying to sell wheat to the food department. Unlike in the past when the growers needed to submit written applications to procure gunny bags used to pack and transport wheat to procurement centers, the government launched a mobile application for the purpose, despite knowing that most of the rural population is not well-versed in technology.
Despite this, more than 400,000 growers applied for gunny bags. However, the government announced it would issue six bags per acre and only to those who owned up to six acres of land. Mian Umair termed the government’s decision “mala fide,” the report said.
The procurement campaign has been delayed this year, crashing the local wheat market with middlemen, who are taking benefit of the situation, by purchasing wheat from the growers at much less than the officially fixed minimum support price of Pakistani Rupees (PKR) 3,900 per 40 kilograms. These measures sparked concerns among the ruling party’s lawmakers as well.
Defending the delay, Punjab Food Minister Bilal Yasin said that the grain due to the rain carried above normal moisture up to 18 percent. He said, “After drying up this produce will lose weight causing financial loss to the provincial kitty.”

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