Pakistan has a tomato problem. Shortage of tomatoes has meant that it is being sold in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi for as high as Rs 320 per kg. It seems that in Imran Khan’s Pakistan, tomatoes have won the battle against the rising dollar, which is at Rs 156.
But not to worry, for Finance Adviser to the PM, Hafeez Shaikh, knows something that we don’t. He said that tamatars were available in the market for Rs 17 per kg. Wait, what? Then why did we buy them for Rs 320? Where did he get his tamatars from? And when did Shaikh last step out to go to the sabzi mandi? So many questions, so few tomatoes.
“Karachi sabzi mandi mein…,” Shaikh started saying, when a shocked reporter interjected: “What, which sabzi mandi?” Shaikh told him to go and check it for himself and smiled. Then he said something about tracking the tomato rates on television – this is yet another remarkable quality of the Pakistan government, to find out about things from the TV. PM Imran Khan found out about the falling Pakistani Rupee after watching TV news.
Riveting indeed. Shaikh is the man who is in charge of Pakistan’s economic policy, if such a thing exists. And this is his connect with the ground reality of inflation. Notwithstanding his current boss, Imran Khan, who says that his government is “fixated” on providing relief to the common man.
Pakistani politicians being imaginative with food inflation is nothing new.
With his Rs 17/kg tomato claim, Hafeez Shaikh seems to be following in the footsteps of his previous boss Pervez Musharraf. In 2003, Musharraf had suggested that people stop using tomatoes in their food when prices soar. Use vegetables in season, he had said. Only if Musharraf knew that almost all desi food preparations, including the ones with seasonal vegetables, require tomatoes.
Shaikh also got help from another adviser. Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the PM for information and broadcasting, informed us that one kg peas was available for only Rs 5, and 20 kgs for Rs 100.
However, the market price of peas is Rs 140 per kg in major cities. One must get hold of what these advisers are probably smoking – more than Naya Pakistan, this gives the feel of Udta Pakistan. Anything is possible. If Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry can claim that Imran Khan’s home to office helicopter rides cost Rs 55, then Rs 5 for a sack of peas is nothing. Empathy towards the poor is not a virtue of this government.
This has been a bad year for the tamatar. In February, after the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Indian farmers from Madhya Pradesh decided not to export their produce to Pakistan. This was met with a nuclear response from a Pakistani television reporter, who kept saying “tauba tauba”. Visibly upset, the reporter said: “Ye tamatar hum Rahul aur Modi ke muh pe maarenge. Waqt aa gaya hai ki tamatar ka jawaab, atom bomb se diya jay.”
Despite these tomato skirmishes, trucks carrying potatoes and tomatoes continued normal trade along the Line of Control, even on the day of the Balakot airstrikes. The imports from India came to halt after the Kashmir issue and contributed to the rising prices of vegetables in the domestic market.
Usually, imports of tomatoes from India fill the supply shortage till domestic harvests come in. But thanks to climate change and unusual rains, tomatoes from Sindh region have not yet reached the market, pushing up the prices of tomatoes.
While tomato is already being imported from Afghanistan, traders have demanded the government immediately import from Iran too. The lack of planning and indecisiveness on the part of the Imran Khan government have added to the woes of Pakistanis.
Tomato, which was a kitchen staple, has now become a luxury. At this rate, the day may not be far when we will have to take the advice of Ismail Rahu. When locusts were swarming Karachi Monday, the Sindh agriculture minister suggested we make most out of the situation and prepare locust biryani, barbeque and karahi. “They have come all the way here so the residents should eat them,” Rahu said.
Tomato-less Pakistanis are now thinking of every possible alternative. Some have suggested that the pilgrims crossing over from India to visit Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara should bring minimum 2 kg tomatoes each, and help Pakistan plug the price gap and end its tomato shortage. Sounds better than eating locust biryani.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.