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Is Pakistan smuggling food to Afghanistan despite hunger pangs at home?

People with guns are guarding wheat flour trucks in Pakistan

Pakistanis are smuggling food to Afghanistan even as their own nation witnesses deaths due to shortage of wheat flour and rising food prices. Western neighbour Afghanistan, which was taken over by the Taliban in August 2021, faces a bigger humanitarian problem than Pakistan due to conflict.

On Monday, the chairman of the Pakistan Flour Mills Association in Balochistan, Syed Nasir Agha accused customs officials of abetting wheat flour and sugar smuggling to Afghanistan. The Quetta Post reported him as saying that sugar and fertilizer are being smuggled across the border which has caused a jump in the price of sugar. Agha also suggested that the government allow food exports to curb smuggling.

On April 18, a landslide at the Torkham border, that connects Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, killed at least eight people and buried 20 trucks waiting to cross over to Afghanistan. The Torkham border crossing is a major trade route that connects Pakistan to Afghanistan and further to the Central Asian Region (CAR).

A video on social media that emerged from the accident site allegedly showed the smuggling of sugar inside cement trucks. The person in the video says, “… these trucks of Pakistan’s official infrastructure vehicles, National Logistics Cell (NLC) are smuggling thousands of packets of sugar as cement. The government trucks are paying Rs 1,500 as tax at the checkpoints citing cement export, but sugar is being smuggled inside the trucks. The government itself is involved in the shortage of sugar”.

As the video went viral, the Pakistani media clarified that it was a propaganda video. Ary News said: “The sugar was being exported to Afghanistan with the permission of the government of Pakistan through private trucks and they had nothing to do with the National Logistic Cell (NLC)”.

However, despite denials and face-saving, Pakistan did crackdown on smuggling of food across the border. The government declared flour, wheat, sugar and fertilizer as essential items and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif held a meeting to prevent smuggling and increased punishments and fines for people caught hoarding and smuggling food.

Local authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are leading a crackdown by raiding establishments and godowns to seize hoarded food items. The government has also established 21 new check posts along the border with Afghanistan to stop smuggling.

The inability of the Shehbaz Sharif government to exert itself in governance, and to take practical decisions, is visible from the fact that both – smuggling of food and exporting of food items – is taking place through its nearly 2,500 km border shared with Afghanistan. Islamabad is now importing wheat from Russia after supplies from Ukraine stopped due to the war.

Pakistanis had a bleak Ramzan in April due to inflation and shortage of wheat flour. Over two dozen people died in stampedes and fights over subsidised food during the festive month.

In cities, the urban Pakistanis managed their food supply during the Ramzan festivities by buying smuggled Iranian food, which the media reported was cheaper as well as better in quality.

In Balochistan, the wheat flour crisis became severe after the Pakistan government stopped wheat transportation across borders after which the army had to step in to ensure wheat in the war-torn province.

Pakistan is facing a severe food crisis due to its economic crisis and inability to get a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) owing to political instability. Its foreign reserves have dipped even as its factories are closing down due to shortage of energy.

Also read: Pakistan sloshes on cheap Iranian diesel smuggled through Balochistan

Desperate Pakistanis smuggle Iranian food to survive during Ramzan festivities