Islamabad, Jan.21 : Pakistan has mobilized over 6000 paramilitary troops to guard the country's flour mills and distribution points, besides escorting supply-trucks in a bid to control flour shortage that has resulted in breadlines and spiraling prices.
The Pakistani Rangers and Frontier Constabulary have reportedly been ordered into action by the newly created Federal Food Committee (FCC) in the wake of anti-government protests over the doubling of flour prices.
State-subsidized flour, when available, sells for between and 14 and 18 Pakistani rupees per kilogram, but the price on the open market more than doubled at the beginning of January, reaching 60 rupees in some areas.
The average wage of a day laborer in Pakistan is roughly a dollar and three-quarters of Pakistan's 160 million people live on less than two dollars per day.
The price spike has aggravated the suffering of millions whose daily incomes have already been taxed by rising food prices. Food prices have risen by more than 10 percent in each of the last three years, including a 14 percent hike in 2007.
The government has blamed the flour shortage on the riots that erupted across the country following Benazir Bhutto's assassination on December 27.
The government claims that massive amounts of grain and flour were stolen during the riots, especially in Bhutto's native province of Sind. Opposition politicians charge that the government estimate is grossly inflated.
There is a view in certain quarters that wheat and flour have reportedly been smuggled from Pakistan into Afghanistan and India, where they have been able to command higher prices.
Speaking to the press at the beginning of last week, the FCC's chairman, retired Lieutenant-General Farooq Ahmed Khan, said his concern was increasing supplies, not ferreting out hoarders.
The flour crisis is also bound up with an even larger problem-Pakistan's chronic power shortage. A major reason for the lack of flour was that flour mills had been forced to curtail their operations due to power-cuts.
Acting on FCC orders, the Ministry of Water and Power announced in the middle of last week that it had taken steps so as to ensure that 90 percent of the country's flour mills were receiving at least 19 hours of electricity per day. But large sections of the economy continue to be crippled by the power crisis.
In an attempt to balance power generation and demand, the Water and Power Development Authority announced a four-hour daily cut in service in December. This was doubled to eight hours after the late December riots disrupted the distribution of oil and natural gas, reports the website, wsws.org.
In early January, the government ordered all the country's steel smelting units and many steel re-rolling units shut down for two weeks, leading the steelmakers to put thousands of workers on temporary layoffs. Textile mills have also been instructed to close operations for five hours in the evening to conserve power.
The IMF had recently warned that Pakistan's economic growth will slow in 2008 and expressed concerns about the country's burgeoning current accounts and trade deficits. During the first half of the current financial year, which began last July 1, Pakistan recorded a trade deficit of 8.24 billion dollars.
There have been repeated warnings from the government that unpopular measures, including hiking gasoline and kerosene prices to international levels, will be required in the coming year.