“How can you have pheeki chayee?” A distant relative looked at me with disdain as she thronged three teaspoons of sugar in her cup. “Yahi tou umer hai khanay peenay ki”; she continued while trying to rest a plate full of gulab jamans against her bulging belly. I looked at her euphorically relishing her delight and thought to myself when will we start prioritizing our health as a nation? Excess sugar consumption has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity in numerous medical studies however ignorant to the imminent health threat, the only time sugar bothers us is when its price starts to rise.
An average household in Pakistan easily spends about 3.5pc of its food expenditure on sugar consumption. According to a 2019 report, annual per capita sugar consumption was 24kg which makes 16 teaspoons of sugar consumed by each one of us on daily basis. However, as of the year 2021, The Competition Commission of Pakistan accused the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association and 55 other sugar mills of cartelization and indulging in anti-competitive practices leaving sugar at a record retail price of Rs. 160 per kilogram. As the local sugar supply has decreased, prices have risen. Sugar millers that hiked their prices under the guise of a disruption in sugar supply caused by TLP protests were also identified by the government.
To make matters worse, despite importing 300,000 tones of sugar and depleting the country’s meagre dollar reserves, sugar prices are skyrocketing. Imported sugar is in short supply, according to government officials, and provinces are only providing imported sugar in Sasta Bazars. Furthermore, there is a belief that imported sugar is of poor quality, which allows local sugar millers to charge more for their stock, which is more granular and crystallized.
To bring some respite to the public amid inflation fears, Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered severe action against traders involved in sugar stockpiling and profiteering. Prime Minister Imran Khan urged provincial and district governments to take action against such individuals in order to provide relief to the masses. Prime Minister Khan also directed to implement Sugar Factories (Control) Amendment Act 2021, Punjab Prevention of Hoarding Act 2020 and Punjab Registration of Godowns Act 2014 against sugar cartels and hoarders.
This is not the first time a sugar crisis has occurred. The CCP conducted an investigation and searched the offices of the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA) in October 2009, seizing evidence of cartelization. The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Activities (Control and Prevention) Ordinance, 1970 was enacted in Pakistan to combat anti-competitive practices. The law remained in effect until it was replaced by the Competition Act of 2010, which was updated from the Competition Ordinance of 2007.
As far as the idea of nationalizing the sugar mills is concerned; it is insufficient. Government should fix sugar retail price as it fixes sugarcane pricing based on data of improved efficiency. Apart from that, the government should immediately de-regulate the sugar crop and allow more stakeholders to build up sugar mills, putting an end to the current monopoly and cartelization. The government must clear the way for the establishment of mini sugar mills, as many other countries have done. Furthermore, jaggery must be exportable, and sugarcane crushing for jaggery should be encouraged so that small farmers are not obliged to sell standing crops to millers. Lastly, subsidizing unhealthy foods is a bad idea, but giving cash to the poor to help with inflation seems more practical.
Nevertheless, our obsession with sugar is reflected in our everyday behaviors. Even our diction is a testimony to it. From “Aap k munh mein ghee shakar” to “Munh meetha karwayen” sugar has an important role to play in our lives. They say, you are what you eat but if that is correct shouldn’t we all be a little sweet and saccharine in our disposition? But maybe that’s the irony of sugar. It does not give us sweet words to articulate rather a sharp tongue that is only used to criticize others. Maybe sugar only truly reflects itself in the form of our older generation injecting insulin in their tummies. Perhaps we should be grateful to the sugar barons who are doing everything they can to assist us reduce our sugar consumption and improve our physical health.