Sugar Mountain

Published in Dawn – cover photograph by AFP/Aamir Qureshi

In the famous novel All the King’s Men — on the rise and fall of Willie Stark, the fire-breathing governor of Louisiana — Stark meets crooked businessman Gummy Larson, who’s thought too dishonest to be awarded a major building contract.

Gummy is described as ‘a middle-sized, middle-aged, compact, grey-faced, grey-suited, unimaginative-looking man… He was strictly business and he didn’t do anything unless it paid.’

Stark, however, is a man of the people. He screams abuse at Gummy, but it makes no difference: the man ‘might have been standing in church, waiting for the benediction, for all his face showed.’ In the end, Stark shocks everyone, and awards Gummy the contract. Stark’s fall begins, but nothing hurts Gummy, ‘not insult or anger or violence or getting his face beat into a hamburger. He was a true businessman. He knew the value of everything.’

Gummy Larson could be a stand-in for all our crony capitalists: market warriors that only serve their balance sheets. They may lack charisma, but they have just one argument to make, ‘Kaarobaar karna koi gunah hai’ (is doing business a sin)?

But kaarobaar implies value, the fruit of hard labour. Our cartels are the opposite: bloated, rent-seeking hustlers with shady origins and a shoddy product. So when the inquiry into the sugar crisis came, the report wasn’t a surprise. ‘The sugar industry in Pakistan is predominantly owned by politicians,’ it reads. ‘Some of them despite being in the government have acted contrary to business laws/ethics and held sugar stocks that is tantamount to hoarding.’

For those wondering, this isn’t the FIA report from last week. It’s a press clipping of the NAB report from 2007. Back in the Musharraf era, the same players banked on our short memories, and triggered another countrywide crisis.

The 2020 remix was no less brazen. Mr. Wajid Zia, having already uncovered the Sharif dynasty’s Qatari card tricks, is now investigating the one outfit even more entrenched in Punjab: the sugar cartel. It is in the public interest that he prevails. Per the first report, well-written and researched, the federal government decided to export sugar. It shouldn’t have, because our production was low. When sugar was exported, prices shot up. Then came the two-step: on top of an unjustified export, Punjab slapped an unjustified subsidy, worth billions of rupees.

The FIA called out the biggest beneficiaries: ‘It can be seen that the sugar mill owners who availed maximum subsidy had political clout and influence in decision-making.’ Our Gummy Larsons, with their buddies in the cabinet, seem to have double-dipped: first into subsidies abroad, and then into soaring prices at home.

For many, it’s the same old vultures — who cares? But the consequences go far beyond corruption: our frantic push into sugar is a disaster, because of the nature of our land. In Punjab, to grow sugar is to grow poison. The climate’s wrong, the rainfall’s wrong, the sucrose is low, the yield is low, and the cost to the cotton belt is breathtakingly high — last year was cotton’s worst in a decade.

In one of the world’s most eco-stressed countries, sugarcane is also a water vampire: it sucks the ground dry (equivalent to three Kalabagh dams, per a superb special report by Samaa), and takes 12 months to grow, much longer than cotton. It’s bad economics to plant, uncompetitive to sell, and absurd to subsidise. Even the end-product is a killer on its own, bursting with heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

When it comes to shunning our sugar barons — and much more important, reforming our agriculture — Imran Khan has a real chance. His family owns no sugar mills, unlike a former prime minister’s. He isn’t being investigated for grabbing more mills via dummy companies, unlike a former president. But after this latest scam, fed and watered by his own cabinet, the onus of course-correction lies squarely on him. It’s time to act.

Though this isn’t the first time a sugar crisis has happened in this country, it has to be the last. The Competition Commission, mired in lawsuits by big business, must be empowered to bust the cartels, and parliament must cure any infirmities in the commission’s parent act. Subject to the findings of the FIA’s final report, legal proceedings must ensue for any miller that hoarded or profiteered off the public. Cabinet members that spearheaded the subsidy must be formally identified and sacked.

Growing sugar only makes sense for some parts of Sindh; in Punjab, it must be phased out entirely (the Supreme Court has already suggested it in the cotton belt), to say nothing of its ridiculous support price. Our agricultural policies must refocus on different crops, and their production, R&D, and harvest area must take centre-stage.

A German writer once said the world was made of sugar and dirt. In Pakistan, there’s little difference between the two. Either we root out the first, or get buried in the second.

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