Fluctuating decisions of Syrian regime reflect its failure to manage bread file
Enab Baladi – Mais Shtian
Lately, the frequent scenes of citizens crowding and jostling for obtaining a loaf of bread have gone viral on all social media platforms in Syria.
Despite the risk of transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) among the crowds, citizens found no better solutions but to queue up to get their allocations of subsidized bread or to buy from privately-owned bakeries that sell unsubsidized “touristic” bread—bread fortified with milk and sugar—for very high random prices.
Local websites and pages circulated a video recording of the longest queue line for bread in Aleppo, besides another video showing people rushing to buy bread in al-Zahera al-Jadeeda neighborhood in Damascus.
An additional recording illustrated an authorized bread-distributor assaulting and beating a woman in the Sahnaya area during the bread-distribution process, according to the Syrian media news website that published the video, “Waseela TV.”
Disparity in price and availability
Enab Baladi has monitored the limited availability of bread in a number of areas and neighborhoods, and its price increased from the regular price of 50 Syrian Pounds (SYP = 0.039 USD) per bundle.
A citizen from Jaramana city in Rif Dimashq province, who preferred not to reveal his name, told Enab Baladi that the approved distributors sometimes sell the regular subsidized bundle of bread at the price of 100 or 125 SYP (0.077 or 0.097 USD).
He added, bread is also not available in sufficient quantities, which forces many people to buy unsubsidized “touristic” bread at 700 SYP (0.541 USD) per bundle.
This situation is very similar to that in al-Midan district in Damascus province, as monitored by Enab Baladi.
The pro-government local newspaper al-Watan reported that it is difficult to obtain a bundle of bread in Jaramana city without having a person of strong connection and power to facilitate the buying of bread or through paying a higher price for a bundle.
Besides, a significant number of people are deprived of bread due to the shortage of quantities as the newspaper monitored the selling price of a bread bundle at 300 SYP (0.232 USD).
Al-Watan also mentioned that the internally displaced (IDP) communities in the towns of Drusha and Hujairah in Rif Dimashq province, which house thousands of displaced families, are suffering from a shortage of bread supply, and that there are areas with no access to bread at all.
Similarly, in Hama province, many citizens complain about the lack of bread and their inability to buy it from the authorized distributors due to the massive overcrowding, especially in Abu al-Fida and Shari’a suburbs.
Whereas bread is available in al-Qunaytirah and Daraa provinces and sold for up to 65 SYP (0.05 USD); however, of low quality, according to the newspaper.
Governmental promises to improve quality and quantity of bread
On 5 April, the Council of Ministers ordered the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection to form a technical committee to determine the causes for the decline in bread quality, as well as to set up regulations for bakeries to meet the approved quality standards.
The Council then held subsequent meetings in that regard and reached decisions that presumably would improve the quality of bread and provide it in adequate quantities to meet the public demands.
According to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the Syrian Prime Ministry decided in a meeting held on 8 April to close the private bakeries that do not comply with the standards of bread making within 15 days. It also decided to take measures preventing the manipulation of the subsidized flour, secure full access of flour allocations to the provinces, and to rehabilitate the suspended grain silos.
The Prime Ministry agreed to provide the financial requirements needed for updating and rehabilitating the production lines of the “Syrian Bakeries Institution” to operate at its maximum capacity.
It also decided to compensate for shortages in the labor supply and directed the formation of an incentive system to improve the performance of bakery workers.
As for enhancing wheat stocks, the General Grain Corporation was required to oblige its contractors to deliver the amounts of grain agreed upon on time, as well as to develop the milling plan and improve its quality.
Contradictory decisions to solve overcrowding problem
On 7 April, the Syrian Ministry of Internal Trade announced that very soon, the bread would be distributed with the use of the electronic smart card in Damascus and Rif Dimashq and that the decision would include later the rest of the provinces.
However, just two days later, the ministry backed out of its decision and declared that the move to deliver bread through the “smart ration card” system was only a matter of experimental work.
The Assistant of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister, Rifaat Suleiman, said that “the distribution process of bread to citizens will remain in the traditional way for now without the use of the smart card,” according to the ministry’s official Facebook account.
This retraction came after the failure of efforts to implement a decision issued a few days earlier, which was to stop selling bread directly to citizens, to reduce overcrowding in the state-run bakeries, as part of the preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus.
On 24 March, the Prime Ministry said it decided to stop selling bread directly to citizens to prevent gatherings. Therefore, it mandated the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection along with the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment to secure bread through “mobile bakery” cars and assigned distributors under the supervision of administrative units.
In conjunction with this decision, the government of the Syrian regime has instructed the activation of the role of district committees and chiefs in the delivery of essential materials, products, and services to citizens in all neighborhoods, including bread.
Procedures to compensate shortage of flour
Although the wheat crop for the 2019 agricultural season rose to 2.2 million tons compared to that of 2018, which was about 1.2 million tons, Syria is still suffering low food security, according to the latest report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Syria.
The Syrian regime’s government has recently resorted to a number of procedures to compensate for the shortage of flour, as it did years ago by importing Russian wheat to this day.
In the mid of last March, the government raised the price of buying wheat from farmers for the current season at the additional value of 40 SYP (0.031 USD).
The government also set the purchase price of the wheat harvest of both kinds hard and soft from farmers for the current season 2019-2020, at 200 SYP (0.154 USD).
It also granted the farmers 25 SYP (0.019 USD) as a delivery reward, bringing the total price of one kilo of wheat to 225 SYP (0.174 USD), while last season it was 185 SYP (0.143 USD).
The Syrian Agriculture Minister, Ahmed al-Kadri, called the pricing “encouraging,” and a “big” form of government support for the agricultural sector and wheat crop, al-Watan newspaper reported.
Later, on 29 March, the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade issued a decree allowing the import of flour to all willing traders and industrialists, according to SANA.
The Syrian government also declared granting the bakeries, the private silos, and all importers facilities to import wheat and flour necessary to operate with maximum production capacity, regardless of the source.
Imported wheat to compensate shortage in Syria
Wheat production in Syria has gradually decreased since 2011, thereby, the government resorted to Russia and signed a number of contracts with it to import wheat, some of these contracts were as a form of aid.
The latest shipment of Russian wheat on 5 April amounted to 27.5 tons, as part of 475,000 tons of the 2019 contract with the Russian side to import wheat to Syria in batches, according to al-Watan.
Before that, a shipment of 25,000 tons of wheat was sent from Russia late last year in the form of humanitarian assistance, according to the Russian news agency “Sputnik.”
Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Yury Borisov, said this shipment is part of 100,000 tons of wheat as aid that will reach Syria in batches during 2020.
The Director of the Syrian General Grain Corporation, Youssef Kassem, pointed out that Syria imported from Russia last year two million and 200 thousand tons of wheat, of entirely Russian origin, at the value of 310 million USD.
In September 2017, Minister of Internal Trade Abdullah al-Gharbi was quoted by the international news agency, Reuters, as saying that Syria concluded an agreement to buy three million tons of Russian wheat over three years and that it was working to secure credit finance from Moscow to buy wheat.
Back then, Reuters pointed out that Russian customs data showed that Russia supplied 125,200 tons of wheat to Syria in the 2016/17 marketing season, which ended on 30 June 2017.
In 2014, the “Syrian General Company for Mills” signed a contract with the Iranian “Safir Noor Jannat” company to supply 50,000 tons of wheat flour to Syria.
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