A minister in Pakistan’s newly elected government has been criticised after appealing to the nation to drink less tea to help save on imports amid a deepening economic crisis.
Pakistan is among the world’s top tea importers, and the brew is hugely popular among rich and poor. The typical Pakistani is believed to drink at least three cups a day on average.
The government has to spend about £500m annually from the central bank’s hard currency reserves for tea imports. The prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, who took over in April after Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote, has pledged to improve the ailing economy and meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund in an effort to revive a £5bn bailout package.
Still, the planning minister Ahsan Iqbal’s plea to drink less tea surprised many. “I appeal to the people to reduce their tea drinking by one or two cups a day because we also borrow money for the tea, which is imported,” Iqbal said at a press conference on Tuesday.
There were calls on social media for Iqbal to resign. Dil Sher, who owns a roadside tea stall on the outskirts of Islamabad, said: “Yesterday Ahsan Iqbal asked us to consume less tea and tomorrow they may say eat less. Is it a solution?”
The government has raised the price of fuel, natural gas and electricity by up to 45%, sending food prices soaring. Last week Sharif’s cabinet presented its first budget to parliament for approval, levying more taxes on the rich and vowing to remove subsidies on energy and fuel as demanded by the IMF.
Hours-long power cuts across Pakistan have also made Sharif’s coalition government unpopular. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, now in opposition, claimed Sharif’s administration had damaged the economy barely two months since taking office. Sharif says he is paying the price for the mismanagement of his predecessor’s government.
During his three and a half years in power, Khan’s government also faced criticism, including when a lawmaker from his party, Riaz Fatyana, appealed for people to use less sugar and eat just one flatbread with a meal instead of more, amid a shortage of sugar and wheat. In Pakistan, most people consume roti, a flatbread similar to India’s naan.
Pakistan’s currency, the rupee, fell to a record low in trading against the US dollar on Wednesday. According to the central bank, the rupee slid to 206 against the dollar.