ISLAMABAD – A minister in Pakistan's newly elected government faced criticism Wednesday following his plea 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, a hugely popular drink among both the rich and the poor in this country of 220 million people. The government spends about $600 million from the central bank's hard currency reserves for tea imports annually.
A Pakistani is believed to drink at least three cups of tea a day on average, the nation's caffeinated drink of choice.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who took over in April after Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament, has pledged to improve the ailing economy and meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund in an effort to revive a $6 billion bailout package.
Still, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal's appeal 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.
Some have openly advised Iqbal on social media to resign.
“Yesterday Ahsan Iqbal asked us to consume less tea and tomorrow they may say eat less. Is it a solution?” asked Dil Sher, who owns a roadside tea stall on the outskirts of Islamabad.
The government has so far hiked 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.
To the shock of many Pakistanis, Sharif's government at midnight announced the third hike of 24 rupees in the price of petrol in the past three weeks, taking it to about 234 rupees per liter. Petrol was available at about 150 rupees per liter in Pakistan when Khan was ousted in April.
Khan says Sharif came into power under a U.S. plot, a charge Washington denies. Sharif and the country's military have also denied Khan's claim, saying no evidence of U.S. conspiracy in Khan's ouster was available.
Hourslong power cuts across Pakistan have also made Sharif's coalition government unpopular.
Now in the opposition, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party also took to Twitter, claiming Sharif’s government has damaged the economy, barely two months since taking office. Sharif, however, says he is paying the price for the mismanagement of his predecessor's government.
During his 3 1/2 years in power, Khan's government also faced criticism, including when a lawmaker from his party, Riaz Fatyana, appealed on people to use less sugar and eat just one flatbread with every meal instead of more amid a shortage of sugar and wheat at the time. In Pakistan, most people consume roti, a flatbread similar to India's naan.
Pakistan's currency, the rupee, plummeted to a record low in trading against the U.S. dollar on Wednesday. According to the central bank, the rupee slid to 206 against the U.S. dollar.
Also Wednesday, Esther Perez Ruiz, the IMF's resident representative for Pakistan, denied local media reports that the world lender asked Pakistan to renegotiate the CPEC-related energy deals before making hefty payments to Beijing. “These claims are simply untrue. Rather, the IMF supports the government’s multipronged strategy to restore energy sector viability which shares the burden of restoring viability across all stakeholders — the government, producers, and consumers," Ruiz said in a statement.