Pakistanis urged to forego tea as currency reserves run low

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It’s not going so well.

Pakistanis are expressing outrage after a government minister urged them to give up their frequent cups of tea to help the economy.

From chaiwallah street vendors to elaborate tea ceremonies, the normally milky and sweet caffeinated hot drink is a revered national staple.

“I call on people to reduce their tea consumption by one or two cups a day,” Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal told reporters on Tuesday. “Because we also borrow money for tea, which is imported,” he added as the country grapples with mounting financial difficulties.

Pakistan is struggling with low foreign exchange reserves needed for imports of items such as tea. The country of 221 million people is one of the world’s largest tea importers and, according to a Tweeter from Iqbal, it spent nearly $600 million on tea imports in 2020.

In May, the country banned imports of all non-essential luxury goods, describing the situation as an economic emergency in a bid to preserve foreign exchange reserves, Reuters reported.

“It’s just a joke to revive Pakistan’s weak economy by reducing tea consumption,” Farman Ullah Jan, 41, a pharmacist from Nowshera in northern Pakistan, told The Washington Post. “Taking tea is part of the culture here. If we serve lavish food to the guests and don’t offer tea, the guest cares.

Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 50, a trader from Peshawar, lamented the instruction, telling the Post that government ministers should cut their own spending and come up with more “workable options to revive the economy”.

“People laugh at these stupid ideas,” he added.

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The minister’s comments also sparked an online firestorm, with many on social media proclaiming never to give up the drink, while others advised Iqbal to step down. Newspapers made headlines criticizing the “austere tea”.

A Twitter user joked to be arrested for exceeding the extra cup of tea limit. “Thoughts and prayers,” says another one.

“Sweet tea and roti are the fuel of the working classes. … Please don’t call it luxury,” tweeted one person, while others asked Iqbal to promote more agricultural research on tea growing nationwide, to wean off costly exports.

“Pakistanis start their day with strong black tea and conclude it with the green, lighter variant,” Burzine Waghmar, an academic at the Center for Pakistan Studies at SOAS University of London, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “It is futile to urge Pakistanis to give up not only what is the national drink but also their very identity since tea is the great leveller.”

Waghmar said Pakistan once had a thriving tea industry, which was a source of pride, but now has to spend “valuable foreign currency…importing tea from Kenya and Sri Lanka”.

Like many other countries, inflation is hitting Pakistan hard, with a looming cost of living crisis. Fuel subsidies have been cut in recent days, sending rising price for many who already face frequent blackouts, electricity shortages and soaring food prices.

The financial crisis is also proving to be the first major test for new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, a career politician and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was jailed in 2018 after being found guilty of corruption.

Sharif came to power in April after cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. (Khan blamed American interference and dynastic political elites for his defeat.)

Earlier this month, Sharif’s new government unveiled a $47 billion (9.5 trillion Pakistani rupees) budget for 2022 to 2023 as Islamabad attempts to revive a vital Monetary Fund financial support program international.

“Tea is so intertwined with the social and historical life of modern South Asia that calls for reductions in consumption may well fall on deaf ears, or even prove futile,” Arnab Dey, associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, told the Post.

He added that since at least 1854, an “undivided South Asia”, which would include India and Bangladesh, “has been a major exporter of tea and has filled British imperial coffers and consumer desires down through the ages. “.

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The country is also in the midst of a deadly heat wave with record extreme heat, along with other South Asian countries. Temperatures in Jacobabad, in the center of the country, reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit in April, making it one of the hottest places on earth.

“Tea is such a refreshing drink when you’re hot and such a warming drink when you’re cold, so I’m not surprised it’s still so popular in Pakistan,” said UK-based tea sommelier Jane Milton. United, at the Post. “The tragedy is that they have to import everything and it has such a negative effect on their foreign exchange reserves.”

“I think it’s wise that the government hasn’t asked them to ‘give it up’, but cutting down is something I think people are likely to want to do,” he said. she adds.

Suliman reported from London and Haq Nawaz Khan reported from Peshawar.