Pakistanis urged to give up tea amid low foreign currency reserves

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It’s not going down so well.

People in Pakistan are venting their outrage after a government minister urged them to forgo 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 appeal to the people to reduce their tea drinking by one or two cups a day,” Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal told reporters Tuesday. “Because we also borrow money for the tea, which is imported,” he added as the country battles growing financial woes.

Pakistan is grappling with low foreign currency reserves needed for imports on items including tea. The country of 221 million is one of the world’s top tea importers, and according to a tweet from Iqbal, it spent almost $600 million on tea imports in 2020.

In May, the country banned imports of all nonessential luxury goods, describing the situation as an economic emergency in a bid to preserve currency reserves, Reuters reported.

“It’s merely a joke to revive Pakistan’s weak economy by reducing drinking tea,” 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 guests and don’t offer tea, the guest minds it.”

Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 50, a trader from Peshawar, lamented the instruction, telling The Post that government minsters should cut their own spending and put forward more “workable options to revive the economy.”

“People are making fun of such silly ideas,” he added.

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The minister’s comments also brewed up a storm online with many on social media proclaiming never to give up the drink, while others advised Iqbal to resign. Newspapers ran headlines slamming the “austeri-tea.”

One Twitter user joked about being arrested for going over the extra tea cup limit. “Thoughts and prayers,” said another.

“Sugared tea and roti is the fuel of the working classes. … Please don’t label it as a luxury,” tweeted one person, while others asked Iqbal to promote more agricultural research on tea cultivation nationally, to wean off costly exports.

“Pakistanis commence their day with strong, black tea and conclude it with the lighter, green variant,” Burzine Waghmar, an academic at the Center for the Study of Pakistan at London’s SOAS University, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “It is futile urging Pakistanis to forgo not just what is the national beverage but their very identity since tea is the great leveler.”

Waghmar said Pakistan once had a flourishing tea industry, which was a source of pride, but now has to expend “precious foreign exchange … importing tea from Kenya and Sri Lanka.”

Like many other nations, inflation is hitting Pakistan hard, with a looming cost-of-living crisis. Fuel subsidies were cut in recent days, sending prices up for many who are already contending with frequent power cuts, electricity shortages and soaring food prices.

The financial crisis is also proving to be the first major test for newly appointed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, a career politician and brother of three-term former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was jailed in 2018 after being convicted of corruption.

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

Earlier this month, Sharif’s new government unveiled a $47 billion budget (9.5 trillion Pakistani rupees) for 2022 through 2023 as Islamabad tries to restart a critical financial support package from the International Monetary Fund.

“Tea is so intricately interwoven into the social and historical life of modern South Asia that calls for reductions in consumption may well fall into deaf ears, if not 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 filled British imperial coffers and consumer desires through time.”

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The country is also in the midst of a deadly heat wave with record-breaking extreme heat, along with other nations in South Asia. Temperatures in Jacobabad, in the country’s center, hit a scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit in April, making it one of the hottest places on Earth.

“Tea is such a refreshing drink when you are hot and a warming drink when you are cold so I am not surprised it is so popular still in Pakistan,” U.K.-based tea sommelier Jane Milton told The Post. “The tragedy is that they have to import it all and that is having such a negative effect on their currency reserves.”

“I think it is wise the government has not asked them to ‘give up’ but to reduce consumption, it is something I think people are likely to be willing to do,” she added.

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

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