Agricultural Policy for Pakistan

Pakistan Muslim League will be completing its constitutionally mandated five-year term in the 2nd quarter of the current year.  Notwithstanding their better than average performance in the economic management of the country, it was a bleak period for the farmers of the country. No doubt, the manifesto of PML-N published during the election campaign 2013 was full of tall claims and lofty ideas to revitalise the agricultural sector of the country, yet it was without any concrete strategy to implement the measures listed in it. Consequently, PML could not formulate an agricultural policy during its entire tenure; even the draft Food Security Policy the Ministry of Food Security has uploaded on its website, needs drastic revision. Naturally, in a country where personalities count more than the institutions, these things do happen.
About the agricultural sector the manifesto issued by the PML-N promised to “accelerate the pace of agriculture development and to reduce poverty by diversifying the rural economy to expand non–farm employment” by undertaking the “following specific programmes and measures for the integrated development of agriculture, livestock, fisheries, horticulture and forestry “To implement the above-mentioned promise, PML manifesto contained an exhaustive wish list such as declaring agriculture as an industry, turning terms of trade in its favour, focussing on small farmers etc.
However, all these issues needed lot of resources, efforts and legal and constitutional amendments. Unfortunately, PML never took the nation into confidence how the regime intended to implement its manifesto promises.  Maybe it remained involved in firefighting and did not have enough time to give a long-term vision people were expecting. It is a sad commentary on the political culture of the country that a political party which was so confident of its electoral victory for the third time, came up to the net behind nothing.  No doubt, they chose a right person to steer the agriculture sector who was expected to safeguard the interests of the farmers by ensuring fair returns to the farmers but he remained ineffective due to the tough resistance he had to face from the urban lobby which dominated the PML-N.
Interestingly, Muslim league also had many members elected from the rural areas in their fold but they normally remained silent during the legislative debates and were side lined in the decision-making hierarchy which is dominated by the urban, industrialist elite. Unfortunately, for them, agriculture is a backwater of the economy, producer of raw material for their industries and a captive market for their products. One of the reasons Pakistan is unable to make a mark in world global trade is the extremely pro-business and industry-friendly environment which leaves insufficient incentive for them for improving efficiency, raising quality of their products and reducing prices to compete globally.
What to do now?
Soon elections dates will be announced and with that the political parties will be announcing their manifestoes. Maybe they like to pick up some points from the following paragraphs
First things first. Thanks to rapid population growth, economic development and urbanization, valuable arable land is being converted at alarming rates for commercial nonfarm uses. Infrastructural development, though necessary is also reducing the area under cultivation often forcing farmers onto shrinking and more marginal lands. And that also when climate change is threatening the arable cropping in dry lands, reducing productivity of rangelands and increasing sea levels, creating problems in coastal areas. All these developments necessitate the formulation of a national land use policy by suitably amending the industrial zoning and urban planning policies to save the arable land going under brick and mortar.
Secondly, the land reforms every political party invariably promises in its manifestoe is merely an eyewash. Distributing the state land to the landless farmers from the dwindling pool of state lands, most of which are now not worth cultivation because of water scarcity, is more of the same every regime has been doing in the last six decades since independence. They should now concentrate on agrarian reforms which is a broader and more relevant concept in the changed circumstances. Agrarian reforms, as distinct from land reforms, are meant to transform entire socio-economic landscape of the rural areas by introducing fundamental socioeconomic changes with the objective of increasing the productivity of farm and nonfarm operations, reducing their poverty levels and thus improving the quality of life of people living in the villages.
Thirdly, PML (N) had promised to add a new article to the Constitution to make the ‘Right to Food’ a fundamental right of every citizen within a reasonable time frame. This needs to be implemented by any party which comes into power. The new government at the centre should formulate a comprehensive food security policy in consultation with all the provinces because after the 18th constitutional amendment, it is the provinces who call the shots and not the federation. Federal government should therefore help the provinces to develop their own food security policies and strategies, as well as formulate investment plans in critical areas such as Research & Development, rural infrastructure, skill formation, digitisation etc. They should support the provinces in their efforts to enhance the capacity of their respective agricultural departments who, in turn, should make efforts for the capacity building of their respective district governments
Fourthly, food security is a multidimensional concept.  Besides ensuring availability of food by increasing its indigenous production and importing when needed, food security also entails evolving an equitable system of food procurement and distribution, improving the access of poor households to food at affordable prices and developing a transparent system of safety nets for very poor households. Fortunately, Pakistan has now a very comprehensive and elaborate network of social safety nets in the form of Benazir Income Support which needs a bit of sound management, transparency and additional funding to increase its outreach
Fifthly, we must strive to achieve an average agricultural growth rate of at least 5% per annum- the rate crucial for ensuring 8% overall economic growth necessary to absorb the new entrants to the labour market. Given the resource constraint, particularly of land base, the only option available is to improve the farm productivity. However, we cannot increase the productivity of the agriculture sector if we do not develop it on commercial lines and integrate the small farmers with the commercialisation of agriculture. We must remember that a farmer is not a subsistence farmer by choice; it is his uneconomical landholding and lack of access to finance which are two major handicaps for him to produce for the market. Small farmers can be integrated in this value chain through four different means- cooperative farming, contract farming, commercial cooperative farming and corporate farming whereby all the stakeholders i.e. farmers, input suppliers, banks and buyers, are engaged. In fact, there is a compelling case for a diverse agricultural sector, involving small landholders, co-operatives and farming corporations. Each will bring its own relative advantages to various parts of the large-scale supply chain.
Sixthly, to improve agriculture performance in Pakistan we must put great emphasis on agricultural mechanization, innovation and technology-dissemination also. Most of the technology being scale-neutral, greater mechanization, not merely tractorization, will not only increase productivity and add value but also reduce the yield gaps existing at four levels-between national yields and globally, between provinces, among the farmers and lastly between farms and research stations.
Seventhly, one of the main reasons for our low farm yields is the mismatch between the agro-ecological zones and the crops sown there.  There is need for greater specialization across agro-ecological zones with Potohar, KPK, GB, AJK specializing in production of fruits and vegetables while leaving wheat, rice cotton etc., for the plains of Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. Cultivation of sugarcane should be restricted to the coastal areas if there is sufficient availability of water. It will not only increase the overall production but also help in their proper marketing and agro-processing
Last but not the least it is the issue of improved management and more equitable distribution of water-the lifeline of the political economy of Pakistan. According to a recent IMF report, Pakistan has the world’s fourth highest rate of water use, estimated to be responsible for 25 % of the productivity of any crop. Slowly but surely Pakistan has been inching towards scarcity threshold of 1000 cubic meter per person per year. Keeping in view the importance of water for economic security of Pakistan, particularly when climate change is compounding the already dire situation, there is an urgent need to formulate a long-term strategy for increasing the water availability, reducing its losses and using it more efficiently. If not, we will be facing the same fate which doomed our Indus Valley Civilisation ancestors nearly 4000 years ago.
According to a recent evidence from dry river beds in central Punjab and Lower Indus, Pakistan had a vast network of irrigation 4000 sustaining Mohenjodaro and Harappa urban civilizations. Frequent floods and droughts and land salinization destroyed these settlements. One of longest droughts in the history of Indus Valley Civilization lasted for 200 years (between 4,200 and 4,000 years ago) when precipitation dramatically decreased and regular summer monsoons stopped for some 200 years. People needed to leave their cities and emigrate eastwards as water and agriculture systems could not cope anymore with their life needs. We are facing similar threats again.
(This article was published in the Daily Times on 28th March 2018

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