NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 22

It’s now or never: prioritise agriculture sector

In the ongoing bickering amongst political forces as well as the powerful circles of the country, successive governments have, regrettably, failed to prioritise the agriculture sector, which is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy by all standards. The outcome is obvious: the country is facing all types of crises including food inflation, lowering of exports, and even the threat of default.

Ahmad Jawad, former chairman of the standing committee on agriculture of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, believes wrong priorities by successive governments have pushed the country to crises of all kinds. The country has been experimenting with different ideas like rapid industrialisation and private sector investments in the services sector in an attempt to boost the economy, but all these efforts have met failure so far. The policymakers would have to realise that it is only a preponderate agriculture sector that would guarantee a prosperous future for the country, he believes.

Ahmad Jawad regrets that the budget allocation for the agriculture sector has been slashed by 48 per cent in the current fiscal year. Also, the sector has been seeing a paradigm shift of capitulating its most fertile pieces of land to housing societies. The sector has proved to be the weakest link in the current macroeconomic planning and strategies. Locust attacks, poor governance, bad planning, climate change and lack of investment in seed technology and agriculture research have already resulted in shortages of wheat, sugar and cotton. And now, the import bill of cotton will also be substantially high owing to record low production, he expresses his reservations in a talk with the writer.

There are no two opinions that the country’s agricultural performance has generally been mediocre. Growth has averaged 2-3% over the last few decades as compared to a 4-5% growth needed to meet overall economic targets. Crop and livestock yields are lower than other comparable countries. The output of several key products is below domestic needs and necessitates imports, while exports are well below potential.

Daud Khan, a retired UN staff member, believes one of the underlying reasons for poor agriculture performance in Pakistan is the inequitable access to resources and in particular a highly skewed pattern of land ownership. Some 2pc of farmers own 45pc of all agriculture land with 98pc owning the remaining 55pc. Pakistan’s farm economy is dominated by 7.4 million small holders who cultivate less than 12.5 acres. The skewed land holding pattern translates directly into major imbalances in power, access to government services, and to other productive resources such as water, credit and technology. For example, irrigation water flows disproportionately to larger farmers who often overuse or even waste it while small holders, especially those located at the tail end of irrigation channels, get little and unreliable water.

The economist regrets that public services, such as those for animal health, are often provided free and on a priority basis to large farmers and commercial dairy units while small livestock holders have to ‘incentivise’ government animal health workers to visit their sick animals. Government subsidies mostly go to large famers and credit flows predominantly to big landlords, commercial livestock units and processing units. These inequities not only lead to poor overall performance but also high levels of rural poverty with severe consequences on the well-being of large swathes of the population. And with climate change, things could rapidly get worse.

Daud Khan says that successive governments have shown a stubborn tendency to ignore agriculture policy documents prepared by donors and think tanks. Often this reluctance reflects powerful lobbies that have grown up around distorted policies. But this must change, the expert stresses. Agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, is the only way we can make progress on national development goals. The government must give due attention both to the reform agenda as well as to design, and above all to implementation of projects and programmes.

Lately, the sector has come under attack by climate change. As the climate change crisis accelerates, the country is feared to see more floods, droughts, and growing water scarcity. There is no single technological fix to the varied threats posed by climate-induced disasters. Instead, adaptation is going to require pursuit of a range of strategies. Some of these strategies will need to be adopted over the short term, while others will require a longer gestation period.

Syed Mohammad Ali, an academic and researcher, suggests Pakistan switch to growing better yielding and heat-and-drought resistant crops, specifically suited to the varied agro-ecological zones within the country. Technological methods such as laser land levelling could also enable more efficient water use and solar power-driven irrigation systems would help lessen air pollution and emissions. Yet, adoption of such measures should not bypass poor farmers, as that will worsen rural inequalities, and cause further depeasantisation and a corresponding pressure on already burgeoning urban centres.

In this process, the role of governments, federal as well as provincial, is crucial. It is vital to make agricultural policies in the country more progressive and accessible. Besides ensuring that landless agricultural workers are paid fairer wages, there is a need to craft subsidy schemes and other incentives which focus on making smaller farmers actively involved in making agriculture more productive, resilient and sustainable. If corrective measures are not taken immediately, the sector might be destroyed to the level, which would become irreversible and irreparable.