The agriculture sector is undoubtedly the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy. It is the single largest sector, generating direct and indirect employment opportunities, providing raw materials to industry and contributing the lion’s share in exports. Above all, the sector produces food for all, safeguarding national food security for the country’s 180 million-plus population.
However, owing to multiple factors, the agriculture sector continues to under perform if we compare its output with its large and attainable potential. If agriculture output is even enhanced to the levels already achieved by progressive farmers, Pakistan can usher in an era of prosperity.
In spite of promising prospects, no concrete steps were taken to realise this dream during the five-year term of the democratically-elected government led by the PPP, which is said to be a popular choice among the farming community. The inbuilt defects and manmade constraints kept the sector’s growth rate on a low trajectory over the years.
More worryingly, the sector’s growth has shown a downward trend in the last five years and it now stands at its worst level since the 80s.
The province of Punjab, the largest contributor to the agriculture sector, also put forward a dismal performance during this period.
The average growth rate of the agriculture sector in the 80s was calculated at 5.4 percent, which fell to 4.4 percent in the 90s. From 2000 to 2007, the average growth rate stagnated at 4.6 percent.
During the five-year term of the PPP-led coalition government, the sector’s average growth rate nosedived to a paltry 2.8 percent. The ongoing fiscal year’s four percent growth target is hardly equal to population growth rate, thereby signalling that the sector’s net growth is stagnating.
The situation is even worse if we take into account the performance of major crops. In this scenario, we are heading towards a crisis-like situation due to continuous decline in food and fiber crop yields.
The dwindling production of main crops confirms that the PPP government failed at the strategic level, while the PML-N failed at both, the strategic and tactical levels.
The much-touted devolution process, aimed at eliminating agriculture and livestock ministries at the federal level, is the first and biggest example of our shortsighted vision when it comes to the strengths and potential of our homeland. Like many other people, I am fed up with the lethargic attitude and other associated ills of bureaucracy, but these departments at center are indispensable for formulating strategies, besides collaborating with global partners for technology transfer.
All countries having a considerable agriculture base in this world have their respective ministry at a federal level that governs issues of this vital sector of the global economy. All our neighbours, including China, India and Iran continue with the agriculture ministries at the center.
All member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), except Pakistan, have federal agriculture ministries. Other major players including USA, Australia, Holland, Germany, the Russian Federation and Egypt have an agriculture ministry at the federal level.
The US Department of Agriculture, the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture of Peoples Republic of China, Indian Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Jihad-e-Agriculture of Iran, Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation, Egyptian Ministry for Agriculture and Land Reclamation, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection of Germany are a few examples.
Why do these developed and developing countries continue to open an administrative window at the federal level for their agriculture sectors? Conversely, why did we deem it better to eliminate the ministry of food and agriculture and ministry of livestock under the 18th constitutional amendment? Disbanding the agriculture ministry at the center was a bad idea. We cannot live in isolation in the modern world. Under the constitution, our provincial governments cannot directly contact other countries for the purpose of establishing partnerships with them.
In fact, the PPP government succeeded in retaining major departments of the defunct ministry of agriculture and livestock at the federal level, even after its dissolution. These departments have been left non-productive under the administrative control of various other federal ministries.
Though the government partially reversed the decision after reviewing the emerging situation, the newly established ministry of national food security and research that emerged in October 2011, appeared to be a weak institution, having limited resources.
The outgoing government and members of various political parties spent months finalising the devolution process and the subsequent fate of the agriculture and livestock ministries under a new name – but to no avail.
In the meantime, government functionaries continued to manoeuvre the dynamics of the agriculture sector at federal level. For example, the seed certification issue was manipulated for the benefit of blue-eyed seed companies, depriving farmers of billions of rupees. With the connivance of the seed industry and ‘federal friends’, substandard and fake seeds are provided to farmers with complete impunity.
There is now dire need to gather momentum to evolve customised strategies for various climatic zones of the country on modern lines and to move forward from mere aspirations to actual action.
The federal government has to collaborate with provincial governments for the agriculture sector to prosper. This partnership should be aimed at creating an enabling environment under a strict, independent regulatory framework wherein the private sector is responsible for providing input to farmers in a fair manner.
As far as other government interventions are concerned, support price or price stabilisation initiatives are major steps in this regard. Though the federal government takes steps for increasing the prices of various types of farm produce, it has failed to contain the cost of production, which is used to increasing without any check, effectively reversing the positive impact of the support price mechanism. For example, wheat support price has almost been doubled during the five-year term of the outgoing government — from Rs625 per 40kg to Rs1,200.
The cost of production, as per assessment of the government’s own institutions, increased simultaneously due to bad policies or lack of monitoring mechanism. The price of urea fertiliser, for instance, doubled in no time due to curtailment of gas supplies to fertiliser plants. Its use is declining due to a price hike. Similar is the case with the power tariff and diesel price that is soaring day by day. Government institutions also failed to keep the prices of other agriculture inputs including seeds at pesticides within reasonable limits. Consumers had to face the brunt of an irrational increase in wheat support price as flour became too costly.
Above all, Pakistan becomes increasingly noncompetitive in the international wheat market due to abnormal price hikes. Resultantly, we continue to sit on a heap of grains years after years and there is literally no buyer. In the meantime, we too are in the clutches of commodity circular debt, involving trillions of rupees. One after another, shortages and price hikes with respect to flour, sugar, and cooking oil have occurred in various parts of the country, mainly due to supply side constraints.
The federal government failed to increase the availability of water for irrigation. Its entire focus has been on construction of small and medium dams in a country, which is blessed with one of the world’s largest gravity-based irrigation networks. Small and medium dams cannot substitute large dams. Small and medium dams are sufficient for isolated patches of fertile lands only. The Water and Power Development Authority also failed to highlight this issue despite having the relevant expertise.
We need large dams to meet the requirements of vast but connected farm fields through a network of canals, spreading in hundreds of thousands of square miles — from the foothills of the northern areas to coastal areas in the south and southwest of the country.
Dams are also the only effective way to regulate fluctuations in river flows in this era of climate change. We have seen catastrophic floods in recent years. However, the devastation caused by floods could be mitigated through the construction of dams and additional water could also be made available for use in lean periods.
With respect to stagnation in the production of various crops; Punjab should be held responsible for its continuously poor performance. The output of wheat, rice, cotton, gram and other pulses has been low due to various factors. On the other hand, the output of cotton, wheat and some other crops is on the rise in Sindh.
Per acre yield of wheat in Sindh has recorded an increase from 30 maunds to 35 maunds per acre in a few years against Punjab’s per acre yield of 30 maunds. Sindh’s cotton production is also on the rise despite the repeated onslaught of floods.
Punjab economic managers believe that peculiar weather and exotic Bt-cotton seeds make a perfect combination in Sindh for harvesting a good cotton crop. They admit that there has been no new productivity enhancement initiative in the province. Certified seed, which is a driving force for cultivating a good crop, is not available in the market. Additionally, no work is being done to formulate new production technologies.
The important crops of wheat, rice and cotton are vulnerable to pest and disease attacks due to lack of new certified varieties of seed. We have seen a rise in the production of maize and potato, which is only due to high yielding imported seeds.
In reality, our domestic seed sector has collapsed. The failure of Punjab’s agriculture is a serious dent in the overall productivity of the country. So, the stakes are really high but we do not see any serious efforts being made to turn around the agriculture sector.
The performance of horticulture and livestock, dairy and poultry sectors is also far from impressive. There is some growth in the dairy and poultry sectors, both in Punjab and Sindh, which is largely attributed to efforts being made by the private sector on its own.
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