AGRICULTURE-STILL A NEGLECTED SECTOR
SHAMIM A. RIZVI
June 15 - 21, 2009
Agriculture, despite being the mainstay of Pakistan's economy, has remained neglected. No attention was paid to this sector. A lot more should have been done to address some of the sector's key issues including the improvement in the per acre yield, meeting credit requirements of farmers of limited means, and extending the crop insurance scheme to save farmers from natural disasters which our rural economy face frequently. It is an irony that vast fertile farmland in Pakistan has not been enough to provide food security for the country so far. Its yield per acre is perhaps one of the lowest in the world.
The World Bank, in its latest report on food inflation, has warned that 35 countries of the world face serious food shortage and prices of essential commodities would further rise in these countries. Food security means that food is available to all persons at affordable cost. There is no doubt that Pakistan has failed to achieve this objective during the last over 60 years of its existence.
Even today Agriculture is the largest income and employment generating sector of Pakistan's economy as about two third of its population directly and indirectly depend on agriculture for their livelihood. This sector provides raw material to the industrial sector specially the export-oriented industry specially the textile. Agriculture has rightly been described as the backbone of Pakistan's economy. However, experts agree that agriculture potential of the country has remained untapped due to lack of vision and commitment. As a result, instead of exporting agriculture products Pakistan is importing large quantities of wheat and other food items.
The International Food Policy Research Institute has identified Pakistan as one of the few countries in the world, which are capable of exporting food on a sustainable basis in the 21st century. However, despite our potential to be one of the world leaders in Agriculture, we find ourselves in the midst of acute food shortage and unrestrained rising of food prices. The only reason for this scenario is that agriculture has been the most neglected sectors in the priorities of the government planners and economic managers.
According to the annual (2008) report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, world is likely to continue to face food shortage during near future. Food prices are likely to stay high and volatile. For million of people around the world soaring food prices have spelt disaster and about 100 million more people have been pushed into hunger.
According to the annual report of the State Bank of Pakistan released a few weeks back the Agriculture sector showed a record low growth of 1.5% during the fiscal year 2007-08. Failure in large crop production was mainly because of resource management issues. A number of adverse developments hit agriculture sector to record a dismal 1.5 per cent growth during the year under review, which is significantly lower than the 4.8 per cent target for the year and the lowest growth since FY03. A weaker output by major crops overshadowed the record sugarcane harvest and relatively improved performance of minor crops, livestock and fishing sub-sectors during FY08, said the report.
A disappointing performance of major crops sub-sector is largely attributed to resource management issues and absence of a clear pricing policy. For instance, reduction in cultivated area under cotton, rice, and wheat was a result of water shortages at the sowing time. Delays in harvesting of cotton and sugarcane (mainly due to pricing issues), and lack of clear incentive signals (as the government could not announce its pricing policy before sowing) resulted in area deficit for wheat crop. In addition, stubbornly high prices of fertilizers and pesticides also played havoc.
Former Governor State Bank of Pakistan, Dr. Ishrat Hussain in one of recently published articles on Pakistan's economy pointed out that main structural change that has occurred during the last five decade is that agriculture now accounts for 25% of Pakistan's GDP and primary commodity exports are down from 80 to 10%. However, half of the country's population still derives its livelihood and employment from agriculture sector.
While presiding over a meeting convened to discuss the food shortage and rising prices early last month, President Zardari rightly pointed out that the growth and development of our agriculture sector and increase in agricultural product was the only way out of the present crises. He rightly observed we had a capacity to enhance agriculture growth manifold by utilizing modern techniques and equipments. We cannot only feed our own people; we can export a sizeable quantity and earn foreign exchange. A lot can be learnt from the Chinese in this regard.
While agricultural reform has the potential to significantly raise productivity and employment, it is strongly perceived that Zardari has a good understanding and appreciation for agriculture, and the paradigm shifts this sector has undergone over a period. Not only has President Zardari stated in his address to the joint session of Parliament that the immediate task for the government is the food security for the poor and that the biggest challenge for the government is the economy. The President has often been found stressing the need for a new focus on agriculture. It is also interesting to note that he has also been stressing the timely announcement of wheat support price for the growers in order to preempt acute shortages of the most important commodity in the country. According to him, the wheat crises that hit the country was due to the fact that farmers were not given a reasonable or competitive wheat price or a fair deal so that they could have been discouraged from shifting their focus from this crop to other.
As some parliamentarians pointed out in the National Assembly, urgent steps are required to boost agricultural output to cope with the food shortages facing the country. This can happen if the right policies are adopted. What is missing right now in the agricultural sector is innovation in terms of productivity as well as in management of arable land resources. On the latter count, it is encouraging to note that the federal, Sindh and Punjab budgets all include proposals to distribute cultivable state-owned holdings to landless peasants. If implemented without fear or favor, these measures can increase agricultural output and also help peasants break free from the vicious circle of servitude and extreme poverty that has consumed generation after generation. Ultimately, however, the initiative should not be limited to the distribution of state land. Reform and redistribution of privately owned arable land is also of the essence, though this is perhaps asking too much of legislatures dominated by large landowners.
In terms of higher productivity, huge investment is required to improve yield in the country where existing farming practices are both inefficient and wasteful. There is a pressing need for greater mechanization in the cultivation and harvesting processes, as well as the introduction of modern farming techniques that increase yield per acre and save water at the same time. Land leveling, for instance, can significantly reduce water runoffs, prevent soil erosion, and improve moist. This in turn can boost yield and also improve the quality of the crop. Profligate farming methods aside, water ó the backbone of agriculture - is also wasted on a massive scale in the wider irrigation network. Most canals and other waterways remain unlined and breaches too are common. Work on the National Programme for Improvement of Watercourses, which could save as much as eight million acre feet of water annually, is running at least two years behind schedule. At the same tone, a faulty telemetry system means that discharges in to the Indus river distribution network cannot be monitored effectively.
Needless to say, poor farmers are incapable on their own to embrace the modern cultivation methods. The State has to step in, set its priorities right and divert to agriculture some of the fat from non-productive areas such as government administration. Financial support and relevant training will have to be provided to farmers to help them make the switch to more efficient modes of cultivation. Access to agricultural credit needs to be made easier and additional research is required to develop crop varieties that are more productive and show greater resistance to disease. Agro-industry initiatives must also be facilitated as they add value to agricultural products while generating jobs in the rural areas. All this is achievable, even with our limited resources. What is needed is planning and the will.