The increase in wheat support price

Need to develop agriculture as a business

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Islamabad
Nov 22 - 28, 1999

The Ministry of Food and Agriculture had recommended to further increase the support price of wheat to Rs 285 per 40 kg from Rs265 announced by the government of Sharif only weeks before its ouster. This will mean an increase of Rs.45 per 40 kg this year. It is not being resented firstly because it will have no immediate effect on the prices as the increase will be applicable to the crop of 99-2000 which will come in the market in May 2000. Secondly it will provide incentives to the wheat growers and in turn, would help in achieving the wheat production target of 21 million tonnes in the year 2000. In 1997 as a result of similar incentive the wheat production had exceeded the target. This announcement of increased support prices effective from next year was however necessary now as the sowing season of wheat in Sindh and Punjab had already started.

Dr. Altaf, Secretary Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock who announced the decision of the government at a hurriedly announced press conference said that the government had decided to give priority to Agriculture in its programmes of its economic development as it fully realised the importance of farm sector in the National economy . He said the commercial banks, Agricultural Development Bank (ADBP) in particular which had suspended loaning operations, have also been directed to give loan for rabi seasons to growers with immediate effect. This step will help farmers to get competitive prices of their produce on one hand and country will get self-sufficiency in its fast growing food requirement on the other, he claimed.

It may be recalled that the farmers have been pressing for increases in the support price of wheat, cotton and sugarcane for the past several years on the plea of rising cost of production. It is with this contention that the Pakistan Kissan Board threatened to take to the streets in case of non-acceptance of their demand for the increase in the price of wheat. According to the farmers, the prices fetched by the much sought after agricultural commodities for food and industrial consumption remain too low to make them stay in the farming business. That the cost of farm inputs has kept going up with the passage of time can hardly be denied and the same can be said about the cost of living. As such, with the overall increasing trend in the cost of production and cost of living, those engaged in subsistence farming can ill afford to pull on under increasingly adverse circumstances. It is really unfortunate that the resolution of this problem, critical though it is to the prospects of boosting farm produce, continues to remain relegated to the background. What is all the more intriguing about the perceptible apathy toward agriculture is the ever so evident awareness of the potential of this dominating sector of the national economy.

This is, indeed, a very sorry state of affairs that Pakistan, which at one stage was surplus in food, is today facing food crisis, and has to spend huge foreign exchange to meet its domestic requirement. In our neighbourhood India was in really a bad shape as far as its food situation was concerned. Pakistan then had enough wheat to spare and exported the same to India to help the latter to overcome its food crisis. The situation has now reversed. While India has achieved food autarky, notwithstanding its huge population, Pakistan is deficient in food items and has to look to foreign markets to make up for the deficiency. It sounded very strange when the prime minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, during his visit to Lahore offered wheat to Pakistan.

Why Pakistan has reached this stage or ashy this fall from surplus to deficiency in food. The authorities have come out with all sorts of explanations. At times lack of rainfalls, scarcity of water, and flood havocs have been held responsible for less yield of foodstuff. All these factors had affected food crops in the past, and they would do so in future too. The real factor behind our woes has been absence of planning India achieved food autarky, because it worked for it, Pakistan lost self-sufficiency because it refused to introduce new technologies and improve upon its planning and working. We cannot overcome our economic woes until we rehabilitate our agriculture sector.

There are no two opinions that we have been ignoring agriculture despite its being the leading sector of Pakistan economy contributing about 25 per cent of GDP, providing job to over 47 per cent labour force and supports directly or indirectly around 68 per cent of our population. It also contributes about 80 per cent to our export earnings in the form of raw material and value added goods and commodities. It is because of our lopsided priorities that this important sector remained neglect neglected and a country which was surplus in its food requirement few decades back is now spending over Rs.90 billion annually (almost twenty per cent of our total imports) on the import of wheat, edible oil, pulses, tea and other food stuff. The situation can be reversed with a proper planning as has been done in the Indian Punjab where per acre yield is almost double than our side of Punjab despite having same terrain and land characteristics. We can achieve that position by modernizing our agriculture sector and that can solve most of our economic problems.

What we seem to have missed all through these past fifty years is the perception of agriculture as business. It will be seen that rural Pakistan, marked with tremendous scope of business in farm produce, has continued to be viewed as backward and left to remain as such. Agriculture being the oldest business known to mankind we thus missed the opportunity to make the best of what we always had. It needs also to be noted that the farmers, now agitating for a fair enough return on their labour and investment from higher prices, have started viewing farming as business instead of just an endeavour for subsistence. The planners and managers of the national economy would do well now to correct the flawed approach to planning and development, shifting focus of full attention on developing agriculture as business, so as to put an early end to the woes of this vital sector and to ensure a really bright future for the country.