THE WHEAT POLICY

Under heavy criticism

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI,
Islamabad

Dec 06 - 12, 2004

The wheat policy of the government came under heavy fire on the opening day of the 18th session of the Senate in Islamabad last week opposition as well as the ruling party grilled the government for massive wheat import order worth million of dollars to meet domestic demand for wheat. The senators said that they were feeling ashmed that Pakistan being an agrarian country was importing wheat about $ 200 million in the current year.

While criticizing the government for neglect of agriculture sector and alleging corruption in the method of import the senator said that they were at a loss to understand why and how all of sudden Pakistan which had attained self-sufficiency in wheat in the year 2000 has once again joined the club of wheat importers. It had imported about 5 lacs tonnes of wheat last year and the economic coordination committee in its meeting held 3 weeks back decided to import another 1 million for the current year to face any likely shortage of wheat early next years. The Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) has been ordered to move swiftly to ensure that imported consignment reach country by March/April 2005. This is despite the fact that the Federal Agriculture Minister had announced at a press conference at Islamabad last month that the wheat production target for the coming Rabi season had been set at 20.15 million tonnes, which will be sufficient to meet the domestic demand. The minister had expressed confidence that the production target would be achieved as the government had taken a number of measures to bring more area under wheat cultivation and enhance yield per acre. The target set last year could not be met dispite all such rhetoric of the government agencies.

Senators Anwar Bhinder, Asfandar Wali, Zafar Iqbal and others criticized the import of wheat during the question hour when the senate was told that the Shaukat Aziz government was importing wheat worth $193 million. The ministry, in a written reply, told the house that the government had authorized the TCP to import one million tonne of wheat in the current year. The TCP had signed contracts with foreign companies of different countries for the import of 0.926 million tonne of wheat in two tranches from Australia, USA and Russia.

Senator Anwar Bhinder lamented that an amount of $193 million had been given to foreign companies instead of taking measures at home to address the alarming situation. He rejected the excuse of water shortage by the minister for agriculture to justify import of wheat. He said that there were many other pressing factors responsible for the shortfall in wheat in addition to water.

Sikandar Hayat Bosan defended the government policies. He said that the government was seized with the issue of wheat and had already raised the support price of wheat to give an incentive to farmers to grow more and more wheat in the country.

Senator Asfandyar Wali wanted to know from the agriculture minister whether Rs. 50 raise in wheat support price matched the drastic raise in the prices of inputs in the country that had gone up manifold. The minister claimed that before recommending the raise in support price, the recommendations of Agriculture Price Commission to the effect were taken into account.

In this context a meaningful wheat policy covering all-important aspects that might contribute to the policy purpose of increasing wheat production, appears to be the urgent need of the day. The recent sharp increase of Rs. 50 per manund in the support price of wheat can hardly help to increase production to the desired extent. It may be recalled there that an earlier policy decision by the ECC to persuade the farmers to bring more land under wheat cultivation was taken without examining the possibility of increasing per acre yield in Pakistan to the level of the yield obtained by farmers in the Indian Punjab across the border. Low per acre may be identified as one of the major causes of the drop in wheat production in the country against the prescribed targets over the last two years. The downward trend in production should have alerted the MINFAL and the provincial governments to address the factors that have impeded a sustained rise in wheat production, instead of taking the easy course of expanding wheat acreage.

Against this backdrop, the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet did the right thing to return a statement on wheat situation which was submitted by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock in response to an earlier directive from the ECC for the preparation of a comprehensive policy in consultation with provincial governments. The ECC termed the MINFAL's summary as a mere statement without any suggestions for specific measures and policy parameters to increase wheat production in the country, besides steps for expansion of credit facilities and extension services for growers. This action by the ECC, which is now headed by the Prime Minister himself and not by the finance minister as in the past, may be interpreted as a stricture against MINFAL in consonance with the present government's policy to judge the performance of the federal ministries strictly in the light of concrete results from targeted parameters.

The ECC reportedly emphasized the need for initiating measures on an urgent basis to adopt similar farming methods along with research support from government, as are already in practice in the Indian Punjab. The significant strides made across the border in rapidly increasing both per acre yield and overall production level have not been achieved overnight. In fact, it has come about as a well sustained feature during the last few years. This should have been carefully studied much earlier by the MINFAL and accordingly similar steps could be been undertaken a couple of years ago.