SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

No doubt agriculture can come to the rescue of the country whenever there is a crisis of food, poverty and unemployment.

M.R. CHAUDHRY
Jan 15 - 21, 2007

"Agriculture is the back-bone of our national economy." These are catchwords of our economists, rulers and political leaders to attract the attention of readers and audience to express importance and magnitude of this sector. On the other hand, problems and plights of agriculturists are innumerable, which are dealt with a rather casual attitude at the government and policy makers level. A mere lip service is always lavished. No doubt agriculture can come to the rescue of the country whenever there is a crisis of food, poverty and unemployment. What is required is that our policy makers should give due priority to this sector, in real sense like the advanced countries as well as our neighbouring countries China and India and not just giving a media coverage.

Fifty-five years ago this single sector was contributing 53 percent to the national GDP, which has now come down to 23 percent. That is the result of continuous neglect of this sector by the successive governments.. Agriculture products in raw, processed and value added form, accounts for 70 percent of the national exports income. For a bit of information in this regard, Pakistan earned one billion US$ and US$8 billion during the financial year, 2004-05 by exporting rice Basmati and Irri, and cotton, lint, yarn, hosiery garments etc. respectively. It feeds the agro-based industry with 65 percent raw material to keep it running. Sixty-five to seventy percent of the total population of the country lives in rural areas, whose mainstay directly or indirectly is agriculture. It is thus the pre-dominant source of their livelihood. Of the total employment opportunities, 44.8 percent are generated by agriculture. Whatever good or bad happens to agriculture is bound to affect not only the country's economic growth but also to a large segment of the population. It also affects urban population. If production and supply of food items is in abundance, their retail prices in cities and towns are affordable for common consumers, and vice versa. The present rates of onion, garlic, tomato, potato, apple, pulses etc. must serve as an eye opener for the government with regard to the importance and impact of agriculture on our common man and especially the national economic growth.

According to a Western intellectual, if anybody wants to assess the prosperity of a country, he should go to the countryside and see the condition of countrymen. If he finds them leading a happy life, it can safely be concluded that the country is prospering. Opposite is the case of our rural areas and rural population. Feeling disappointed, deprivated and being tempted towards, amenities, facilities, ease, comforts and benefits of city life, a rapid exodus of population from villages to big cities and towns is taking place. Cities and towns are bulging with population and over-congestion, which is causing many serious problems in city life including insanitation, scarcity of drinking water, food, housing and environmental protection. It's a bad omen and the government must not remain oblivious to this situation, so as to redress the problems of rural population and farmers to enable them stay back in rural areas and stick to agriculture as their mainstay, in their own interest and in the broader national interest, otherwise we shall be facing a gruesomely gruesome situation.

Despite being an overwhelming majority, agriculturists have been unable to get their problems resolved and grievances redressed as compared to industrialists, who are fewer in number but they have been able to avail much more facilities, incentives and benefits as they have an effective say in the corridors of power. Some of them are virtually in power. They also have access to the media to push through their demands in the legislative assemblies. Agriculturists, on the other hand, have no strong forum to get their genuine demands settled genuinely in their favour. It is a strange contrast that whereas Industrial sector contributed 18 percent to GDP and Agriculture sector 23 percent, Industrial sector enjoyed the facility of industrial loans to the tune of Rs.400 billion per annum and that too at much lower markup and on long term basis, and on the other hand, Agriculture only Rs.150 billion per annum on short terms, comparatively at higher interest rate. . If these loans are granted in accordance with their respective contribution of both these sectors towards GDP, farmers would feel at-ease if these loans are given to them on soft terms and at lower rate of mark-up as industrialists are given, to enable them work whole-heartedly at their fields, as they would then be in a better position to procure their inputs comfortably. This would increase their output as well as contribution of agriculture to the national economic growth.

Middleman and wholesale dealer skims most of the profits and the poor farmer is left with a marginal income on the sale of his crops. Sugar mills and cotton mills also play hell with the farmers by using delaying tactics in making payments. Farmers have to shuttle again and again to get these payments cleared, with which they have to arrange inputs for the next crops. Sugar mills are proving the worse. During the last several years, they do not start crushing in time, that is in October, in spite of sugarcane growers" requests and protestations to start crushing without any inordinate delay, so as to enable them grow next crop in the fields thus vacated, which is generally wheat. They started crushing very late but have again stopped it demanding a rise in the sugar rates. This hostile attitude on the part of sugar mills towards agriculture sector is equally detrimental to achieve the government's targets set for wheat production. There are genuine reasons to believe that Pakistan would not be able to produce enough wheat to meet the country's requirements. This is because of an unfair game, which sugar mills are playing with the agriculture sector because of the former's monopoly for procurement of sugarcane and farmers having no choice to dispose of their stuff anywhere else. Sugar mills" scam of hoarding the stock of sugar, resulting in shooting up of sugar rates in the market and then politically pressurizing even NAB to desist from taking any action, is very much on the record. Such practices are adversely affecting the Poverty Alleviation, Rural Development, Grow More Food, Khushhal Pakistan and Green Revolution Programmes of the government. It may not be amiss to mention that Pakistan, which is primarily an agricultural country, has been importing wheat, sugar and other food items, including vegetables, mutton and beef from abroad because of the wrong policies of our policy makers, unjustifiably patronizing other sectors to enjoy at the cost of agriculturists and poor masses. The situation in our neigbbouring countries, India and China, is quite different and their policies are conducive to facilitating economic farming and their first priority is welfare of the farmer community. Electricity in the Indian Punjab is supplied free of cost for agriculture purposes and farmers have been given such facilities and subsidies, which our farmers cannot even dream of. China has legislatively exempted levying the land revenue from the farmers throughout this vast country. The high rates of petrol and diesel in the country are also responsible for adding heavily to the cost of agriculture inputs in the country. This is in spite of comparatively low rates of oil in the international market. The oil companies in Pakistan are exercising liberty in charging the rates without heeding to the international market rates, of course in connivance with the government.

Apart from short supply of irrigation water, high cost of inputs including tilling and levelling of the soil, procurement of improved and certified seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, payment of tube-well/water bills, land revenue and transport expenses, official, political interference and inefficiency of corrupt bureaucracy, exploitation of the middleman continue unchecked and unabated to cause untold hardship and inconvenience to the poor farmers. While the entire world is seriously concentrating to find ways and means to boost the agriculture sector, the government of Pakistan is lagging behind in taking cognizance of the situation. Perhaps they do not like to listen to the clarion call.

The National Commission on Agriculture had proposed that agriculture must occupy a central role in the country's development strategy, which is still a far-fetched idea Sometimes the Government spokesmen take the plea that discounts and reliefs cannot be given to this sector due to WTO restrictions. There is no truth in it. WTO has already permitted several developing countries like Pakistan to give domestic support to their farmers up to 10 percent. If our government is not giving that support, it is its own outlook. Instead of using cosmetic approach and giving only media coverage to maintain image, our policy makers must do something effective and practical. All aspects of agriculture must be addressed in the right earnest and not in a hotchpotch way for sustainability of the agriculture sector. Land, water and labour are three major factors to be used judiciously and economically. As regards, supply of sufficient irrigation water, KBG, Bhasha and other big dams are still in the pipeline for the last several years rather more rightly in our dreamland. The government issues statements in media off and on, assuring that a lot of work is going on, on this subject, but the agriculturists, who are seeing nothing on ground, consider these promises a lollypop. The World Bank has also warned us about the possible water crisis in the near future, if we do not build these water reservoirs expeditiously.

It has been estimated that 60 percent of irrigation water is lost during conveyance through canals, distributaries, minors and water courses by leakage, seepage and pilferage. To reduce this immense loss, measures to be taken as planned "On Farm Water Management" Programme include water courses lining, concrete control structures, precision land leveling and ensuring that irrigation water is not pilfered and siphoned on the way. Besides, our farmers need to learn and apply better water management techniques to get maximum benefits from minimum irrigation water, which include land levelling, raised bed/furrow farming, zero tillage post-harvesting & pre-harvesting techniques, sprinkler and drip irrigation systems. Drip and sprinkler irrigation systems are in practice in China, India, Israel, Egypt, UAR and Saudi Arabia, which have proven marvellously useful and successful in water saving, labour saving and increase of production. They have been able to turn their deserts into lush green fields. The government of Pakistan must patronize and popularize these modern technologies within Pakistan by providing sufficient extension service and practical demonstrations to our farmers in their fields in rehabilitating our vast tracts of barren and sandy land. We can rehabilitate our deserts in Cholistan, Balochistan, Sindh and Thal (Punjab), measuring about 10.6 million hectares of land, transforming them into oasis of progress and prosperity for the farmers, which will contribute handsomely to our national economy.

Agriculturists can't do anything unless the government comes forward to extend its help and resources to uplift this sector as other countries like US, Australia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, India and China are alive to the situation and doing the needful. The first and the foremost thing is to train the extension workers, who in turn could be able to train our farmers. For bettering the lot of our farmer community and rehabilitating our vast areas of land the government needs to adopt farmer-friendly policies.