Mar 10 - 16, 2008

Wheat crisis has been deepening and aggravating during the year 2007 till today during 2008 and will continue till the next crop of wheat is in the market in 2008. Even then the situation is not likely to improve significantly. Surely, farmers and masses all are paying through their nose for the flawed and un-judicious policies of our policy makers and for the greed of the vested interests, hoarders, black-marketers and smugglers.

The farmers, unlike trade and industry, have a weak lobby though they are in majority and have significant voting strength, being 70 percent of the total population. On the other hand farmers in the developed countries always have an upper hand over their governments. Their lobby is strong enough to dictate their terms and get their problems resolved without any inordinate delay. Our farmers are almost always on the losing end and at the mercy of Agriculture, Food and Irrigation departments, Seed Corporation, MINFAL, PASSCO and Sugar Mills. And even the federal and provincial governments do not come forward to resolve their genuine problems. While assessing the possible achievement of next wheat crop, there are many factors, which may be taken into consideration to determine and foresee the position of the next crop. A cautious assessment is that there will be considerable decline in achieving the wheat target for 2008, some of which are given below in brief:

- The delay in starting the crushing by sugar mills during 2007 is the main factor that made the country miss wheat sowing on an area measuring 200,000 hectares on where sugarcane was grown. Most of the sugarcane growers were unable to have the land cleared from sugarcane crop because crushing started very late with an intention to increase the sugar contents in the cane and to increase quantity of sugar by the mill owners. According to an estimate, 10 percent less cultivation of wheat occurred because of the millers and rulers clique in delaying to start crushing. This could have been avoided if the federal and provincial governments would have forced and prevailed upon sugar mills owners to start crushing in October/November instead of December/January. There are big tycoons amongst the sugar mill owners like Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shahbaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, Humayun Akhtar, Jahangir Tareen, Altaf Saleem, Mian Azhar and their close relatives. Since those among them, who were in power and those in opposition had a common cause, they did not let the farmers start sowing wheat well in time just to benefit themselves by exploiting the farmers in their own interest. Resultantly, the country is already in the grip of food crisis. Common man is facing unbearable burden because of the high prices of wheat (atta) and other food items even when we had harvested a bumper crop of wheat last year.


- The oil companies have been raising prices of diesel, which is used to run tube-wells and tractors. The government never bothers to provide a relief in the oil prices for agriculture sector. Oil prices are already exceeding $100 per barrel. High quality wheat seed supplied by the private sector to the farmers found their way to the market and then to the millers for grinding to earn extra-ordinary profits as the prices of wheat and flour had become very lucrative. This factor alone would be responsible to cause 5-10 percent shortfall in the yield. It would, therefore, be ludicrous to claim that the next wheat crop would meet the target and would suffice our need.

- The government's claim that wheat and wheat flour is available in the country at much lesser rates than those prevailing in the international market is still a serious joke, prima facie the fact that our average per capita income is not more than 2 dollars a day. How can we compare our food commodities rates with those of the western countries, whose per capita income is thousand times higher than ours? On the other side at the moment Pakistani farmer is complaining about the government paying him $215 per ton only as against $650 per ton of wheat being imported. This is (with due apology) what is called "Penny-wise pound foolish."

- One most important factor that determines the size of wheat crop in Pakistan is the government's declaring the rate of wheat before or just after sowing of the crop. The government has been oblivious to the anxiety of farmers in this respect. Our economic experts, policy makers/MINFAL have now thought it prudent to increase the procurement price of wheat to Rs.510 per 40 kg (i.e. Rs.12.75 per kg). It is too small a price in view of the high prices of inputs including the unbearable price of DAP. Had the government announced a suitable rate of wheat before wheat crop sowing, farmers would have used their best efforts and resources in procuring the best seed, using maximum inputs, care and services to get the maximum production to make handsome earnings. Thus farmers are of the considered opinion that the rulers, in spite of their vociferous claims to be farmers friendly, do not seem to behave sincerely and responsively in making their policies judiciously and taking timely decisions in the interest of farmers and agriculture sector, which cause unnecessary inconvenience and loss to them.

Farmers representatives are of the considered opinion that wheat procurement price should have reasonably been fixed at Rs.800/- per 40 kg in view of the prices of inputs. The agro-economists state that the current price of wheat in the open market is already at Rs.800 plus as against Rs.425 to Rs.460 during the corresponding period last year. The last year's wheat price of $130 has risen to $500 per ton which is equal to Rs.30 per kg.

- Barani areas contribute nearly 20 percent to the total production, however, these areas were not blessed with timely rains for sowing wheat crop. This factor would also give a setback to the production of wheat in the country.

- There were also reports of shortage of water in the canal irrigated areas. According to press information IRSA came up with irrigation water statistics in the beginning of the year, 2007 and evaluated that there would be shortage of irrigation water for the coming wheat season. Wheat crop in accordance with the ecological position of the land requires 3 - 5 complete watering. Resultantly wheat production target will suffer, so will the farmers and the countrymen.

- Too many unscheduled and undeclared power shut downs and load shedding must have their adverse effect on the wheat and other Rabi crops. While electricity is being provided to agriculture sector in Pakistan at Rs.3.28 per unit and that too with frequent load-shedding; in India it is being provided to its farmers at a negligible rate of Rs.0.6 per unit.

The situation is not likely to improve even during 2008-09 because it is being genuinely feared that Pakistan may miss the wheat production target of 24 million tons for the causes explained above. Wheat is the main staple diet of our over 160 million countrymen and it is the largest grain crop of Pakistan area-wise as well as quantity-wise. Acute shortage of wheat and high prices thereof are beyond the capacity of our common man to afford now or in future.

In accordance with an official report, the government would complete the process of importing 2 million tons wheat by end of March, 2008. According to Federal Food Committee, one million tons of wheat is in stock in the country. Seventy-five thousand tons of wheat would reach Gwadar by ship on 9th March. Lt.General (Retd.), Farooq Ahmad Khan, Chairman, Federal Food Committee states that 5 million tons of wheat will be procured from the next wheat crop and if need be still more quantity will be procured. He also assured that measures are being taken to stop hoarding, black-marketing and smuggling.

The Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) had set a target to produce 24 million tons for 2008 Rabi crop, however, they were themselves of the opinion that due to late start of sugarcane crushing and delayed cotton picking, the wheat crop could only be sown on 96 percent of the target area. Also listing the unprecedented price hike of the DAP fertilizer, they estimated decline in the wheat production by 15 percent.

As a futuristic approach, a number of steps are needed to increase wheat production. The prices of inputs are on the top of it. Irrigation water is the major input, it should be ensured at an easy and affordable price. It would be relevant to point out that in Indian Punjab, Haryana and Wester U.P. assured irrigation is available for agriculture sector. Mega water reservoirs are the need of the hour both for irrigation purposes and generation of electricity. India is far ahead Pakistan in building water reservoirs for ensuring irrigation water supply to its farmers. Seed is the basic and most important input. Supply of improved and high yielding wheat seeds and in adequate quantity would prove useful and helpful in getting better yields. The prices of fertilizers in India are at an average rate of Rs.540 but in Pakistan it crosses all limits. DAP, as per the news, is costing us Rs.1900 - 2000 per bag during this cropping season. Farmers need to be educated to use improved production technology and for that purpose, effective extension service should be provided to the farmers in their fields and farms. It will be relevant to point out that about 5-10 percent additional land can be brought under wheat cultivation if sugar millers start crushing on time in October. The most appropriate time for wheat sowing starts in early November. Early sowing ensures better yield.

It is encouraging that the Punjab Government has provided incentives to the wheat growers showing better yields in the form of tractors. This practice should continue and should also be followed by other provincial governments to increase the yield per acre and for an overall increase in wheat production.

The government should organize training programmes in all parts of the country especially in rural areas on disbursement and utilization of agricultural credit so as to create awareness among the farming community. It is appreciable that there is substantial increase in the flow of credit in agriculture sector, yet it is still insufficient to meet the requirements of this sector.

By reducing prices of inputs such as seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides/ weedicides etc. burden on wheat growers can be reduced considerably.

Wheat seed exchange programmes introduced in Punjab should be continued during the next Rabi season as quality seed is the primary input for obtaining higher yield to enable the farmers exchange graded seed with certified seed for which the difference of cost, as in the past, should be born by district governments.