By Ahmad Fraz Khan
Agriculture in Punjab has underperformed over the last three years. Cotton production has fallen 10 per cent, rice 6.7, gram 30 and pulses by 24 per cent. But all these statistics have failed to shake the provincial government out of slumber. Cotton production, which stood at 8.8 million bales in 2008, has dropped to 7.8 million bales. Gram production has come down from 658,000 tons to 460,000 tons. Pulses has witnessed a fall from 830,000 tons to 625,000 tons. Similarly, rice output dipped from 3.7 million tons to 3.4 million tons and maize is down from 2.67 million tons to 2.65 million tons in the last three years.
The country’s population has increased 8.7 per cent, or by 12.60 million, during these years. In Punjab alone, population increased by eight million. But major crops have seen their production falling by varying degrees.
The ever widening gap between demand and supply is causing price hike. The cumulative impact of inflation comes to around a backbreaking 57 per cent.
According to some studies, the number of people living below the poverty line has increased from 47 million in 2008 to 72 million – a jump of over 50 per cent— almost in direct proportion to inflation. All economists agree that the government cannot deal with the monster of inflation without improving supply (production) side.
In Punjab, as in Pakistan, almost other production sectors (like large-scale manufacturing) are sinking. Given energy position hardly leaves any hope for their early revival. It leaves the country and the Punjab with only one sector i.e. agriculture. But it is still to appear on the official policy radar, at least according to its potential.
The sector is in disarray both at planning and execution level. Major part of budget is being spent on non-development expenditures because the provincial department has become an employment exchange for successive governments. Its current strength is at an unbelievable 35,000 people.
Punjab has a total 25,000 villages. Most of the extension experts believe that one agriculture officer can easily cover five villages.
This makes total requirement of 5,000 officers. Even if another 1,000 is added for supervisory role in different layers, the total requirement comes around 6,000 officers.
The Extension Directorate performs the same functions that the Crop Reporting and the Information Directorates do. The Water Directorate is surviving on foreign funded projects and has nothing to do locally. Once these projects complete their lives, and some of them already have, the directorate would be left with nothing.
To make the matter worse, farmers are now buying almost everything – fertiliser, pesticides, seeds, machinery – from the private sector, which has developed huge paraphernalia of extension services. What the government employees are doing?
Just overlapping the effort at best, and working as private sector agents at worst.
Currently, these 35,000 employees are being used as a workforce for the provincial chief executive and are involved in almost everything non-agriculture – from packing of subsidised sugar to administering polio campaign.
In the last few months, the Urea price had hit an unbearable Rs1,600 per bag. Though the company price is still Rs1,250 per bag, the receding writ of government enables everyone to make money at the cost of others. Despite this sheer black marketing of Urea, not even one dealer has been proceeded against by the Punjab government.
Another example illustrates how non-serious the department and the government are dealing with the sector. A new wheat variety was introduced in the province in 2007. This particular variety now covers around 40 per cent of wheat area in the province. But within three years of its operation, the variety has become susceptible to all kinds of bacterial attack.
Most of the discoloured wheat that the province produced this year was result of rust attack on this wheat variety. The farmers allege that the variety was not properly tested before offering it for the sale; it was released prematurely.
The Punjab government is tight lipped on the issue and has still not moved to study the varietal character, find loopholes, fix responsibility and punish the guilty. The farmers blame that it is departmental employees who promoted the seed. The government has not moved so far. It is also because these 35,000 employees have created huge overlapping in the system and devised a system where buck does not stop.
Given the acreage (around seven million acres) that this variety has gained in the last three years, the farmers and the government would be in real trouble to replace the seed on these fields next year. Where would the government arrange fresh seed for it? If it does not and farmers use the same variety as seed, crop on this area would be in a greater risk.
The Punjab government needs to get its act together. Agriculture is now assumed added significance because that even planning part is now being devolved to provinces after the 18th Amendment. The Punjab has to replace federal planning and truly play the role of national food basket. If it continues flounder on basics, it would be increasingly hard for it to help the country achieve food security.