Modernising agriculture

Post Source: By Afshan Subohi Monday, 24 Aug, 2009

The draft policy, as reported last week, does not say anything on weakening the rural power structure. - File photo

The draft policy, as reported last week, does not say anything on weakening the rural power structure. - File photo

The draft agriculture policy designed to achieve food autarky by letting the tillers of the land share the gains in productivity is silent on the inherent weakness of rural setting that is holding up modernisation of agriculture.

The fact that much of the incentives and subsidies to farmers end up in pockets of the big and the mighty who directly or indirectly control all input and output related trades in the rural sector have rendered all earlier attempts to modernise agriculture futile. The draft policy, as reported last week, does not say anything on weakening the rural power structure. As long the nexus of feudal-politicians-middlemen-big companies and the bureaucracy is allowed to exist, there is a little hope, even for the best of policies to deliver on their promised goal.

The draft Agriculture Policy aims to achieve food security and improve the living standards of the rural population. The main thrust of the policy, as claimed by its architects, is to increase agricultural growth rate by increasing the quantity and quality of agricultural production, promoting farm profitability/productivity and achieving competitiveness in agriculture.

There are 22 components of the proposed policy encompassing a wide range of subjects including agricultural research, food policy, irrigation management, farm mechanisation, seed certification, oilseed development, cotton research and the policy for land use. It also includes chapters on fertiliser, credit and investment policy.

Federal Food and Agriculture Minister Nazar Mohammad Gondal told this writer that the policy would not only focus on improving farm production but also on increasing acreage. For increasing cultivated area, the policy encourages rehabilitation of the degraded land rendered uncultivable due to water-logging and salinity.

Mr Gondal said that the country needed to modernise farming. ‘The role of private sector has to be increased for commercialisation of agriculture and promote agribusiness’.

The agriculture policy was stated to have been drafted in close coordination with stake holders. People associated with independent agriculture forums and certain progressive farmers from Punjab and Sindh, however say, they neither received any document nor were consulted in formulation of the policy. The seniors in the relevant ministry in Islamabad said, by ‘stakeholders’ they meant different government departments under the ministry of food and agriculture.

Mehmud Nawaz Shah of Sindh Abadgar Board and Khawaja Shuaib of Farmers Vision said they have not received any draft nor contacted like other relevant people.

A senior bureaucrat in the last set-up sidelined by the elected government when contacted for his comments on the draft policy mocked the ministry saying, it lacked the capacity to do anything meaningful. ‘The Minfal is a four-crop ministry under a two-crop minister with one policy instrument — support price. It would be naïve to expect wonders from them,’ the gentleman responded.

‘When you try to cover all subjects in one document you tend to loose touch with all. A generalised document may serve its architects by enabling them to show around something but can it transform the gigantic agriculture sector? I don’t think so,’ another expert told this writer commenting on the policy.

‘You need not be a rocket scientist to know what needs to be done to set agriculture right. The real test is that of determination to carry through reforms required to transform agriculture to achieve its potential. As long as higher yields are rewarded with a drop in farm gate price, no farmer is going to invest in innovation,’ Mehmud Shah Nawaz, Secretary Sindh Abadgar Board told Dawn over telephone.

‘The government needs to give agriculture the priority it deserves and production could be more than doubled within few years. People would try harder if they find it gainful,’ he points out.

His views are reconfirmed by scores of reports on agriculture performance by national and international outfits including ADB and World Bank that the rural economy has been underperforming even when its output was at its best. A country where nearly half the population is engaged in agriculture and hardworking farmers fetch two and more crops a year capitalising on natural advantage of fertile alluvial plains and the most extensive irrigation network has still not been able to feed its own population. Basic commodities are imported every year to cover demand supply gap. The current import of sugar and import of wheat last year reflects on the mismanagement of relevant ministry.

Almost half of perishable crops go waste while one third of the population is malnourished. The fourth biggest producer of milk in the world with an annual production of 13 billion litres, Pakistan, spends a substantial amount on import of formula milk and almost half of the child population suffer from deficiencies for less than required intake of milk.

It cannot be a mere accident that gigantic set-up of two dozen departments and innumerable associated bodies under the federal ministry of food and agriculture thrive on public expense while the government has not much to show on the agriculture front. Comparatively, less fertile East Punjab, the most prosperous state of next door neighbour performs several times better on the strength of higher yields and better market management.

While other commodity producing countries reaped the windfall of unprecedented price hike in the international market, Pakistan actually took a beating. It was forced to import over-priced wheat to avoid food riots in addition to very expensive oil, resulting in a high import bill eating into development spending in a tight liquidity situation. It contributed to worsening of the country’s trade balance.

‘It goes to the credit of Pakistan Peoples Party’s government that it has allowed space to enthusiasts in different ministries to initiate the process of policy formulation. Whether the policy drafted/approved will actually be implemented would depend on a variety of factors, some beyond the control of the government,’ said a sympathetic expert while defending the government effort.

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