Food security risks in devolution

Post Source: Dawn Economic and Business Review

By Ahmad Fraz Khan




PAKISTAN may soon be the only country that would not have any federal agency to deal with food security issues, unlike other states in the world.

Under the 18th Amendment, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Minfa) is being dissolved, its functions transferred to the provinces. Whether federating units are ready, or even have the capacity, to perform the Minfa functions, is entirely a different debate.

The Implementation Committee has set a date of June 24 for devolution of Minfa functions to the provinces, ignoring agricultural ground realities in the country.

Pakistan is a federation of now five units if Gilgit-Baltistan is taken as the fifth province. Of these five units, only Punjab produces farm surpluses. Sindh hardly breaks even. The other three provinces face gross deficits on almost all essential food items and have to depend upon intra-provincial imports to meet even basic needs.

Punjab and Sindh have a track record of placing “un-constitutional restrictions on wheat (a national staple) movement, squeezing supply to other federating units.”

On every occasion, the federal government intervened to set things right. In such circumstances, can the only bargaining agent (the Minfa), be taken out of national picture and leave provinces in-charge of their agricultural produce and trade? Answers to this question must be found before completing the devolution exercise.

The second biggest question mark hanging over the exercise is the planning part. For the last six decades, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has been planning (firming up national requirements) food security for the country and telling provinces to meet the targets set by it. Who will replace the Minfa for its painting of national food picture, plan for it and target setting for provinces.

As executed in Pakistan, ensuring food security policy entailed three-aspects – first one is the ensuring food availability, second is keeping it financially affordability for all the people all the time and third is ensuring people`s accessibility to food. All three functions have so far been performed by the federal government through Minfa. Availability depends on ensuring production – calculate national requirement, divide them among the provinces and fix their targets. The other part of this planning was how to ensure these targets were met.

In order to do that, the federation, which has exclusive right to order imports of inputs, also ensures smooth supplies of inputs – seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.

In the absence of Minfa, who is going to perform all these functions? The provinces can certainly plan for themselves but the question is who would do it for other three federating units? Even if provinces do plan for national requirements, who would ensure smooth supply of inputs?

Would they now directly be importing inputs, and exporting surpluses? If that is going to be the situation, the federal government should have clarified by now. If provinces are allowed to deal with foreign markets and countries, what kind of effects it would have on national market. Pakistan needs to calculate all this before sprinting down the road constructed by the 18th Amendment.

If production suffers, affordability (price factor) would be even harder to maintain, especially if the federation abdicates its responsibility. A subsidiary of the Minfa had been calculating the cost of production, and accordingly fixes prices of essential commodities. In the absence of the Minfa planning, prices would inevitably, but wrongly (because the federal fiscal and monitory policies also directly hit the prices) be read in the provincial context.

Given the wretchedness of poverty in the country, it would be politically explosive especially if one federating unit, or its farmers, is seen making unreasonable profit at the cost of other federal units and people.

Here again, the Punjab has regularly been blocking wheat and flour supplies to others saying that it subsidises both and must not be forced to feed other units. Each time, the federation intervenes to set things right. Without national planning, any federating unit can claim that it did not produce much and demand-supply equation has pushed the price up.

Where will the federation be standing if that regularly emerges to be the case? If provinces have to plan and produce for themselves, who will stop them from exploiting the situation to their advantage, and do it at the cost of others?

Both these aspects would largely determine the third one i.e. accessibility – a matter of supply and price. If the planning part is missing and prices fluctuate, accessibility would naturally be compromised. Agriculture in the country is archaic, and needs meticulous planning both at the federal and provincial level to ensure accessibility for the people. It is not to suggest that things should be reversed, but only to maintain that all these question marks are national in nature, and must be dealt with before moving forward with the 18th Amendment.


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