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Agriculture landscape 2004        
By Zafar Samdani

The agriculture landscape was marked by two major developments in 2004, one extremely negative as the wheat crop remained below food needs of the populace and forced the government to import the commodity to meet domestic requirements while the other was equally positive with a bumper cotton crop.

Agriculture landscape 2004 How the scales ultimately weigh between benefits and losses from the two crops cannot be assessed yet a lower last wheat output could cast a dark shadow over the new crop now in the fields.

The government has fixed a target of 20.8 million ton crop but how that is met is a difficult proposition because wheat is now at an early stage and much would depend on weather conditions and availability of water, which continues to remain in short supply.

Even worse, the management of water is beset by controversy, infighting between the two main agriculture provinces of Punjab and Sindh and inefficient handling by officials presiding over distribution of water are hardly helpful.

The backlog from last year's wheat is still not clear. With imports of 1.5 million tons already received or ordered, there are reports of more imports. That could offset any gains made by cotton or, for that matter rice that yielded higher income from exports last year. But for cane falling below target and expectations, the over all picture does present attractive features.

There are wheels within wheels for wheat. Cotton crushing was late in both Punjab and Sindh and that is bound to have affected sowing. The Farmers Association of Pakistan (FAP) has challenged the government's assertion of higher cultivation with an argument that holds weight.

Can more acreage be brought under wheat after cane crushing did not commence on time and picking of cotton still in progress in some areas the answer is certainly not in the affirmative.

Even if cultivation acreage is considered substantial, it can be anything but an occasion for celebrations because the situation implies delayed sowing in many areas. This acreage has not been tabulated but there can be no denying that the wheat crop was not sown all over at the right time and that adds up to loss in product. But the government circles sound enthusiastic and optimistic about at fair crop. They must have a paradise of their own to expect the best when ground conditions do not count for a highly productive crop.

A lot would depend on the water situation that is anything but promising. It would be critical not merely for wheat but other crops also, particularly rice and cane.

The latter crop seems to have lost its priority status with the government but that may turn out to be only an impression because many sugar mill owners are members of elected houses and even though the uniformed President, General Musharraf would not be looking towards them for support and strength, their pressure would be unavoidable for maintaining a democracy facade.

Another factor that could hamper high crops is fertilizer. The managers of the sector have, in their immense, unmatchable wisdom, imported urea and marketing it at subsidized rate while a certain quantity, although quite low, was exported.

The import of urea was hardly needed in the context of domestic production and known crop needs. Further, while urea nourishes crops, what the farmers should be applying more than what they are using at present is DAP. But DAP is expensive and beyond the financial resources of a large number of farmers. Moreover, importers wait for lowering of DAP's price in the international market and that restricts its timely supply to a certain extent.

What the federal government needs is greater coordination between Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL) and commerce ministry to ensure on schedule availability of inputs for crops. It is not an insurmountable hurdle. Any conclusion can be drawn when the two ministries work at cross-purposes.

The government's policies and pledges of officials, beginning with the President's package in June last year have been positive but it is difficult to find much evidence of their fulfilment on ground small farmers.

An important component of the sector is small farmers. They seem to occupy the highest position in the priorities of policy makers but concrete benefits for them continue to be confined to words.

They remain on the wrong side when it comes to safeguarding their interests, for inexpensive availability of inputs, grant of loans and protecting them from exploitation of the market manipulators.

Their contribution is vital for better performance from the sector. But lately, it appears that perhaps a way has been found to tackle this problem through buying lands of small landowners for house building projects.

Both the government and private sector entrepreneurs who appear to enjoy the patronage of authorities that matter are doing this. They are indeed involved in a big way. This is a disastrous prescription for the agriculture sector, a development bound to increase poverty, shift many of the country's wretched to urban centres where unemployment is already rising. The greed of a few is being translated in ruination for many.

The impact of this land-buying spree, often with the help of coercive methods, is shrinking of fertile land and in time, certain to be reflected in lower produce and supply of vegetables because lands being purchased for housing schemes are mostly located on the periphery of major urban centres. Citizens should prepare themselves for food with a minimum of vegetable or for buying the commodity at extremely expensive rates.

The housing society phenomenon also reflects negatively on the attitude of the government towards small crops. The entire emphasis is on major cash crops while small crops and vegetables are being ignored. The policies are lopsided, to say the least and this does not augur well for the agriculture sector.

The area that urgently needs the attention of the government is reduced supply of water. Admittedly, the authorities are neither rainmakers nor posses other means for enhancing water availability.

The President referred to the construction of major water reservoirs in his address to the nation last Thursday but every one realizes that the gulf between pious intentions and practical difficulties is huge in this case.

One actually does not know if the reservoirs are being used as a political card or the government is genuinely trying to augment Pakistan's dwindling water resources. Whatever the fact, it is difficult to envisage the building of dams at this point in time in view of the known hard stance of many segments in the country on reservoirs. The very mention of the world Kalabagh triggers a controversy.

The regrettable thing is lack of planning for maximum harnessing of resources. There are crops that are economically no less beneficial to Pakistan than cane and rice, potentially of greater worth indeed.

The most important and valuable of these crops are sunflower and canola. The government should try to persuade farmers to cultivate them and assure them of the right price for their produce.

This would reduce the continuously escalating import bill for edible oils. But that mean controlling the importers lobby that has a vested interest in undermining edible's crops.

It is a very strong lobby that has succeeded in getting such officials transferred in the past that were unwilling to subscribe to their views. All this means that the government is powerless against vested interest groups.

Under the circumstances, the best one can do is hope that the farming sector would continue fighting odds. But what we have is not the ideal environment for obtaining the best from the country's agriculture.


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