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Economic crisis and abandoned agriculture sector

Time to get our priorities right

 

Pakistan – despite being an agricultural state – has little to offer to the agriculture sector. Although agriculture accounts for half of the employed labour force of the country and is the largest source of foreign exchange earnings, it contributes only 24 percent to national GDP, according to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

The reasons for a low GDP contribution from the largest sector of our economy are known to most. The artificial price hikes and the plight of farmers are also not new. Ever since the inception of this country, farmers have been exploited at the hands of the feudal lords and middlemen. We often see a sudden price hike in perishable food items with tomatoes and onions being a recent example, where the price of tomatoes reached as high as Rs250 per kg.

Pakistan’s economy is facing a downturn courtesy the weak policies of the government. The Economic Survey of Pakistan 2016-17 has already revealed that the government failed to achieve multiple economic targets, such as manufacturing, electricity generation and agriculture. China – emerging as an economic superpower – has gained this position only because of its Green Revolution, with India following on its footsteps and becoming the new favourite country for foreign investment.

Why Pakistan could not boom its economy considering the rich land it stands on is something to ponder upon, with a major reason being that agriculture was never the priority of any government. As elections are drawing near, little do we see or hear about land reforms in the manifestos of political parties. It seems that Metro Bus politics has surpassed all other sectors of development as the funds allocated for Prime Minister’s Global Sustainable Development Goals and Khadam-e-Punjab Kissan Package are also seen being utilised for political purposes.

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“I have seen farmers become billionaires abroad. The case is not the same in Pakistan. Here, a farmer’s son will also become a farmer. He has no other option,” Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan said while launching membership drive in Lahore on Thursday. The Pakistan People’s Party has also come out in support of farmers time and again, but their performance is also visible in their respective provinces.

Recently, an organisation of famers held a protest against Lahore High Court’s order of shifting three sugar mills, owned by Sharif family, from Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan and Muzaffargarh to central Punjab, where these units were originally set up. The farmers demanded immediate release of their pending amounts of Rs30 billion from sugar mill owners and a subsidy on different agriculture items. The fact that the farmers were protesting in the Red Zone just before the federal government was to announce the fiscal budget 2017-18 is an irony in itself.

According to a recently launched report of International Food Policy Research Institute, Pakistan is ranked 106 out of 119 countries on Global Hunger Index 2017, and lags behind India and even most of the African countries. This ‘serious’ hunger level with more than 22 percent of its population undernourished should raise an alarm among the authorities concerned but, again, we have more important things to do.

Another major factor contributing to the worsening of situation is the cartels and the government’s failure to eliminate them. There is a mafia in every agri-related industry, be it sugar mills, seed mills, pesticides or fertilisers. Pakistan has a total area of 79.6 million hectares but only 23.7 million hectares (28pc) is used for agricultural purposes. About eight million hectares area is idle and unutilised. There is also a vast subdivision and fragmentation of land holdings, impeding the way to using technology in agriculture sector producing low per hectare yield. Inadequate infrastructure in villages and lack of agricultural research are among other reasons leading to improper crop rotation and low cropping intensity.

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Then there is the Indian factor. India’s hegemony in the region continues as it violates the Indus Water Treaty and is constructing several hydro-power projects on western rivers of Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, blocking the flow of water to Pakistan, with little protest from the Pakistani side. The strain in relations also affects imports from India, causing a price hike.

All these facts make a case for our misplaced priorities and provide an eye opener for the current and upcoming governments. Food is the basic necessity of life and importance of this sector is manifold as it feeds the whole rural and urban population, provides raw material for industry and is a base for foreign trade.

There is a need on the part of the government and all stakeholders to supply agriculture credit to the farmers though banks on easy terms and conditions, mechanise the agriculture sector, provide high yielding variety seed, construct dams, promote agricultural research and agro-based industries to revive this economic sector of Pakistan. All this can be done through effective policy-making and setting our priorities right, otherwise, Pakistan is set to become even worse than most of the third world countries.

MAHNOOR SHEIKH, Pakistan Today

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