Opinions

Agriculture needs no political heat in Pakistan

Agriculture cannot perform up to its potential unless there is a smooth working relationship between federal and provincial governments.

This is not the case right now: the federal government wants the removal of the current chief minister of Sindh and treats the opposition parties — the PPP and the PML-N — with utter contempt while grievances of the PTI’s coalition partners in Balochistan refuse to go. The opposition parties as well as independent analysts have expressed serious reservations about the manner in which the anti-corruption drive is moving on. Some people call it selective and one-sided.

Under these circumstances, the PTI needs to make sincere efforts to improve the relationship with Sindh and coalition partners in Balochistan. “Without this, a strategy to promote agriculture can hardly yield the desired results,” opines a former secretary of the Sindh Agriculture Department.

“And, apart from making political environment less hostile, the issue of an acute shortage of irrigation water in Sindh and Balochistan must be addressed on an urgent basis.” The agricultural output in the two provinces continues to suffer due to the scarcity of water.

Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Sahibzada Mahboob Sultan is relying on a 19-point strategy for agricultural recovery and growth. He shared with agriculturalists some key elements of this strategy at a recent seminar on the cotton sector in Multan.

Under this strategy, the government intends to increase the funding for research on agriculture by 500 per cent, keep prices of agricultural implements low, reduce imports of fertilisers and agricultural inputs and promote their local production, mitigate effects of urbanisation on agriculture and provide financial and technical support for upgrading the services’ extension wings of provincial agriculture departments.

The government has projected 3.6pc agriculture growth for the current fiscal year. Whether the sector can actually grow this much with three of the four major crops — cotton, rice and sugarcane — showing signs of weakness is a million-dollar question

These and some other aspects of his agriculture promotion strategy need lots of financial resources. Given the current fiscal woes, the implementation of the strategy, at least during this fiscal year, seems just too ambitious.

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Besides, the bureaucracy in Sindh, with about one-fourth share in the country’s agriculture, is frightened. Instead of doing routine jobs, many officials are busy responding to the enquiries by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and other investigation agencies. One can feel an air of bitterness in all provincial departments. Agriculture is no exception.

Perhaps it is time for the PTI to take the smaller provinces on board when it comes to designing and implementing policies of national importance. Senior officials of the Sindh Agriculture Department complain that the federal government has so far not taken them on board in the formulation of “any 19-point strategy for agricultural revival and growth”.

Regardless of whether the federal government has formulated the strategy without seeking input from all provinces, the key question is: will agriculture grow this year at 3.6pc, the yearly average that the five-year economic growth plan of the PTI has envisaged? Officials of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research are optimistic about it. But they are unwilling to share the projected growth in each sub-sector of agriculture ie major and minor crops, livestock and fisheries and forestry.

Federal ministers, including Finance Minister Asad Umar, take pride in the fact that during the six months of the PTI government, agricultural lending increased, as did the overall credit disbursement to the private sector. But higher agricultural lending alone does not indicate higher productivity.

Government officials conveniently forget the fact that a massive rupee depreciation and uptick in headline inflation have not only increased the cost of living for all Pakistanis but also made agricultural inputs costlier, requiring farmers to obtain more bank loans.

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The PTI promised in its election manifesto that it would optimise the existing subsidy programmes for agriculture and introduce new ones. That has not happened so far — not at a scale to make any impact on agricultural growth in the current fiscal year, farmers’ groups point out. The PTI had also promised to share the cost of investment required to boost agricultural productivity. That, too, has not happened.

Agriculturalists across Pakistan are still waiting for Chinese investment to trickle in the agriculture sector. Minister for Planning and Development Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar says that the much-awaited meeting of the Pak-China joint working group on agriculture will be held in mid-February. Until the outcome of that meeting is shared with all provinces and the details of the memorandum of understanding signed earlier on agricultural cooperation between the two countries made public, speculating on the direction and pace of agricultural growth is just too difficult, officials of the Sindh Agriculture Department say.

In the last fiscal year when the overall economy grew 5.8pc, growth of the agriculture sector was 3.8pc. But that had come in the wake of a weaker growth of 2.1pc a year earlier. Now the government has projected 4.2pc growth for the overall economy and 3.6pc for agriculture for the current fiscal year.

Whether agriculture can actually grow this much with the base growth rate of the last year, and with three out of four major crops — cotton, rice and sugarcane — showing signs of weakness, is a million-dollar question.

Naturally, the reliance for agricultural growth in 2018-19 will be on livestock that also had recorded 3.8pc sub-sectoral growth in 2017-18 against 2.9pc in the preceding fiscal year. If the agriculture sector as a whole is going to grow at 3.6pc this year then this can happen only if the livestock sector posts a higher growth. But that’s not too easy due to the base effect and also because we haven’t seen any breakthrough in livestock productivity.

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Two of the several points of the PTI’s agricultural growth strategy are about setting up livestock productivity promotion zones and investment in supply chain of this sector. Both need to be implemented with sufficient transfer of federal funds for this purpose and financial and technical preparedness of the provinces.

In Sindh and Balochistan, nothing of the sort has happened thus far, though some progress has been made in Punjab, officials of agricultural departments of the smaller provinces say.

Fisheries, too, continue to suffer. The governments of the coastal provinces of Sindh and Balochistan could have easily taken the lead in this area, but that has not been the case.

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