Recycling policies

PUNJAB is turning out to be a prolific writer of agriculture policies. In the last five years it has written three — occasional policy papers are in addition to these elaborate policy documents. None of them, however, have been followed by an implementation plan or financial commitment.

Of the series of policy writing, the first one was inked in 2014 and the second one was notified on June 13, 2018 (it is still available on the official website of the agriculture department).

In 2016, the province constituted the ‘Kissan Commission’. Its sub-committee on policy, headed by then vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad Dr Iqrar Ahmad Khan, came up with a policy paper promising further short- and long-term policy documents.

Now, barely eight months after notifying a policy, the Punjab government is at it again. Chief Minister Usman Buzdar was supposed to launch the document last Wednesday but the provincial agriculture minister chimed in at the last moment at a flashy function in a local hotel.

Interestingly, the latest policy had been completed on Nov 29, one of the writers claim, and that is why it is still called the ‘Punjab Agriculture Policy 2018’, but the government took another three months to announce it. The last two policies, thus, are only five-months apart.

Barely eight months after notifying an agriculture policy, the Punjab government is at it again. Ideally, the new government should have come up with an action plan

Explaining this policy rush one of the writers, who did not want to be named, says that the third document is just an extension of the second one with a few slight changes — some additions of PTI-manifesto points — with the rest remaining unchanged.

“In fact, the PTI, when it came to power conveyed two preferences to the writers of the document. It wanted a document with the PTI seal and prepared within its first 100 days. The authors were thus left with no choice but to use the available material and previous policy consultative documents to meet the deadline.

“This also explains the massive overlapping in goals, objectives and recommendations: the writers were mostly the same, the ground realities and the input material remained unchanged — the results thus could not be different,” he says.

The difference, however, is that this policy echoes the PTI mindset: stress on rural youth and women, commercial farming, information technology, availing opportunities created by CPEC and targeted subsidies. “It is more of a short-term implementation strategy rather a long-term policy,” claims the un-named writer.

A run through the 53-page document creates a feeling of déjà vu, especially for aware of the previous exercises and policies. The document states the three usual objectives: enhancing economic growth, raising the standard of living and maximising agriculture’s contribution to the national GDP.

In order to achieve the objectives six goals have been set: enhance competitive agriculture, increase food production, raise farmers’ income, conserve (natural) resources, enhance sustainability and induct private sector in the business of value addition.

The document also suggests 10 areas of policy thrust: increase profitability, reduce cost of inputs, introduce regenerative farming, crop diversification, targeted subsidies, farmers’ access to finance, transforming markets, storage expansion, encourage (agricultural) SME and conserve water.

In addition, it charges the government with modernising laws (most of them belong to the 1950s and 60s), improve institutional framework, train human resource, create value-chains, incentivise the private sector, strengthen research, devise mechanisms for direct subsidies to farmers and so on.

Critics, however, think that Punjab has gained enough policy wisdom in the last few decades, as reflected by successive documents both at the federal and provincial level.

Ideally, the new government should have come up with an action plan: how to achieve these goals, identifying where resources will come from, who will spend them and how, where responsibility for the results will lie and how much growth can be expected from these plans?

All policies made the right noises in the past. Where they floundered was in the implementation stage. The PTI has made its theoretical mark through this document, it should now quickly move to the next stage of improving agriculture governance and come up with an action plan, critics suggest.

Before embarking on the action plan, the Punjab government should also get involved with the federal government to ensure policy coordination, suggests a former Punjab secretary agriculture.

The federal government has recently approved the Agriculture and Food Security Policy after three years of effort.

At the draft stage, Punjab had objected to the federal preference of ‘accessible staple supplies to all, especially to the poor, at an affordable price,’ saying it was an effort at pandering to the poor and urban consumers at the cost of farmers — because ensuring affordability means keeping commodity prices artificially low.

The province went ahead and wrote its own policy (in 2016, under the Kissan Commission) to ensure better prices for farmers. With the federal government going ahead and approving its policy and Punjab still sticking to its stance of market prices of commodities, especially staple, there is a need to resolve this disconnect.

“Even if [the agriculture policy] is an extension of the previous policy, it is always good to have a document on the table which can be used to measure the performance of any government,” says Dr Iqrar A Khan, author of the previous policy paper. The need for an action plan, he says, cannot be overstressed.

Ahmad Fraz Khan