Special report: Is Pakistan food-secure?

By: Afshan Subohi

A democratic Pakistan can certainly better cater to the nutritional needs of its citizens. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” wrote Amartya Sen, an economist and a Nobel Laureate.

Pakistan is blessed with cultivable land and a sizeable peasant population. The information explosion and ease of connectivity have instilled high economic aspirations in the rural populace.

But if the implementation effort of successive governments has tapped only half the potential of the agriculture sector, is it perhaps the lack of a cohesive policy?

Three decades ago the Agriculture Commission of Pakistan, in a report, blamed the underlying rural power structure, which wields disproportional representation in the federal and provincial assemblies, for the underperformance of the sector.

Abusing the decisive power vested in the state to manage the economy these elements, it was found, colluded to evade taxes and divert subsidies and concessional bank credits to serve its narrow interests.

The expert’s report, however, overlooked the growing role and influences of the reckless trading community; particularly those involved in import and marketing of seeds, pesticides and livestock.

The National Food Security Policy, launched by the PML-N government last May, two days before its term ended, recognises food security as a key challenge.

It did not draw on the findings of the Agriculture Commission Report. Instead, it attributed the slow pace of agriculture development and lack of food security to the following: high population growth, rapid urbanisation, low purchasing power, high price fluctuations, erratic food production and inefficient food distribution systems.

The policy hinted at power dynamics when it stated that the benefits of whatever agriculture growth has been achieved have not been equitably shared in the rural economy. For some reason the said policy document clubbed wheat, a key crop in context of food security, with water intensive rice and sugar cane. It stated that the latter two have been given ‘more attention’ in the previous related policies.

Ignoring the key factor — the political clout of the self-serving landed aristocracy — it listed slow technological innovation, problems with the quality, quantity and timeliness of input supply, inadequate extension services and technology transfer as factors responsible for the situation. As the share of urban-based manufacturing and the services sector expanded, to around 80.5pc of GDP collectively, the share of the agriculture sector in GDP narrowed by almost half; to 19.5pc in 2018 from close to 40pc in the mid-1960s.

The hold of the landed elite might be loosening owing to growing economic strength in urban areas. But, so far, they have managed to guard and promote their interests using political structures and by blocking any move in the federal and provincial assemblies that may hurt them.

As the country adopted market-based policies of deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation in the 1990s, the landed elite expanded its commercial interests in companies in the agriculture input market.

In a water scarce country, the story of the sugar industry’s growth and expansion in the water-intensive sugar cane crop, and the subsidy managed for its market disposal, is a classic case that sheds light on the mindset and machinations employed by this class.

There is a lack of proper planning that magnifies natural disasters or emergencies as is highlighted by the unusual rainfall and windstorms last week that, farmers fear, have caused ‘irreparable damage’ to the local variety of wheat crops.

The issue of agriculture income tax is another example where the landed elite have been able to prevail under all governments, before and after the 18th Amendment. All the talk of expanding the tax base to improve revenue generation remains just that — talk, when it comes to taxing agriculture income.

This income is not even reported judiciously while businesspersons and petty salaried workers are made to contribute to the national exchequer. The corporate sector in contrast to big farm owners is routinely called on to pay extra, in the form of super taxes, to limit the resource gap.

The role of the influential rural elite in water consumption is yet another area where abuse of power is rampant. The diversion of water to farms owned by politicians and their lackeys is rampant in the southern Sindh. There are several instances where the course of canals have been diverted, or dikes constructed or destroyed, in an attempt to benefit some at the cost of many.

The neglect of the key sector by successive governments — which continues to employ 42pc of the labour force, provides livelihood to 62pc of the population and constitutes 65pc of export earnings — becomes almost criminal when it comes to biosecurity.

The unsupervised commercialisation and audit-free import of seeds, pesticides and livestock is said to be responsible for new crop and livestock diseases. These diseases have compromised the local soil quality and agriculture ecosystem and have a far-reaching, negative, impact on the health of consumers and on export prospects.

There is no dearth of organisations, mostly public but some foreign-funded, active in the sector. According to information available on the website of the federal Ministry of National Food Security and Research, there are 18 fairly big departments manned by several hundred officers and staff.

A stopover at several research and extension service centres during a flying visit across rural Punjab in 2017 depressed the writer. Most of these deserted buildings wore a haunted appearance. Their directors blamed low budgets for the lack of capacity and seemed more focused on survival than in meeting organisational targets.

“Besides the country, it is the grower and the end consumer of commodities who are at the losing end of the agriculture equation in Pakistan,” commented an expert associated with the government.