AS officials of the textile ministry arrived in Multan last week for a cotton meeting, farmers were on the streets setting their crop ablaze.
Growers were demanding of the government to come to their rescue — set support price and intervene in case of market manipulation.
Farmers complained they have suffered huge losses as the market price has dipped below the cost of production for the last two consecutive years.
In a big protest, which was culmination of a few smaller ones earlier in the southern part of the province and harbinger for more if the framers are to be believed; three farmers also received burn injuries. Apart from fallen cotton price, which triggered the protest, they also cited input prices, which, they said, have rigged the term of trade against them.
They maintained that continuously rising prices of diesel and electricity have brought operations of machinery and tubewells to a halt. Theever-increasing prices of fertilisers have hit the yield. With cost of production multiplying due to these factors, the market is controlled, and often manipulated, to keep the prices of output down. These reasons have turned their economics upside down; leaving them with huge banking and private (middleman) loans and trapped in vicious poverty cycle. They even challenged former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani to dare contest next election from the South and promised him a humiliating defeat.
The situation is worrying: the farmers form a major chunk of the population and no poverty alleviation effort can succeed without lifting them out of it. If they do not perform, there would be no food security.
If agriculture underperforms, no other sector would be able to rescue economy.
If the farmers’ bodies are to trusted, their resentment with current state of affairs runs deeper than the impact of monetary and taxation policies that the federal government, under pressure from the international lenders, is pursuing. They claim that there is complete disconnect between farmers’ community and policy-makers.
This is worrying situation and necessitates three-pronged policy: involving farmers in policy process, protecting peasant and small farming and promoting community farming through policy measures. Only by following such policies, the government would know what kind of problems farmers are facing, give sense of ownership to growers and create economy of scale to induct technology in the sector.
Currently, international financial institutions and bureaucrats, isolated from farmers and farming, are shaping agricultural policies. Even public representatives, who bring some popular sensitivity to policy arena, are kept out. This is where Punjab must step in, encouraging formation of farmer’s pressure groups, think tanks,representatives bodies and farmers’ wings of political parties to bridge the gap between policy-makers and ground realities at the grassroots. Only such groups can play a key role in framing agricultural policies and keep them connected to the soil also.
Efforts should also be made to establish parallel business set-ups like ‘Chamber of Agri-Business.’ However, they should not be state-sponsored or controlled organisations, but purely private and transparent initiatives — preferably under the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP).
Individuals might have their political affiliations but these organisations must be kept apolitical — on the pattern of business and industrial chambers and their federations. This is essential to bring regulation in the business and market.
Despite deteriorating international scenario, without any help and protection and with all the world’s most powerful actors against it, peasant agriculture has not disappeared. It is time to save it through policy measures. As a matter of policy, peasants and other vulnerable groups in rural settings must be granted real access to resources to buy agricultural inputs to reduce poverty.
In order to save these small farmers and keep them relevant to market, Punjab has to renew its interest in the development of the co-operative farming.
That is the only way to bring some kind of economy of scale for new technologies and keep small farmers domestically and globally relevant. Agricultural inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, improved seeds and loans) should be routed through these societies.
This would not only help check quality of inputs, but also diversion of loans, which are affecting the production efficiency of the farm sector.
More than 86 per cent of Punjab farmers are small or marginal farmers and have a very little or no marketable surplus.
They should not be left to the mercy of private trader and greed of the free market. It is, thus, necessary to provide proper market- and price-support to them until markets become more efficient, regulated and cartels are broken.
At the same time, the private sector should also be enabled to participate in disposal of farm surpluses, with a view to ultimately taking over trade in farm produce, in an efficient and cost effective way.
Their operation, however, has to be kept transparent and regulated.