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The path of modernising agriculture

January 15, 2018


IF you have not seen a drone flying over the fields of corn or sugarcane or wheat or rice, soon you will — initially in Punjab but hopefully in Sindh and elsewhere in Pakistan as well after some time.

Punjab plans to introduce farm drones that will kill pests and weeds by spraying pre-identified fields with pesticides.

Another idea being pursued in the province is to monitor water theft from canals with the help of electronic sensors. In fact, authorities have already selected a certain canal system in Bahawalpur to run a pilot project of this kind and are testing the sensor there.

Time is running out for Pakistan to accelerate growth rate and yields of crops to feed and clothe local population and to increase food and textile exports. For this to happen, it is imperative to modernise our farming.

The World Bank has recently approved a $300-million, five-year plan — titled Strengthening Markets for Agricultural and Rural Transformation (SMART) — for Punjab.

The project will support reforms to increase agriculture and livestock productivity, make agriculture more resilient to climate change and foster agribusiness in the province, according to an official announcement made last month.

Had there been no bureaucratic delays and political meddling with economics, modernising agriculture would have covered many milestones by now

The project will also reduce inequality and expand opportunities for women and youth. “Additionally, SMART will help improve the sustainability of agricultural production by strengthening the management of irrigation water, and help tackle ground water depletion,” the announcement said.

It is not clear whether the provincial government’s plan for using farming drones and installing sensors to control water theft from canals is a part of the World Bank’s SMART project. But if implemented honestly, these measures can revolutionise our ways of farming and make them efficient.

After complete devolution of agriculture in 2011, provinces had a chance to boost the farming sector activity with zeal. And had there been no bureaucratic delays and meddling of politics with economics, modernising agriculture would have covered many milestones by now.

Before our entry into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), we kept hearing about the corporatisation of agriculture — and in the name of it leasing large swathes of land to foreign countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But we still don’t know which foreign country got which the piece of land, on what conditions, and how that has helped in boosting agricultural productivity.

Now that CPEC’s master plan is before us, we know that Pakistan is going to involve China in a big way in agricultural development. That also means leasing out our land to the Chinese firms, again for developing and modernising agriculture.

Will we ever come to know about the outcomes of such moves? Why is it so that matters of national importance in the economic arena are handled with excessive discretion that for many look nothing short of secrecy? And why don’t the authorities inform people about what good the country has achieved with foreign collaboration, be it in the fields of agriculture or anywhere else?

So, it will serve a great purpose if our federal and provincial authorities present to the nation a complete map of how they plan to “revolutionise” agriculture and what role our foreign friends including China are going to play in it. That will clear the air of suspicion and mistrust that sadly prevails and prevents successful implementation of even very honest and ambitious plans for revolutionising our farming sector.

In the second step, it is important to devise new plans or review the existing ones only after factoring in informed feedback of all stakeholders for ease of implementation as well as for transparency.

Take, for example, the case of using farming drones. Have the authorities taken into account the land distribution pattern to tell the nation how many farmers can actually afford to buy these farming drones? Or have they shared with small farmers (who cannot afford to buy costly drones) the details about how they can get the same on rent.

All that farmers have come to know (ie if they care to read English dailies carrying agricultural news) is that they will have to turn to district officials of agriculture extension department.

“This is not how revolutionary plans are implemented, more so in challenging times,” remarks the head of agricultural credit of a leading bank when asked whether banks were involved in the drone scheme.

In Bangladesh, Kallyanis or ‘info ladies’ visit villages on their bicycles equipped with tablets connected with the internet. They are dynamic rural entrepreneurs whose job it is to share with other rural women videos of best farming practices available in a centralised digital library.

Why this can’t happen in Pakistan where the need for imparting practical training to women farmers is high and where social and religious biases restrict the majority of them from interacting with men?

During this decade, two good things have happened in the field of agriculture. One is greater use of solar tubewells and the other is the expansion in tunnel farming. However, much still needs to be done on both counts.

Dearth of data: How serious we are in modernising our agriculture is evident from the fact that the publicly available data on agricultural machinery is of 2004. No one can say for sure how many solar-powered tubewells are operating in the country, let alone estimate how many more are needed.

Similarly, we don’t know the exact number of tunnel farms that are in operation. Such ambitious plans like introducing farming drones and installing electronic sensors for checking water theft are good, but the absence of credible data on already executed modernisation plans will certainly have a negative impact on these and other future plans.

Likewise, a post-execution cost-and-benefit analysis of any previous plan for modernisation of agriculture is not available, not at least publicly.

Every year, provincial authorities set aside billions of rupees for modernising agriculture. But they have never bothered to present a cost-and-benefit analysis of any such plan. Instead, the nation keeps hearing about stories of corruption and mismanagement.

A higher level of transparency in formulating, executing and sharing results of modernisation plans can help us attract more excited participation of local and foreign investors.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 15th,2018