FOR Chaudhry Akhtar, the owner of a 24-acre farm in Bahawalpur, things were never so tough. “There is no water in canals for months and this has been going on for a few years now,” says the 42-year-old farmer.

Armed with a smartphone and a decent internet package, he keeps a close eye on agriculture developments and is avid social media user.

“Thousands of Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide. We have similar climatic and financial threats here and a similar situation is likely to develop,” he warned. “I attended a few meetings of two political parties and raised this issue but received blank stares. The MPA candidates had no clue what I was talking about but did assure the gathering that party manifesto will be implemented,” he quips.

“I read all the manifestos but none of what is said will be implemented. Almost all my childhood friends have sold their shares and moved to city to set up stores. One is driving Careem in Lahore. I don’t know how long I can stay put,” he says, stressing that the cost of inputs far outweighed the end result.

Small farmers don’t take manifestos seriously. We had severe water shortage in the canals for past four months but no one is talking about it.

Sikandar Fayyaz Bhadera from Bahawalnagar

The Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17 cites agriculture as the ‘lifeline of Pakistan’s economy’, accounting for 19.5 per cent of the gross domestic product, employing 42.3pc of the labour force and providing raw material for several value-added sectors’. Surveys from the past few years have always presented agriculture in a bright light, but away from the official reports are small farmers — hounded by irrigation water shortage, harsh weather and price fluctuations — struggling to survive. Ninety-two per cent farmers in Pakistan have landholding of less than five acres, resulting in low yield, negligible profit and lasting food insecurity.

The manifestos of three major political parties promise excellent rewards, if elected to power in the 2018 elections. A quick glance shows that the PML-N is all for crop diversification, increasing water use efficiency, research and development, and a farmer support package. The PTI wants to impose an Agriculture Emergency and particularly protect sugarcane growers from the sugar mill mafia. Not far behind is the PPP which will dole out Benazir Kissan Cards, subsidise inputs and give farmers rights equivalent to that of the industrial workers’ rights.

On paper these initiatives look excellent but are the potential beneficiaries aware of these?

Talking to Dawn, Shazia Naz says she is not sure how this will help her. Owner of five acres of land in Mailsi, Vehari district, the 55-year-old widow says things are difficult. “Two of my sons work on the farm and despite renting more land for cultivation, we barely make enough to feed ourselves. One of my sons has sold his share and moved to Karachi. He drives a rickshaw and is able to send some money home.”

She feels selling the land and moving to a city would be better. Her sons disagree and insist that things would be better if irrigation water is available. “Past four years, the canals have been dry. We approached the MNA and MPA for our constituency but they said they can’t help us because India has stopped water.”

When asked if they know about the manifestos of any political parties, the family replied in the negative.

Many other small farmers gave similar answers. The most common reply to water scarcity was that India was behind it — an oft-repeated line of local politicians in Punjab. In Sindh, the line changed to “Punjab is stopping our water”.

“Small farmers don’t take manifestos seriously. We had severe water shortage in the canals for past four months but no one is talking about it. Apart from the buzz of the Supreme Court’s Diamer Bhasha and Mohmand Dam funds, not a single politician is talking about it nor is there awareness amongst the average voter,” says Sikandar Fayyaz Bhadera from Bahawalnagar.

The owner of a 100-acre farm, he is one of the socially and politically active farmers from the region and runs the @PakWaterCrisis on Twitter which highlights Pakistan water scarcity issue. “These documents are for the consumption of mainstream media and coffee shop discussions. Aam bandy ko kuch nahi pata manifestos ka.”

“No political party has a strong plan. PPP has been talking about land reforms. What’s new in that? It has happened once, now we should go towards land consolidation because the farms size are too small and are totally unviable for farmers. Productivity has gone down. The smaller the farm size, the more it affects the economy size. This is not the 60s or 70s, now you need modern machinery implements, tube wells, tractors which is expensive, how can a person with a five-acre farm afford all this?”

“We have severe water shortage in the country but we still flood fields. In a few years what choice will we have but to go for drip irrigation or sprinklers. This method is not affordable for small farmers and hence the need for coop farming,” he stresses.

According to him, ‘unrealistic’ commodity prices also need urgent attention. “The support price of Rs180 wasn’t given to sugarcane farmers and payments were delayed for months. Similar situation is with cotton and rice. The price fluctuations are high and unjustified. We have to ensure some certainty for small farmers.”

Similar sentiments were shared by sugarcane growers in Sindh. A farmer from Larkana said that while his father was able to send him to school, he is unable to send his children for long. He too feels opting out of farming seems like a viable option. “My family is a diehard Bhutto loyalist but their manifestos and slogans have yet to deliver.”

He and many other farmers contacted for this story say manifestos won’t mean much unless they are implemented, insisting that “being able to put two meals on the table is most important thing”.

“Pre-election talk and manifestos and post-election performance are two different things,” says Salim Khan, a farmer from Khorwah, Badin district. A former district management group officer, he resigned in 2006 and now does agriculture and commercial hunting. He has a 600-acre farm, most of it rented from large land owners ‘who do not have the will to farm’ as well small farmers for whom farming is unviable due to small farm size.

He says there is a need to revise taxes on agri-sector. “Fifteen per cent income tax on agri is huge for small farmers. Many of them don’t pay because in direct taxation is there on seeds, fertilisers, diesel, electricity. This is double taxation. There is a bill pending in the Sindh Assembly which aims to bring down tax to 5pc.”

He insists equitable distribution of available water will mitigate a lot of problems for small and medium farmers.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2018