HEAVY rains accompanied by high winds and sporadic hailstorms in parts of Punjab earlier this week have damaged the standing wheat crop on a vast area. In a few southern districts, the crop has been flattened, and in others the harvest is delayed. The exact extent of the damage is now being assessed by the agriculture bureaucracy to quantify the losses. The food security ministry, however, seems to indicate that the damage is not significant. Hopefully, it will not affect the overall provincial output target of 19.5m tonnes for the present harvest. Yet many individual smallholders may have suffered substantial losses that will increase their indebtedness and reliance on middlemen for expensive loans for future harvests. The government has promised to compensate the affected farmers once the girdawari (crop assessment) is complete. It has always been the standard official response. This practice needs to change. Immediately, the government should not only compensate the affected farmers but also ensure that the smallholders get access to cheaper loans to buy inputs for their future crops. Microfinance banks are well placed to serve the needs of the small farmers, who form more than 80pc of the landholdings below five acres because of their presence in remote areas, if the government agrees to subsidise the loans. A workable plan needs to be designed where growers can easily get insurance for their crops against calamities that are beyond human control.
The recent unusual rains are but a sign of the changing climate of the region. The change has become more visible in recent years in the shape of unpredictable weather, new diseases, increased pest attacks, diminishing crop output, etc. If not tackled on a war footing, the changing climate could indeed affect the nation’s food security and have a deep impact on the overall economy of the country, which largely depends on agriculture. This week’s rains, for example, have not only damaged the wheat output but also delayed cotton sowing in the affected districts. It is time the government took the lead in educating farmers about changing weather patterns, improving extension services to train them in modern cultivation practices and new technologies, developing climate-resilient seed varieties, and bringing farmers, researchers and policymakers on to one platform so that they can develop solutions based on modern methods to mitigate the effects of climate change on crops. Otherwise, we should prepare ourselves for greater damage to the agricultural sector.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019