The Sindh government has slashed its agriculture development portfolio by almost 25 per cent for 2019-20 while schemes launched in the last fiscal year remain unfinished owing to belated or non-release of federal funds.

This year, the provincial government has earmarked Rs3.75 billion for development schemes compared to Rs5bn last year. While the 21 on-going schemes have been allocated Rs1.785bn in 2019-20, 13 new schemes for agriculture research, extension, planning and monitoring, mechanisation, water management and training and research are reflected in the budget with an allocation of Rs1.965bn.

The water management wing has two new schemes — integrated water resource management (IWRM) and transformation of the Indus basin with climate resilient agriculture — at a total cost of Rs650 million.

An officer of the water management wing said climate resilient agriculture was a donor funded scheme, based on an information technology programme for farmers where they would be trained for smart agriculture. The scheme will be run in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and would help farmers adapt to seasonal variations triggered by climate change.

By June 14, the agriculture department had spent around 52pc of the funds, but the pace of releases accelerated in the last fortnight with expenditures shooting up to 82pc in the second half of June

Furthermore, the Sindh government has also approached the Green Climate Fund to make the agriculture sector climate resilient to overcome vulnerabilities.

Rs150m have been allocated for this scheme as Sindh’s share of its total cost. The project will be executed in Mirpurkhas, Badin and Umerkot districts on a trial basis. Growers are going to be connected with an IT-based system to aid in the improvement of their agricultural practices.

As a matter of policy, water conservation has been stressed by the government. This is why 70pc of the Rs500m allocated to IWRM have been earmarked for putting in additional linings in around 500-600 watercourses in Sindh.

Furthermore, pipelines will be laid in non-command areas where farmers normally lift groundwater for cultivation purposes. Another component of IWRM is the construction of storage tanks on a first-come-first-serve basis for famers who would bear 20pc of the cost. The remaining 80pc will be borne by the government.

The agriculture extension department of Sindh aims to promote ultra-high density organic plantation of mangos, lemons and guavas in production catchment areas of Hyderabad, Naushahro Feroze, Benazirabad, Sanghar, Tando Allahyar, Larkana and Mirpurkhas for which Rs12.5m have been allocated in the budget. This measure will increase per acre productivity of organic farming.

The way agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy, the research wing is the backbone of the farming sector. The research wing has proposed three new schemes at a cost of Rs410m, including a Rs100m scheme for bio-saline agriculture research and development and a Rs150m scheme for the establishment of a dry land farming research institute at Mithi.

Though farm mechanisation is an avowed priority, the government has discontinued the subsidised tractor scheme this year. Tractors were not provided last year as well because of the probe by the federal anti-graft body although Rs500m were earmarked for it.

“Land development is a must for achieving growth in the farm sector as it contributes heavily to agriculture’s GDP. A developed piece of land is quite expensive when compared with undeveloped land. Developed land ensures uniformity in distribution of water which increases per acre productivity”, commented an agriculture engineering officer, Mohammad Farrukh. He informed that the engineering department would complete its five unfinished schemes of FY2018-19.

In the last fiscal year most schemes remained incomplete, which the Sindh government attributes to withheld or belated transfers of funds by the federal government. Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah has gone hoarse ranting against it. He recently harshly criticised the federal government for releasing Rs140bn less than promised.

While it is true that the federal government has not come up to the Sindh government’s expectations as far as fund transfers are concerned, the bottlenecks caused by delays from the provincial government also hinder growth of the farm sector.

A look at the Sindh finance department’s 2018-19 figures shows that it had released Rs1.742bn. Of these releases, Rs1.430bn had been utilised till the last week of June, indicating that only 82pc was spent against the amount released. Officials believe that inadequate quarterly releases of funds remain a stumbling block for machinery procurement.

Agriculture engineering officials said releases under the annual development programme 2018-19 remained slow with allocations made in the budget not actualised. While orders were placed for import of machinery with due process, full payments were not released thus deliveries could not be made.

“25pc of the amount was released for machinery procurement with the direction that this has to be utilised before seeking remaining amount,” said an officer. However, vendors insist on full payment before delivery so piecemeal releases don’t serve their purpose.

Another anomaly identified while analysing 2018-19 figures was the pace of release of funds. Until June 14, the agriculture department had spent around 52pc of the funds but pace of releases accelerated in the last few weeks with expenditures shooting up to 82pc in the second half of June.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 8th, 2019