Last year, the government launched a five-year agricultural revival plan worth Rs309 billion. Yet the nation braved the worst-ever wheat crisis at the beginning of this year.

Wheat flour prices crossed the Rs60-per-kilogram barrier and touched even Rs70 per kg in some areas. The wheat mafia and corrupt provincial and federal bureaucracy allegedly minted tens of billions of rupees during the crisis — the second one under the PTI government. The first one had jolted markets last year.

At the bottom of the wheat crises of 2019 and 2020 is the lack of provincial coordination. The last year’s crisis made sense because there was some shortage of wheat at that time, although a lack of coordination in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also had a hand in it.

But this year, initially no shortage of wheat was there to be blamed. The crisis originated in Sindh and spread across Pakistan owing to an inharmonious working relationship between Sindh and Punjab and between the provinces and the federally run Pakistan Agricultural and Storage and Services Corporation (Passco). The grant of permission for wheat exports despite a ban also deepened the crisis. And, as expected, the government has now allowed imports of wheat up to 300,000 tonnes.

Why does the Ministry of National Food Security and Research not issue a quarterly update on the revival programme?

Had the agricultural revival plan been developed with honest and candid input from the provinces and had its implementation mechanism been well-defined, the wheat crises of 2019 and 2020 could have been averted.

Similarly, had this revival plan been effective, yearly food inflation not skyrocketed to 16.7 per cent and 19.7pc in December 2019 from just 0.6pc and 0.5pc a year ago in urban and rural areas, respectively.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating: the wheat crisis and the surge in food inflation show the agricultural revival plan is ineffective so far.

And, what has apparently failed this plan is the simple fact that it was developed and presented in a mysterious way and is being implemented mysteriously too. The PTI came to power in August 2018, but initially kept struggling mostly on the external sector of the economy that was in bad shape. It rolled off the much-awaited agricultural revival plan after almost a year in July 2019. But the plan seemingly lacked sincerity of purpose. The provinces in whose domain agriculture falls were not taken on board despite the fact that they were to contribute Rs225 billion to this plan and the federal government was to offer only Rs84bn. What further annoyed the provinces was that despite a 73pc financing share of the provinces, the plan was titled “Prime Minister’s Agricultural Emergency Programme” and premier’s friend Jahangir Tareen unveiled it.

This agricultural emergency programme focuses on (1) productivity enhancement of wheat, rice and sugar cane, (2) oilseed enhancement, (3) conserving water through the lining of watercourses, (4) enhancing the command area of small and mini dams in barani (rain-fed) areas, (5) water conservation in barani areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, (6) shrimp farming, (7) cage fish culture, (8) trout farming in the northern areas, (9) the saving and fattening of calf programme and (10) backyard poultry programme.

Isn’t it the duty of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFSR), the coordinating agency for the implementation of the agricultural emergency programme, to update the nation on the developments made so far in each of the above-listed areas?

Under the productivity enhancement of wheat, rice and sugar cane programme, the government had undertaken to do the following: (1) promote the use of crop-specific machinery by offering a 50pc subsidy, (2) develop high-yielding hybrid varieties and improve the provision of certified seeds, (3) set up new and upgrade existing modern research institutes by engaging international experts, (4) re-organise extension services at all levels — agronomy, plant protection and marketing and (5) upgrade and facilitate crop processing methods.

The MNFSR should have ideally remained in constant touch with the provinces and gathered periodical information on the progress made in each of these areas. That has not been done. Yearly progress on the entire agriculture emergency programme and its components will be made public via the annual economic survey. Why can’t the MNFSR issue a quarterly update on it? That would enable all stakeholders, including the provinces and farmers’ groups, to keep an eye on the pace of implementation of the plan and suggest ways for correcting any deviation from the decided course.

Preparing quarterly reports on projects of national importance and making them public are one sure way of achieving greater national cohesion and improving oversight on the working of democratic setups. If that is not done, the provinces and the private sector feel isolated. And, their feeling of isolation only widens room for unscrupulous elements, self-seekers and those bent upon sabotaging national causes. It is time for the government to engage all the provinces in the implementation of the agricultural emergency programme and remove their grievances, which are many.

Details of the financing mix of the programme should also be made public. Taxpayers also have a right to know whether all provincial governments are contributing their share to the financing mix as stipulated under the programme.

If this is not done, it is feared that the programme will not achieve the desired success. After having been hit by two wheat crises within two years — and as many mini–sugar crises — justifying the continuation of the Rs309bn agricultural emergency programme with the bulk of financing from the provinces will become too difficult for the PTI government. —MA

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 27th, 2020

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