THE outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has affected every sector of the economy. And the agriculture sector is no exception. The Sindh government has reduced the development portfolio under the annual development plan (ADP) for 2020-21. The agriculture sector’s share was reduced as the government’s focus will be on the completion of on-going schemes.

Sindh’s total ADP (excluding foreign-funded programme’s assistance) of 2019-20 stood at Rs208 billion, but this year it stands at Rs155bn, excluding foreign projects assistance. Chief Minister Sindh Syed Murad Ali Shah has, however, announced Rs1bn each subsidy for the provision of pesticides, fertilisers and quality rice seed to farmers with 25-acres of landholdings. A loan scheme is to be launched for haris who would get interest-free loans of Rs25,000.

“Out of the Rs14bn agriculture budget, Rs2.5bn are provincial spending for agriculture’s development while the remaining 90 per cent is donor-funded, which is a liability for us. We don’t know how the subsidy is to be transferred and I genuinely fear that the Rs25,000 loan — announced for haris - will not be transparently disbursed given past experiences,” remarks Nabi Bux Sathio, a progressive farmer from lower Sindh.

In addition to the pandemic, Sindh is also facing locust attacks. Under the National Action Plan announced for controlling it, Sindh’s share is Rs728.8 million while the federal government will pitch in Rs204m for a three-stage programme till June 2021 to curb re-growth and re-hatching of locusts. So far the Sindh government has spent Rs696.19m to control them.

The procurement of machinery and vehicles is mentioned in the budget but when locusts attack they are nowhere to be seen

“Sindh government needs to do more than what it is doing. People of Sindh have voted for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that’s why they believe PPP will rescue them, not PTI. Its voters are not concerned what PTI’s government is or is not doing because locust is another pandemic for them,” asserts Miran Mohammad Shah, president of Sindh’s oldest farmers’ body, Sindh Chamber of Agriculture.

He himself is a PPP diehard like his late father Syed Qamar Zaman Shah and brother PPP’s MNA Syed Naveed Qamar. He believes a permanent solution for locust control needs to be found by the Sindh government. It is not tenable that swarms of crop-eating pests keep attacking and farmers can keep them at bay through conventional methods.

“The procurement of machinery and vehicles is mentioned in the budget but when locusts attack these vehicles and equipment are nowhere to be seen. Budgetary allocations in this regard must match the on-ground situation. Then comes allocations for research and nothing is done in this regard whilst farmers are burdened with spurious seeds only to lose per acre productivity of crops,” argues Shah.

The chief minister’s budget speech was mostly devoted to donor/foreign-funded programmes insofar as the agriculture sector is concerned. If the foreign-funded assistance is to be excluded from the agriculture sector’s budget, it would perhaps have an insignificant contribution to the economy. The World Bank funded the Rs8bn Sindh Agriculture Growth Project and the Rs18bn Sindh Irrigated Agriculture Productivity Enhancement Project (Siapep) that are underway in Sindh, both of which are scheduled to be completed in June next year.

While targets of other components of Siapep are being met, the one about the shifting of 35,000 acres of agriculture land onto a high-efficiency system — drip — is far behind its goal as only 1,265 acres, according to the chief minister, have been covered. Sindh is said to have around 12.5m of commanded area fed through the 14-canal system of Sindh’s three barrages.

The below-par performance of the project is attributed to farmers’ reluctance to share the 40pc cost by Siapep’s project director Nadeem Shah. He, however, adds that 3,500 watercourses have been lined (30pc length of each watercourse was already lined) so far against the target of 5,500 watercourses.

It is quite evident that allocations under the donor-funded programmes are multiple times higher than the size of Sindh’s agriculture ADP. It serves to indicate the major policy gap in overall planning to achieve the desired goal of sustainable agriculture and to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well. Out of 17-SDGs, three directly or indirectly concern the farm sector.

The policy gaps could be covered through the Sindh Agriculture Policy passed by the Sindh government in April 2018. It could help the government to take things in the right direction. But the agriculture budget is silent about this fundamental document. The policy seeks to achieve 4-5pc annual growth in the agriculture sector to raise income and reduce poverty and food insecurity.

“We continue to remain dependent on foreign-funded projects. Where is the agriculture policy for which a steering committee was formed? Did anyone hear whether this forum met to come up with plans to deal with locusts, commodities’ prices, the decline in cotton production or sale of spurious seeds?” quips Sindh Abadgar Board vice president Mehmood Nawaz Shah, one of the members of the steering committee.

Despite intricacies, agriculture policy gaps and political issues, Sindh’s major crops (barring cotton) of wheat, rice and sugarcane seemed to have performed better to some extent, according to the agriculture department’s figures for 2019-20. Wheat performed well, producing 3.85m tonnes against a target of 3.8m tons although growers again were not able to get the support price. Paddy production’s target was missed by 4.9pc primarily due to the sterility and poor quality of seeds, which is why there was a provision of Rs1bn subsidy for better quality rice seeds to farmers with 25 acres of land in the 2020-21 budget.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 22nd, 2020

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