“Take away everything — subsidies, support price, interest-free loans — but give us a better research regime. Make it a single-line budget that starts and ends with research,” this seems to be a consensus among farmers, their representative bodies and independent analysts, as the nation waits for the next finance bill.

Articulating those sentiments, Bilal Israel of the Farmers Associate Pakistan says that the last two decades, especially the persistent cotton crisis, have proven that Pakistan does not have dependable seeds for most of the crops. They are either expensive imports, or the farmer suffers. Rapid climate change has added another dimension to the challenge. This is an existential emergency that cannot be dealt with through small subsidies here or there or making small loans less expensive; these things help lessen the pain but do not treat the disease.

“Multiply the research budget, hold performance audit of current research institutions, give them targets, force provinces to replicate the federal effort in their areas of jurisdiction and make every penny and person accountable. Please, treat the disease, not symptoms,” Bilal insists.

Even the symptomatic treatment has not worked but only makes the disease worse, explains Khalid Khokhar of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI). The PKI, in a recent letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, had suggested declaring “2021 as an agriculture year,” which entailed raising research allocation, to begin with, to at least 2pc of agricultural GDP, which is a paltry 0.18pc.

Research should be made the top agricultural priority in the upcoming budget, say all stakeholders

It also included some small steps like tubewell bills charged a flat rate of Rs5.35 per unit, inclusive of all taxes and duties. It also requested a forensic audit of schemes launched in the name of growers. It asked the government to bring prices of fertiliser down to the level of 2018, when the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf took over, because they have risen drastically since and added to the cost of production. A Di-Ammonium phosphate bag used to cost Rs3,020 in January 2018 and cost Rs5,465 in March 2021. Similarly, a Urea bag that cost Rs1,400 in January 2018 was selling at Rs1,720 in March 2021. The prices of other fertilisers are not very much different.

“The government has been reluctant to implement what its own committee had suggested. Like, the Governor (Punjab) Committee on Agriculture for Cotton recommended a support price of Rs5,000 per maund and Rs15,000 per acre direct cash subsidy to attract them to grow cotton. No one has any idea what happened to these recommendations. The government must get its act together as far as the agriculture sector is concerned and the upcoming budget is an opportunity for it to show that it means business,” thinks Mr Khokhar.

“Apart from research, which remains foundational to any effort for improving agriculture, marketing demands as much attention and effort,” points out Dr Iqrar A Khan, author of provincial agriculture policy and former vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad.

Even for the current level of production, which is by no means satisfactory and research remains the only hope to improve it, markets have failed farmers regularly. Monopolies and cartels, as pointed out even by the prime minister regularly, rule the roost.

“To farmers’ misfortune, a number of committees and commissions were formed in the recent and distant past to suggest a way out. They recommended legal steps and they were enacted at different stages. The entire legal paraphernalia is already in place, but to no avail when it comes to the market. The Competition Commission Pakistan fined several industries in the past two decades for the same crime. The circus around the Sugarcane Factories Control Act is another example, how these cartels have neutralised every effort to regulate those industries.

“No one expects the government to end these monopolies (though it is not an entirely unreasonable expectation either) within months or days, but it must move to dilute them. It did make a heroic effort to check the sugar industry recently but then caved in cravenly. There are a number of ‘dos and don’ts’ for the government; it must not do business, but it must not leave private business unchecked either. Keeping the markets clean is its prime duty and it must make an allocation for it in the budget,” he suggests.

According to farmers, along with research and marketing, technology is the third critical area that needs equal, if not more, official attention because technology would connect the research to the field. Pakistan has had massive tractorisation in the past few decades, along with the increase of some other basic tools like plough, thrashers and harvesters. “It is time to move to finer areas as well,” suggests Sher Shah Durrani from Shikarpur.

It is a documented fact that post-harvest losses in Pakistan are range over 40pc — it means losing almost half of the produce before it hits the market.

The world has found technological solutions and every kind of machine is available in the world. The challenge for the government is to localise it, both in manufacturing and usage. Since imported machines are prohibitively expensive, localisation, like China did earlier, is the only solution, and it cannot be done without official help. The government needs to reflect resolve in the budget. “It must weave a web (loans, technology transfer, better marketing etc) of incentives to help localise the manufacturing of machines that help essential areas of farming, otherwise farmers and Pakistan will continue lagging — producing half of the world average and then losing half of that in the field,” Mr Durrani concludes.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 7th, 2021

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