THE PTI legislators joined forces with opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly the other day to take their own government to task for completely neglecting the agriculture sector during the debate on the budget for the next fiscal year. The lawmakers were critical of the government for setting aside a paltry Rs12bn for a sector that the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2020-21 describes as indispensable to the country’s economic growth, food security, employment generation and poverty alleviation. The criticism stemming from their concern is not out of place. Decades of official neglect and underinvestment have left this key sector of the economy, which contributes 19.2pc to the GDP and employs 38.5pc of the country’s labour force, in a shambles. For many years now, the agricultural growth rate has been slowed down by urban settlements poaching on cultivable land, changes in the weather patterns, spiking input costs, fragmentation of landholdings into small subsistence farms, water shortages, poor seed quality, low use of modern technology etc. Thanks to declining productivity and the increase in rural migration to the cities, the country has become a net food importer. The government has done little to reverse the situation.

The federal government has recently approved an agriculture transformation programme. But the details released so far relate mostly to the targets for increasing crop yields and milk production it has set for the next three to seven years. It is a plan that does not take the ground realities into account. Nor does it inform us how the government plans to fight the challenges mentioned above. The entire agriculture policy matrix at the central and provincial level has for years revolved around doling out inefficient subsidies that are mostly pocketed by large landholders, middlemen and investors, or fertiliser producers instead of reaching the smallholders. In spite of the proposed agriculture transformation plan, for example, we don’t see any initiative in their next budgets to finance research to develop high-yield seeds or help smallholders access modern technology or cheaper credit for inputs, or support a shift to value-added crops. Nor has the government chalked out any programme to help subsistence farmers ‘commercialise’ their produce. No transformation strategy can succeed without involving the small growers since subsistence agriculture constitutes the bulk of the farm sector.

Modernisation of the agriculture sector, then, requires an immediate shift from the current subsidy-based strategy to the adoption of new approaches and heavy public investments. It also demands that the government give tax and other incentives to the private sector to set up agro-based industries and invest in cold chains to minimise wastage and supply disruption from farm to consumers. Thus, it is not without reason that lawmakers on both sides are asking the government to come up with a comprehensive plan to transform the sector.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2021

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