Led by its energetic agriculture minister Hussain Jehania Gardezi, Punjab this year has put in an extraordinary effort to meet the wheat sowing target and that too on time. It has largely been successful on both accounts: it has almost achieved its assigned target of 16.20 million acres and did so by the start of December — at least two weeks before the traditional timeline.

Punjab set itself a difficult task when it accepted the 21.9m tonnes target against actual production of 20.9m tonnes last year — critics thought it was much less than that. For achieving it, it revised its acreage target upwards to 16.7m acres against the federal target of 16.2m acres. For the first time, it inducted over 20,000 agriculture students to convince farmers in favour of sowing wheat and do so early. It offered a subsidy (Rs1,200 per bag) on one million bags of certified seed, on weedicides for 3m acres and rusticide for another million acres.

With this heroic effort completed, the wheat planners, the minister including, are now worried if their exertions would be translated into actual yield or the current dilapidated state of farm machinery will send it down the drain.

Harvesters alone wreck 10-20pc losses at the final stage that can translate to losses as high as $1.52bn in imports

Dusting off old studies and conducting new research, they now say that the harvesters alone wreck 10 to 20 per cent losses at the final stage. In quantum, it means about 2m tonnes of wheat every year. In monetary terms, it means Rs100 billion to Rs200bn losses to farmers, two to four million tonnes of wheat loss to national food basket, import of corresponding quantity costing $760m to $1.52bn (at the current rate of $380 per ton) in foreign exchange and food insecurity to hundreds of thousands of people. The sheer force of these numbers has overwhelmed planners, who now want the government to come up with a plan to control these “controllable losses.”

“Most of them, if not all, were imported as secondhand machines, or downright scrap, and assembled here with the help of local mechanics and are imperfect,” accepts Mr Gardezi. They certainly need to be refurbished or replaced, if we want to save those losses. “A plan for them is surely required, and required right away,” Mr Gardezi pleads.

“According to the Pakistan Revenue Automation Limited (PRAL) data, the country has 25,000 to 30,000 combine harvesters, which were imported during the last two decades, working in the country” explains Dr Iqrar A. Khan, vice-chancellor of the Agriculture University (Faisalabad), who inducted students and led the wheat-sowing campaign. These harvesters are too old to work efficiently and are causing losses. Seasonal wear and tear, rough environment and lack of maintenance have rendered them counter-productive for the crop. Farmers over time have become overwhelmingly dependent on them.

“Over 90pc of the area is now harvested through these machines,” says Abad Khan, a farmer from central Punjab. The actual operations of these machines reveal the damages they wreak on the yield. They are rarely sent to qualified mechanics during the season because of loss of the daily income and the high cost of repair. Thus routine faults are attended by drivers in the fields, costing efficiency.

Parts for replacements also come from old machines or are copied by the local grinders, says Mr Khan adding: “to make matters worse, the major brunt of poor operations is borne by smaller farmers. The bigger ones have the luxury of choosing machines and service providers.

“We need to look at the crop from start to end — from sowing to harvesting — not at one stage, like Punjab seems to be doing right now; riveting all attention on the sowing side.”

It can be done easily. “The government can pre-qualify a few well-reputed global firms. Allow them to open showrooms here, bring their spare parts and offer after-sale services. Ask importers to import from them only. Then offer soft loans to farmers or service providers” suggests a senior official of the Punjab government. These proposals have been on the table for decades now.

However, with Pakistan becoming a net importer of wheat and the national food security picture worsening, these losses assume added significance and so efforts are being made to control them.

“Or alternately, press the local tractor manufacturers into making these farm machines as well,” suggests Mr Khan. These machines are not too sophisticated. And then why only combine harvesters, why not all kinds of machines required in the field. The real challenge is to develop a service providing industry. This can be done by offering subsidised loans to manufacturers and duty breaks, he recommends.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 13th, 2021

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