Rice productivity and its export

Published November 28, 2005

US agriculture authorities and researchers are reported to have estimated a jump in rice production in Pakistan from about 4.50 million tons to 5.4 m tones because of higher productivity, increased acreage under the crop and favourable weather conditions for the crop. This has raised the prospects of a one billion dollar return from rice exports.

Hopefully, estimates and expectations would come true but there is little reason to expect that the progress can be sustained as ground conditions do not hold much promise for continuous higher produce and extending cultivation area every year has to be ruled out in view of diminishing water resources, inefficient and superannuated sowing and harvesting practices and limited availability of land.

These are professional factors. No less important is the social and economic aspect of the crop, indeed of all crops of the country: what benefit growers receive when the crop is high? The answer is: nothing reportable. If anything better yield becomes instrumental in intensifying exploitation of their labour. The middlemen start a waiting game for picking up the produce and push farmers into a situation where he is left with no option but to sell at the price dictated by the market for they have no means for storing the produce and they cannot afford to delay the sale as money is needed for the next crop.

While support price does not really change market pressure, it is nevertheless a starting point for negotiating the sale. Officials concede that support prices for most crops are not commensurate with the investment of the grower. Growers accept the support price because they have no option: there is but one outlet and they cannot shut the door on it. Consequently, whatever the worth of the support price, it assists growers to get returns on their labour that are not excessively exploitative. This year, the government withdrew even this fig leaf of support from growers.

Price per 40 kg of basmati rice was Rs415 last year, up from Rs400 from the previous year, the raise reflecting the generosity of the government and its concern for the farmers. The time between the last and the current crop has been marked by high inflation and considerable hike in cost of inputs in the agriculture sector. Prices of diesel, fertilizer, electricity, etc, have all shot up; the cost of living has been inevitably been pushed quite a few notches.

These conditions justified an upward review of the support price but the authorities, in their absolute and unchallengeable wisdom decided to ignore the issue. The support price of basmati rice has thus remained unchanged. One can trust arhties for negotiating hard with farmers to sell at even lower rates than the last year. The last year’s price grossly undermined the interests of the farming community and the current year has been worse.

There is little hope for further improvement in yield per acre. Cultivation practices are age-old and farmers-they may be alive to the need for modernizing their act, lack financial means and knowledge for entering the contemporary era of agriculture. They practice transplanting of the crop in a manner that does not make for yield increase.

The method introduced by the Chinese that increases plant population in the fields has tried on a limited level but it has not been promoted on a large enough scale to change the landscape. The Chinese technology is thus an academic toy with the authorities and remains short of effective utilization. Why is it? So is anybody’s guess because equipment is simple and can be inexpensively produced locally. Farmers would not require any elaborate training for conversion to this technology.

According to a report, a Jesuit priest in India came up with the idea some time back that transplantation should be carried out with soil on the roots of plant when sowing is done because that would ensure the right depth for the paddy. Traditional transplantation results in uneven sowing and the plant’s generation takes more time. Many Indian farmers are said to have adopted this practice with rewarding results. It is said that this is producing at least 50 per cent higher yield.

This may be an exaggeration but there can be no harm in experimenting with the method and if it proves successful, adopting it in Pakistan too. The Agriculture Departments of Punjab and Sindh, the two rice-producing provinces can experiment. But it is a question if they have this information.

One of the basic inputs is becoming scarcer by the day. Water resources are diminishing fast and plans for enhancing water availability remain in limbo for political reasons. But experts of the government can guide farmers in applying less water without undermining the productivity of the crop. Approximately 12, 000 cubic meter water is applied for producing one ton of rice; experts say that this quantity is about double the requirement of the crop.

The Extension wings of provincial agriculture set up are apparently either not pushed or , for some reason or the other, they are not in a position to provide the required advice to farmers. Excessive irrigation of the crop may have something to do with distrust in water availability between provinces. That makes it a political issue that the present government is not in a position to resolve.

Many problems of the sector are linked with political conditions in the country and are unlikely to be resolved in the present dispensation, not that political governments performed better on this front. Still, one can expect acceptance of realities by them while this has to be ruled out at this point in time.

Many factors undermine productivity in the sector. Exploitation by middle men and exporters by delaying the purchase of the crop to bring down its price is one. Inefficient cultivation practices is another. Lack of research hampers growth. Finishing and packaging of rice for exports is also on the way of higher exports.

Some exporter’s are aware of this handicap and have improved their facilities and technical level but there are many who simply export the commodity to top importers in Dubai where Indian exporters properly treat it and export it as Indian Basmati.

But the most serious issue is ignoring the interest of the farmer. There cannot possibly be any notable change in the scene unless the grower’s interests are protected and they are treated equitably. The support price of the crop should have been raised.

Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) should have been instructed to intervene on behalf of the farmer as it was asked to do in the case of cotton, not that it brought any windfall to farmers but it helped to small extent. The basic requirements of rice crop are bringing efficiency to farming practices and ensuring that producers are properly paid for their labour.

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