Like cats, the farmers’ budget wish list also seems to have nine lives. Every season, they renew their almost identical demands — the rising cost of production, lack of research, cartelisation of agri-trade and inefficient markets etc — that are regularly ignored in the finance bill.

The farmers then wait for a year to dust them off, lobby for them and are ignored yet again. The last decade stands witness to this cycle of advocacy, debate and neglect.

This year, however, two problems were added that have been ignored for decades and have accentuated to a level of existential threat to state and society and can only be ignored, or even response-delayed, at great national peril.

Their severity is such that farmers seem to have forgotten everything else to advocate their solution as a national priority and urgency. They are the severe drought conditions that need fresh planning for food security.

For 3m tonnes, the total wheat import bill may be around a staggering $1.6bn — an amount that the country cannot afford along with the Rs100bn subsidy for domestic wheat

They insist that the next finance bill has to address both of them before the damage becomes irreparable.

For the last few decades, policy, planning and committed resources for both these issues were part of farmers’ demands. But lately, water and food security issues have deteriorated fast and to a level that is threatening the financial viability of the state.

The next budget, farmers assert, can put everything else on a hold and find solutions to these twin national issues, which are necessary for their, and Pakistan’s, survival.

For the last three months, both dams are empty, putting the entire dependency of the agricultural base and drinking water on the run of river supplies. On their part, the run of river supplies went down to a level with only a few parallels in the country’s history.

Both main ingredients of daily river supplies — rain and melted snow — have been missing for four months now. The country has not had any mentionable rain spells since January, and the furnace heat situation gripping the plains of the country has not affected the north to cause snow to melt.

Last Thursday, when these lines were written, total national water supplies were 151,800 cusecs against 264,200 cusecs last year and five year average of 266,800 cusecs. As far as the storage is concerned, Pakistan (on June 2) had 148,000 acre-feet of water against the last ten years’ average of 2.4 million acre-feet for the day. The situation has halved the supplies to what is required for irrigation and drinking purposes for the country.

The absence of rain, high temperatures in plains and lower ones on high altitudes, dip in snowfall and subsequent melting maybe a routine natural phenomena. What is not natural is the absence of water storage, which gives a margin of manoeuvring to the state.

The epic failure to build dams for the last 50 years despite regular warnings from the world has come to haunt the country like never before. “Now, ignoring the issue would be suicidal and delaying response disastrous; the choice is stark, and budget-making is the time to express how seriously the government is going to take this life-saving priority,” says Dr Iqrar A Khan, vice-chancellor of the Agriculture University Faisalabad.

The second biggest challenge that has emerged in the last three years is the food security issue. With the country facing imports of around three million tonnes of wheat each year, Pakistan has turned into a net importer since 2019. Every year, it imports between two to three million tonnes. It is already in the process of floating tenders for 3m tonnes just after the conclusion of the harvesting season.

War in the Black Sea region has made the availability and price of wheat a huge international issue and Pakistan is already facing the heat. The first tender got Pakistan a price of $542 per tonne, which translates into roughly Rs5,300 per maund if other charges (port handling, inland transportation) are added.

For 3m tonnes, the total import bill may be around a staggering $1.6 billion — an amount that the country cannot afford. The domestic price is Rs2,200 per maund, which people cannot pay and the government is now running an elaborate subsidy programme to insulate the poor from this food shock.

That means, each maund of wheat would be subsidised by Rs3,100 and the entire subsidy cost would be around Rs100 billion. The sheer numbers are overwhelming and unaffordable.

Factor in the regularly increasing pulses import bill and the national food (in)security picture assumes a horrific proportion. In the first nine months of the current fiscal, the pulses import bill had reached $477 million (something around Rs100 billion), up from $448m last year in the corresponding period.

During the same period, the import bill of what we call the “food group” has jumped from $6.1bn in the first nine months of last year to $7bn this fiscal year.

These numbers explain the phenomenal failure of Pakistan, which boasts, and rightly so, of having an agrarian base with over 70 per cent of the population involved in agriculture. “None of the items mentioned in the import list are such that Pakistan cannot produce. Still, it is importing them at a great cost to the national fiscal health,” says Professor Dr Asif Ali, vice-chancellor of Agriculture University (Multan).

The next budget must come up with an elaborate food security plan, required financial allocations and measurable goals to regularly assess the situation, demands Abad Khan — a farmer from Central Punjab.

Wheat warnings came thick and fast from every international and domestic analyst. Pulses’ plans have been part of national planning since time immemorial. Still, none of them has worked. No one can afford to allow this situation to go on. Both water (reservoir) planning and food security must be treated as national emergencies and budgetary allocations must reflect that, Mr Khan insists.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 6th, 2022

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