A girl carries wheat to be thrashed in Tando Allahyar.—Photo by Umair Ali
A girl carries wheat to be thrashed in Tando Allahyar.—Photo by Umair Ali

The upcoming wheat sowing season is just two months away. However, there are many challenges facing the crop that is a staple. Ranging from seed issues to per acre yield enhancement and from support price to procurement and grain storage, every challenge seems daunting.

While census 2017 puts the provisional population figure at 207 million, the credibility of the figures has been subject to some debate. There has been talk of repeating this national exercise which could finally determine the actual number. This would then enable policymakers to assess actual domestic wheat consumption needs as well.

Wheat was once again being imported at a time when the economy was struggling for stability in view of the dollar’s unending upward journey although the rupee has lately made some gains against the dollar. The grain’s import will perhaps put another burden on the food import bill.

The grain’s import throws light on the fact that perennial issues confronting this strategic crop remain unaddressed. This vital national crop ensures food security. It was supposed to be seen in the backdrop of Sustainable Development Goal-2 (zero hunger) with multiple targets of the United Nations by 2030, almost seven years ago.

The support price does not reach deserving farmers but fills the coffers of unscrupulous food officials and politicians

Some of these targets include doubling the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, sustainable food production and resilient agricultural practices, investing in rural infrastructure, agricultural research, technology and gene banks, and preventing agricultural trade restrictions, market distortions and export subsidies.

Sindh is Pakistan’s second largest wheat producer. The provincial government’s food department has once again failed to achieve the wheat procurement target of 1.4m tonnes in the 2021-22 season at least until August’s third week. Sindh food secretary Raja Khurram couldn’t be reached for his viewpoint but reports indicate only 878,000 tonnes or so of wheat was procured.

This is just pathetic on the part of the food department. For the first time, wheat procurement started in March this year against the conventional operations that commence in April. Still, the target remained unmet. Why the food department was unable able to meet the target and transfer the government’s support price of Rs2,220 per 40kg to poor farmers is anybody’s guess.

But, failure to meet the target could be attributed to tripartite nexus between hoarders, food officials and those involved in the illegal trade of the grain. This is disgusting as the subsidy comes from the public’s purse and doesn’t reach farmers. Among all provincial departments, food is the one that has been plagued by corruption the most where its officers/officials face financial embezzlement charges and cases by the anticorruption watchdog involving misappropriation of wheat worth multibillion rupees.

Per acre yields of wheat remain unimpressive. Productivity enhancement has been a key area which has been debated time and again by experts and policymakers. This worries Yusuf Zafar, a former chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.

The outgoing government announced a productivity enhancement programme covered under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) to increase wheat production in the country to 30m tons annually by enhancing per acre yields from 22-26 maunds (mds) an acre to 35mds an acre nationally to meet the domestic consumption needs of 26m tons, he said. Rust issue in seeds has to be controlled through research-oriented measures.

“But the idea remains merely a commitment,” he laments. The federal government and provinces were supposed to ensure a 60-40 per cent cost-sharing ratio as per the programme’s component. The wheat acreage, he explained, was to be reduced from 9.2m hectare acreage to 8.2m hectares and the difference was to be brought under cultivation of oilseed crops like corn and sunflower for import substitution given the nationwide potential of these crops.

Mr Zafar believed that one should not lose sight of the fact that out of Pakistan’s existing wheat production, around 1.2m tonnes are needed for seed purposes alone and thus have to be excluded from production stats to have a clear picture, followed by strategic reserves and smuggling factor that stomach 1m tonnes. “So, we will be better off when we have 30m tonnes production by adopting measures reflected in the PSDP programme,” he remarks. The same goes for the nonexistent safe national storage capacity.

Sunflowers are an important short-duration cash crop in Sindh. Corn cultivation with imported seeds made inroads in Punjab whereas sunflower cultivation showed better results a decade back in Sindh but sustainability and other factors led to a substantial decline in its acreage and production. After achieving impressive acreage, it was back to square one. The figures for the 2001-2010 decade in Sindh show that it was a golden period for growth in the sunflower sector.

Nationally, Sindh has contributed 79pc in area and 64pc to the production of sunflower. In 2010, when super floods devastated one-fourth of the country in the Aug-Sept period and farmland remained underwater, sunflowers were grown over 266,964ha and 266,964 tonnes of production was achieved. In 2020-21, the area under sunflowers stood at 39.856ha in Sindh.

Sindh Abadgar Board (SAB) vice president Mahmood Nawaz Shah concurred with Mr Zafar saying sustainable wheat production remains elusive. “If wheat is imported for Rs3,100-3,200 per 40kg by the government, what will be the support price for the 2022-23 crop?” he wondered. “If wheat flour in a village of Tando Allahyar district is being sold for Rs90 a kilo and wheat at Rs3,100 per 40kg in August, how the market will react in January 2023 is a big question,” he remarks.

Given such a scenario, oilseed crop production is a dream and wheat productivity enhancement continues to elude policymakers. In view of the present economic conditions, coupled with the ongoing wheat import bill, the present coalition government may face the dilemma of reducing or increasing the wheat support price.

This support price story coupled with procurement is disturbing. The price does not reach deserving farmers — despite the government’s announcement — but it does fill the coffers of unscrupulous food officers/officials and politicians. The procurement exercise benefits influential or wealthy landlords mostly at the cost of poor farmers and peasants. It is a vicious circle that none have been able to break.

Small or medium size farmers who deserve wheat support price keep crying about having bardana to supply wheat. The bags land somewhere else.

Currently, wheat is sold for Rs76 per kilo or Rs7,600 per 100kg bag in the market. Sindh government has procured wheat for Rs55 a kilo or Rs5,500 for a 100kg bag. General Secretary Atta Chakki Owners Welfare Association, Najmuddin Chohan fear that if wheat is released as per their requirement it would decrease the price. Otherwise, flour’s rate shows an upward trend.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 22nd, 2022

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