SEVERAL hundred farmers have converged on Islamabad for the last three days to protest against the soaring costs of agricultural inputs, diesel and electricity. They are also seeking the abolition of taxes on agricultural machinery and compensation for their losses from rains and floods. They have refused to end their protest unless their demands are accepted and a meeting arranged with the prime minister. With the government strapped for cash and restrained by the IMF’s conditions, it will be impossible for the authorities to meet most of these demands, especially the ones involving additional subsidies, at the moment. Nonetheless, the protests should remind the government of the critical importance of agriculture to the revival of a teetering economy, reduction in surging food prices and shortages, alleviation of growing poverty, etc. The country’s fiscal and current account woes cannot be tackled on a sustainable basis without drastically and rapidly improving its agricultural economy.
That the agricultural sector remains inefficient and disorganised in spite of its more than 20pc contribution to the national output speaks volumes for its neglect by successive governments and demands a rethink of the policies impeding its competitiveness at the expense of the nation’s food security. The sector faces multiple challenges, ranging from low yield, erosion in soil fertility owing to the excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, waterlogging and salinity, obsolete and inefficient farming practices, changing weather patterns owing to climate change, and what not. Sadly, government policies have only aggravated these problems, encouraged fixed cropping patterns, and discouraged a shift to value-added crops. No wonder a big portion of the population remains food-insecure and the country dependent on large food imports. The policy focus on expanding the cultivable area and increasing the use of chemicals for higher output has engendered food safety concerns and is hindering efforts to boost farm exports. The current state of affairs calls for urgent action from policymakers. The government must allocate sufficient resources for agricultural research, set up initiatives to encourage the adoption of modern farm technologies and practices, and stop influencing farmers’ crop selection decisions. Besides, programmes should be developed to increase smallholders’ access to formal credit and link them directly to the markets to bypass the middleman to reduce costs and raise incomes. Agriculture can play a major role in economic revival. But for that to happen, we must revamp policies and make smallholders and landless farmers the centrepiece of all new initiatives.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2022