Ziaul Haq started his agriculture business two years ago in 78_5/R, his small Punjab village near Sahiwal, after returning from Bahrain. He also signed up for the Kissan Card, a new initiative designed by the government to support farmers, upgrade their skills and boost productivity in Pakistan in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
“I found the incentives really appealing, since the kissan [farmers] are facing issues accessing seeds, fertilisers and purchasing diesel,” he says. “But my biometric verification failed when I visited the fertiliser dealer to get a subsidy through my Kissan Card.”
Ziaul Haq became one of the many farmers who has been let down by Pakistan’s $1.33 billion Kissan Card digital initiative, which had promised to boost farmers’ livelihoods. Due to issues of inaccessibility, red-tapism and overnight discontinuation of the scheme without notice (for three months), many Kissan Card holders have been left confused and frustrated.
The landlords have also been disappointed by the failed promises of the scheme. Muzaffar Hussain has been farming for the past 40 years in the same village as Ziaul Haq. He cultivates wheat, rice and maize on his 10 acres of land. He says that, over time, the changing environment and inflation have adversely affected crops and their production.
As a landowning farmer himself, he tells Eos that farmers have always been at a severe disadvantage. What makes matter worse is the non-availability of fertiliser (or rather, expensive fertiliser) and the deteriorating quality of seed.
Almost a year has passed since the government initiated a 300 billion rupee programme to upgrade agricultural infrastructure, boost productivity and improve the financial conditions of farmers. Why has the ambitious scheme not benefitted farmers the way it was meant to?
“The Kissan Card was like a ray of light for us,” Hussain tells Eos. “We have very advantageous land to cultivate wheat, rice and sugarcane, but small farmers avoid the cultivation of these crops because of the costs. When we heard that, through the Kissan Card, the government will help us get small loans, subsidies on fertilisers, and even pesticides, it renewed our hopes.”
But to what effect?
THE KISSAN CARD SCHEME IN PUNJAB
Former prime minister Imran Khan introduced a PKR 300 billion program to boost agricultural productivity and improve the financial conditions of the farmers by upgrading agriculture infrastructure and reducing input costs in Punjab and KP. This mega-program aimed to provide different facilities to farmers who registered for the Kissan Card, especially through financial support, following a transparent mechanism. This article focuses on the Kissan Card scheme in Punjab , though it was launched both in Punjab and KP.
According to the official website of the Pakistan Information and Technology Board (PITB), 1.28 million farmers registered for the Kissan Card in Punjab. However, the Punjab government website claims that 2.5 million farmers are registered under the Kissan Card. The contested figures given by the PITB website and Punjab government website become the first site of confusion for those looking to explore this scheme.
“The issuance of the Kissan Card will help remove hiccups in extending financial assistance to farmers, by freeing them from the multi-step verification,” the Secretary of Agriculture in South Punjab, Saqeeb Ateel, had said at the inauguration ceremony a little over a year ago.
The Kissan Card was initiated to bring in transparency to and speed up the transferring of subsidies to deserving farmers in a single step. It was aimed at providing subsidies for seeds and pesticides; support to farmers through money in moments of calamity and crisis; and protection to all of Pakistan’s four to five million farmers.
But for many, it has failed.
HURDLES IN THE REGISTRATION PROCESS
The Kissan Card initiative excited most farmers at first. To provide financial support to the farmers, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government signed an agreement with a private bank.
In theory, the registration process requires the farmers to visit the Agriculture Department branch in their area and fill the registration form. After submitting the form, they are required to visit the nearest bank branch and complete their biometric verification, by paying PKR 500 as a registration fee.
Then, following this process, their data is fed into the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) registry and, after a specific time, the farmers get a call from the Agriculture Department to collect their Kissan Card from the nearest branch of the Department of Agriculture.
But the farmers have run into many bureaucratic issues in attempting to register and reap the benefits of the scheme.
“[The bank] charges a fee of 500 to get us registered for the Kissan Card and the government advertisements show that this is a refundable amount. After a year I need to renew my card by paying another 500 but, what about the money I paid before?” asks Ziaul Haq.
Samavia Shahid, a Cotton Inspector in the Agriculture Department in Sahiwal and Supervisor of the Kissan Card, tells Eos that the farmers have lodged a number of complaints regarding the rude and non-cooperative behavior of the bank staff.
When contacted by Eos, a staff member of the bank confirmed their role in facilitating Kissan Cards but clarified that the farmers were first required to connect with agents assigned by the bank. None of the farmers knew where to find the agents. Branch manager Waqas from the Saddar branch of the bank in Sahiwal, redirected the farmers to another branch at Pakpattan Road Sahiwal. The zonal manager, Zeeshan, confirmed that the branch does Kissan Card registrations.
Upon reaching the said branch, however, the staff said they undertake no such registrations. Zeeshan refused to provide further information and said his zone staff was busy with the distribution of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) in the Sahiwal division.
“I do not have the numbers of biometric machines we had distributed in Sahiwal for now and I also cannot give any accurate number of registered kissans with us either,” Rao Naveed, the ‘Cluster Manager’ tells Eos. Naveed was also not sure about the amount that the farmers have to pay for the renewal of their cards nor the location at which they had to go.
“[The bank] only has one branch [dealing with the registration] in the area but, unfortunately, not a single person from this bank can guide us nor connect us to their agents,” says Shah, one of the farmers interviewed by Eos.
MISTRUST AMONG THE FARMERS
Muhammad Kashif is a resident of 82/6 R, another small village in Punjab. He did not register himself for the Kissan Card. He believes that it is just a fake announcement from the government.
“The kissan is the most neglected person in our country. Since my childhood, I have never observed any support from the government for the kissan,” Kashif tells Eos.
“My father was also a farmer. I saw him suffering because of low-quality pesticides, high costs of fertilisers, and the unavailability of diesel, but I never witnessed any help from the local Agriculture Department, so I do not trust any of these initiatives by the government.”
Hussain, the landlord from Sahiwal district said he wasn’t allowed to get subsidies a second time within a year. “When I visited a fertiliser dealer’s store to purchase fertiliser for my winter crop, after getting subsidies for the summer crop, the dealer refused to give me a subsidy, claiming that the government had not allowed us,” he says.
Muhammad Abbas, owner of Waqas Traders, a fertiliser store in Punjab, tells Eos that the bank had taken back their biometric machines and no dealer is giving any subsidy any longer. “A coupon is only valid for six months and now all the coupons in the fertiliser bags have expired,” said Abbas.
“This is a very complex mechanism,” says Abbas. “We are told to provide subsidies to the farmers holding the Kissan Card on each bag of Di-Ammonium Phosphate [DAP] fertiliser and they limit it to 10 bags. The government has also advertised that it will provide subsidies for seeds and pesticides, but it is just an advertisement.
“When farmers visit our stores to get fertiliser, they also ask for a subsidy on pesticides, which we refuse. Normally, the farmers blame us, claiming that we are intentionally not facilitating them,” he adds.
WHO BENEFITS FROM THE DIGITISED SCHEME?
Maqsood Ahmad, Deputy Director of Agriculture Department (Extension) Sahiwal, tells Eos that the biggest benefit of the Kissan Card to date is developing a digitised repository of the farmers, along with collecting their biometric information.
“We have tried to reach the doors of the farmers to help them, inform them and facilitate them regarding the Kissan Card,” he claims. “Our agents often visit their assigned area to reach the farmers to know their problems and facilitate them.” Ahmad maintains that subsidies were available for farmers but the political instability in Punjab had badly impacted this initiative.
“Registrations need to be done using thumb impressions and many farmers have lost their impression markings over the years. When the government announced this initiative, we, along with the bank staff, went door to door to help farmers get registered. But no internet or slow internet connections was a big issue in these areas.”
Syed Naeem Safdar Shah owns 15 acres of land and has registered himself in the Kissan Card initiative. He tells Eos that he used the card to get a subsidy on DAP but succeeded in doing so only once as, according to him, on his second visit, they refused to entertain him on the Kissan Card.
Naeem charts out other issues in the Kissan Card Scheme. He wants sprays for his tunnel crop but the Kissan Card does not provide any subsidy on these sprays. “While it is a good initiative, there are many gaps that take time to be filled. As the farmers are illiterate, they cannot use technology and even cannot use mobiles to reach the facilities,” Shah says.
“Hypothetically if 2.5 million kissan have so far registered under the Kissan Card initiative, [the bank] has earned 120 million rupees to date, while the number of kissan who paid renewal fees is still hidden. The biggest question is who is the biggest beneficiary of this initiative, the Kissan or the bank?” Ziaul Haq inquires.
HAS THE SCHEME BEEN DISCONTINUED?
In April 2022, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) came in power in Punjab and formed the government for three months. They immediately discontinued this programme along with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-initiated Sehat [Health] Card. Later, when the PTI-allied Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) came to power, they restored the programme. But, the brief discontinuation has left many confused as to whether the scheme remains operational or not.
Abdul Kareem and Brothers is a fertiliser store and this store is affiliated with the Agriculture Department for subsidies. Abdul Kareem said that the bank took back their biometric machines from them without providing any reason and the Agriculture Department also never informed them if the initiative had been discontinued.
“At first, when [the bank] provided us the biometric machines, they asked for 15,000 rupees as security,” says Abdul Kareem. “They have given that money back, but now we hear that they are going to demand 200,000 rupees for each machine. I guess a number of dealers, except the bigger ones, will refuse to pay this amount.”
Maqsood highlights that the number of cards they received from the Agriculture Department were still in the office waiting to be collected despite making repeated calls to those registered. Another issue faced by the farmers is the process to activate this Kissan Card. “It is exactly like an ATM card, and a number of farmers cannot follow this process,” Maqsood adds.
THE WAY FORWARD
“I still believe that Kissan Card can be as successful in Pakistan as it is in India, but for that we need to improve the lives of our farmers,” Ziaul Haq suggests.
“Increasing transparency and accountability in the distribution and use of funds associated with the Kissan Card will make a big difference, because farmers still have trust issues. This can be done by implementing a robust system of monitoring and evaluation and making sure that the system is inclusive for all farmers, regardless of their background, caste, or location,” Ziaul Haq adds.
“Political instability affects the initiatives and, being a government official, I strongly believe that every political party should continue the ongoing public initiatives introduced by the former government,” Maqsood says.
The farmers belong to small villages that are not developed and lack basic facilities such as healthcare, education, sanitation, etc. Most of the farmers lack formal education and a majority of them do not have bank accounts and ATM cards. It is imperative that the government take meaningful steps in simplifying the process and explaining the operation of the cards to the community.
While the Kissan Card scheme is a promising one, its implementation requires robust changes, such as ensuring the continuation of the scheme in all areas, providing ease of information and communication and expanding the ambit of the subsidy, so that the farmers are able to incur lower costs on all types of sprays and seeds.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Sahiwal.
She tweets @saddiamazhar
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 5th, 2023
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