AS 2023, what the farmers call a disastrous year, wears out, they do not have much hope for 2024 as well. They list expected problems they are expected to face next year, some of them existential in nature: rising cost of production, market cartelisation, profiteering, price crashes, scarcity of seeds, bad and deteriorating governance and agriculture falling out of ruling elite — except of course for lip service.

Until and unless the party coming to power in the February 8 elections declares an agriculture emergency and commits all political, financial and administrative resources to it, the sector would find it hard to survive, let alone thrive, say most of the farmers and experts Dawn spoke to.

Dr Iqrar A Khan, author and contributor to national and provincial agriculture policies, advises the next government to control cartels in commodity markets if it wants the crop sector to perform.

Making his point clear, he said that the government created high hopes for cotton growers when it declared an indicative price of Rs8,500 per maund. It led to a strong revival of crops, and production doubled in a matter of one season. However, as soon as cotton started arriving in the market, the price crashed to Rs6,500 per maund, robbing farmers of their hard-earned money and the government of credibility.

Without the council’s focus, farmers fear that the sector may find it hard to survive, much less thrive

The same thing happened to maize as well: its price dwindled to half of its pre-sowing value. In a production cycle with very high costs, price slides like these leave farmers and farming crippled for years. These crashes now set the context for next year and dim the hopes, Dr Khan predicts.

Comparing the cost of production with the price of commodities, Khalid Khokhar of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI) wonders how farmers could survive, let alone perform. “For urea alone, the growers paid more than Rs120 billion to black marketers this season alone. Four different urea prices operated in the national market with complete impunity. Which sector in the world can take that kind of hit and endure? We are talking about one input.

“The same is true for all others as well, be it diesel, electricity, water availability, bank markup and farm labour. After these massive expenses, the prices collapsed, leaving most farmers under huge debts. These debts will now be carried over to the next year and set the financial context of the sector for 2024. Can cash-strapped farmers afford the kind of investment needed for crops? Should it take the risk given the current price smashes?” These are the two defining questions for 2024, Khalid Khokhar concludes.

The crisis extends beyond sudden price breakdowns and is now structural, Malik Naeem of Farmers Associates Pakistan (FAP) claims. Farmers are now subjected to double taxation — agri-income tax and fixed tax on acreage. With it has come a 500 per cent increase in abhyanga — water service charge — and all three charges are now part of the government’s revenue scheme.

They would impact the sector very negatively in 2024. With the kind of killing increase in the cost of production, the free fall of prices of commodities and the butchering taxation regime, only the most naïve would expect the sector to stay alive. Forget about performance and prosperity, Malik laments.

Abad Khan, a farmer and a part of FAP, who serves on a few boards of directors of agri-companies as well, thinks that “confusion about sowing” would be the catchword next year. Agriculture does not fit into calendar years; it is all about continuity. Decisions made in 2023 regarding what to sow and what not to sow will define 2024.

“For the last decade or so, maize has anchored agriculture. With its price crashing, each farmer will now have to decide whether to continue with it or not. Punjab’s wheat policy is deeply confusing. Punjab has changed procurement and release prices twice in the last two months, leaving farmers in a financial and policy lurch. The cotton crash has left farmers in a deep muddle about its future. Early potato crop prices have slid after initial better returns, leaving farmers wondering whether they should continue sowing it.

“With farming becoming capital intensive — high input rates, historically high bank markup, record contract rates — in every sense of the word, farmers will have to make highly risky decisions on what to sow and what not,” Mr Khan predicts.

All farmers agree that it does not matter who comes to power next. They have seen them all and experienced their policy preferences as well.

The only silver lining they foresee is the newly created Special Investment Facilitation Council, which aims to bring new investment to Pakistan. If the council owns the sector and makes it one of the preferred areas for investment, as its members say they would, the sector may look up. Left to routine politicians, things would stay as they are, farmers fear.

Syed Mehmood Nawaz Shah
Sindh Abadgar Board President

DESPITE being critically stressed, Pakistan’s agriculture sector will contribute $3 billion to our economy in 2023-24. Still, it has the potential to grow much more.

If the new government takes a holistic approach, this potential can be realised by providing certified seeds, ensuring irrigation water supplies when needed most as w;ell as ensuring the availability of inputs and agricultural credit.

Furthermore, protection against climatic risks through insurance is also needed, which should be backed by research, extension and development. For example, the agriculture sector is going through a major fertiliser shock this year and will be overcharged to the extent of Rs130bn-Rs150bn through black marketing of urea fertiliser.

The horticulture sector is another sub-sector which is of immense potential. Only five per cent to 7pc out of 13 million tonnes of production is added value, and about 30pc is wasted, which has a foregone value of $900 million. There is also immense potential for horticultural exports to countries on the CPEC route. —MHK

Nabi Bux Sathio
Sindh Chamber of Agriculture vice president

CLIMATE change is a serious threat, especially to the agriculture sector. While Pakistan is advised at all relevant forums of the required measures that must be taken to mitigate aftershocks of climate disasters, public sector relevant departments have done nothing except engage urban-based nongovernmental organisations that hold seminars in luxury hotels, thus remaining an eyewash. No serious attention is paid to crops.

Experts and scientists consistently state that crops, especially rice and livestock sectors, are major contributors to emissions of methane gases, which are more harmful than carbon dioxide. These factors must be tackled by converting livestock waste and manure into composite fertiliser and biogas generation, but such opportunities never get the attention of people who matter. The government should not only announce the support price of the four major crops but also ensure that the price is paid to farmers.

The government had expected 29 million tonnes of wheat production last year, but we harvested roughly 27m tonnes. In the current Rabi season, wheat production is estimated at 32m tonnes but I fear we won’t get it because hoarding and black marketing will create a shortage of urea that will affect yields. —MHK

Minhaj Hotiana
Farmer, Pakpattan district

CAPITALISTS are manipulating political, economic and other systems in the country. Political parties currently in the electoral arena are either not capable enough or don’t have the will to challenge and break this vicious control suffocating the farming community.

All the administrative set-up cannot ensure even the provision of fertilisers at the official rates. The compost-making companies and their dealership networks are usurping the subsidy and minting money by selling their products through the black market.

Recently, there was a balloting by a fertiliser company in which its dealers were awarded multiple expensive jeeps. Video clips of the ceremony went viral on social media. All this money has been extracted from the poor farmers by exploiting them through artificial shortages of compost and selling the same at exorbitantly higher rates in the black market. Can the new government put in place a simple foolproof system for the provision of two bags of urea and one bag of DAP per acre at subsidised rates to all farmers across the board? And those who need more may get it from the open market without any subsidy. —AM

Shaukat Ali Chadhar
President of Kisan Board Pakistan

THE price mechanism in vogue since 1947 is heavily tilted towards arhtis (middle-men) against the interests of the rural population that toils day and night to ensure the nation’s food security.

Grains should be categorised based on their moisture, and then their prices should be fixed. Purchases at lower than the announced rates should be penalised. Digitised scales should be introduced at all grain markets, replacing the present auction system.

All produce over and above the domestic requirements and replenishing strategic reserves should be automatically exported to save the local market from a glut while protecting the growers from likely financial losses.

The government should have the political will to control the mafias that use their dirty wealth to manipulate all processes from plantation to harvesting and from farm to fork, exploiting both the rural and urban population. —AM

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 1st, 2024



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