In the backdrop of losses in successive Kharif and Rabi crops, maize and wheat, high diesel and electricity rates, skyrocketing compost prices, and a party at the helm of affairs with a track record of anti-farmer policies, the farming community must be impatiently waiting for the first budget of the new Shehbaz Sharif government, which is due to be presented in the coming weeks.

After his election to the coveted office, Mr Sharif had thrown some light on plans to uplift the agriculture sector in his victory speech. These included a direct fertiliser subsidy to growers, a solar tube-wells programme for small farmers and the import of quality seeds to help eliminate local seed mafias that fleece farmers by selling poor-quality seeds.

In the first cabinet meeting, the prime minister had also sought estimates from different ministries and divisions and formed a committee to go back to the ministries to set five-year targets in different sectors, such as information technology, agriculture, industries, energy, food and livestock, Federal Board of Revenue reforms, ease of doing business, etc. Since then, there has been no report on whether the committee has developed a five-year blueprint.

The government is facing a severe trust deficit among the farmers this time. Before each budget, successive governments have promised better subsidies, improved support prices, enhanced official assistance in extension services, easy credit disbursement, etc. And this year has been no exception, says Wajid Chattha, a progressive farmer from South Punjab.

The government is facing a severe trust deficit among the farmers due to unmet promises that should be rectified in the upcoming budget

“One believes in a government after it comes up to the people’s expectations. But how and why should we trust this government, which could not fulfil its promise of ensuring the minimum support price of Rs8,500 per 40kg for cotton? And for the first time in history, a government announced a certain minimum support price for wheat, but then it did not procure even a single grain at that rate, leaving the growers high and dry,” he bemoans.

These unmet promises have led to a severe trust deficit, which is bound to give shocking results by the next Rabi season when wheat acreage shrinks, he warns, regretting that the authorities provided relief to 30 per cent of urban wheat flour consumers at the cost of 70pc of the rural population.

However, all is not lost. He asserts that the much-touted Kisan card may be a major breather and trust restorer for the farming community if it helps secure seed, compost, pesticides, and working capital, as is being hinted at.

To avert future crises of wheat and other crops, he suggests the creation of a ‘buffer fund’ for buying farm produce in case a crop market crashes. Under this fund — to be executed in coordination with the National Food Security Ministry and provincial food departments — crop storages should be built and middlemen (arhtis) registered for regulating the market.

‘Promoting scientific development can contribute to the agricultural sector’s resilience and equip the farmers with the knowledge and tools necessary for sustainable practices’

Hanif Hanjra, a smallholder from Sargodha, thinks the government should establish its writ in implementing laws and official policies governing the agriculture sector and eliminating compost and seed mafias. He regrets that company rates for different varieties of urea fertilisers ranged between Rs3,200 and Rs3,400 per 50kg bag. However, in the market, compost was available during the season at a rate of not less than Rs5,000 per 50kg bag.

Referring to the seed mafia, he points out that he had purchased canola seed at a premium price last season, but it proved to be of poor quality, as its germination was one-third of the promised level. All his pleas with the authorities against the seed dealer fell on deaf ears.

A key aspect of the anticipated budget would be a better focus on agriculture research and development (R&D). Increased funding for R&D initiatives can foster innovation in crop varieties, pest control, and farming techniques. However, research institutes lack funds even to pay their employees. What can be said of executing seed research projects?

“The present kinnow variety was introduced in the 1960s, and since then, no new seed has been developed as the present variety is losing its efficacy and potential with each passing year as well as becoming more and more prone to diseases. The world has come up with seedless citrus fruits, but we are continuing with the old variety without any improvement in taste or texture,” says Mr Hanjra.

Some agriculturists believe that any agriculture sector strategy should focus on five areas: increasing farm and non-farm income in rural areas, creating employment opportunities close to villages, reducing risk through crop and livestock insurance, developing agri-infrastructure, and improving quality of life in the countryside.

They say a substantial investment should be made in smart agriculture, modernising storage facilities, improving transportation system, and creating integrated supply chains for enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of the agricultural sector.

“These investments can significantly reduce post-harvest losses and ensure a more resilient and streamlined food supply chain,” says Aamer Hayat Bhandara, a progressive farmer from Pakpattan district.

“By promoting scientific development, the government can contribute to the overall resilience of the agricultural sector and equip the farmers and agribusinesses with the knowledge and tools necessary for sustainable practices.”

He also calls for introducing track and traceability in the agricultural sector that not only reduces instances of fraud but also empowers consumers to make informed choices about the origin and quality of the produce they purchase.

He argues that the deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices on farms can help collect real-time data on soil health, weather conditions, and crop growth, enabling farmers to make informed decisions, optimise resource utilisation, and boost their overall productivity.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 3rd, 2024

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