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Setting strategic direction

June 03, 2012

WITH the second budget after the 18th Amendment and provinces fully empowered for their agriculture development, it may be time for Punjab to start thinking about its farming on long-term basis — to set new priorities and divert resources to them — going beyond perfunctory allocations.

As a first step, and perhaps the most important for a new beginning, Punjab should start integrating its agriculture through planning and ensure efficient execution.

In the last few decades, Punjab has divided the sector into different segments. All of it was done in the name of efficiency both at planning and execution levels.

Currently, in addition to agriculture department’s own hugely stuffed directorates (with over 35,000 employees), there are around 14 allied departments involved in planning and execution of farm policies. Often so many people duplicating the same functions with undesirable outcomes cause stagnation in agriculture.

It has also added hugely to the non-development budget. With the provincial budget for agriculture already reeling under one per cent, these newly-created wings, with massive fringe facilities (in the name of market salaries and benefits), are gobbling up major portion of the agricultural budget. Precisely for this reason, the non-development side has added over Rs1 billion a year to its tally in the last few years.

With each of the wing working ‘autonomously’, and ‘independently’, because that is what efficiency requires, the coordinated planning part has disintegrated. These wings have political appointees as their heads, and all of them have their own definition of autonomy and independence.

In the absence of any centrally guided (goals-oriented) planning and target setting, the strategic direction and the big picture are missed.

Punjab needs to create a central planning setup, which takes care of agriculture and all its sub-sectors — horticulture, irrigation, livestock, forestry and fishery and food security. Since all of them are headed by independent secretaries, coming from the most privileged district management group of the Central Superior Services (CSS), all these departments have become independent fiefdoms.

Frequent transfers and postings at the top level, mostly for political reasons, are a routine. Quite often, with one transfer, the entire focus of the department changes. Punjab needs to find some solution to this crisis at the top.

At the lower level, it needs to create a set up, may be at the union council level, which makes it responsible to execute all what has been decided at the top. Currently, the biggest problem is that provincial plans are not implemented at the farmers’ level. They are lost during their travel from top to bottom. There are around 3,200 union councils in the province that provide perhaps the best platform for execution of any ‘centralised idea or decision’.

With each union council having five to six villages, where even if two officers are posted, it will take only 6,400 of them to take care of the entire execution — compare the figure with the current strength of 35,000. These local officers should be the ones overseeing the entire agricultural spectrum (water, crop, animal husbandry, horticulture), including sub-sectors, and be made responsible for achieving all local targets of crops and allied fields.

Even if the private sector has to operate, it should be operating through these officers who must be made to maintain their operational competence, independence and neutrality. By doing so, they would not only win the confidence of farmers but also contribute to provincial and national economy.

This budget may be an opportunity to create such setups and divert fiscal resources to them. By integrating and reinforcing Punjab’s ‘centralised’ planning, and execution at the local level, it would be extended to the doorsteps of the farmers. Agriculture requires a new strategic direction which can be set by a coordinated centralised guideline evolved at the provincial government level after consultations with all stakeholders and enforced through them.