THE huge culturable waste of 3.85 million acres in Punjab and gross under performance of its agriculture potential are becoming a matter of hot debate in the province.
Out of total reported area of 43.22 million acres, the province is sowing crops only on 27.43 million acres. Out of the rest of 15.79 million acres, 7.29 million is reported to be “not available” for agriculture. Some 3.85 million acres are termed as culturable waste.
Another 1.21 million acres have forest on them and 3.43 million acres are tagged as ‘current fallow.’
To make the matter even worse, only 14.48 million acres are sown twice and 12.95 million acres are sown only for one crop.
Even the current government, which is in the fifth, and the last, year of its life, has not been able to evolve a long-term policy for it in its entire term.
The biggest limiting factor for expansion of area is water supplies. The irrigation supplies in the province are designed at 67 per cent cropping intensity, whereas it has already touched 142 per cent in some areas. The gap is simply unbridgeable. The farmers have been pumping water out of soil so far in a bid to bridge it. But that window is now closing for two reasons: falling underground water levels and absence of electricity and unaffordable diesel prices to run the tube-wells.
Punjab gets 54 million acre feet of water from national canal system, whereas its total requirements, with current acreage, is being put at 100 million acre feet.
The rest of 46maf is coming from the soil. While some water watchers put the figure of sub-soil pumping at 35 million acre feet, the farmers bodies insist that water needs have gone up with BT cotton, which requires more water, and requirement of other water-loving crops and varieties.
As water level recedes under ground, it becomes costlier to pump it out. With diesel prices going up, they become commercially non-feasible. With 20-hour loadshedding, electricity is simply missing in those areas to be of any use for irrigation. Thus, until and unless more water is available, the province or the farmers would not be able to enhance their acreage.
The province and the centre need to sit together to chalk out a strategy as how to increase water supplies, which, luckily, are available so far.
Second, the provincial government has to come up with an integrated rural development programme, which takes care of each and every acre of the province.
For that purpose, it has to create a monitoring and guidance system right at the union council (UC) level and integrate all its tiers right up to provincial level. Farmer bodies have been insisting that 25,000 villages in the province should be put under 5,000 agriculture graduates, at one-to-five ratio.
They must maintain dedicated UC level office with all modern gadgets of communication so that each and every acre under their jurisdiction is accounted for.
What is being sown, how it is being sown, which company is providing seed, how these seeds have performed, what went wrong in case of a problem, what kind of agricultural practices those farmers have adopted, and how have they performed, all should be documented at the local office.
These officers and offices then could be linked to upwards hierarchy, documenting and analysing performance at every stage of reporting. Once established, these offices can also be linked to research and educational institution and farmers’ training programme could also be run through them.
It could be perhaps the only way to reach doorsteps of the farmers and the field — a huge missing link so far in all planning and their executions.
At the provincial level, the government needs to look at the ways to integrate agriculture and all its sub-sectors under one secretariat. The current policy of breaking different sub-sectors into full-fledged departments and autonomous and parallel companies have given province nothing but more confusion apart from multiplying non-development budget, which has almost doubled in the last few years.
The province has potential to double its area and the production by simple measures. Adding better seeds, high-value crops and saving post-harvest losses can literally kick-start provincial agriculture and the national economy.
The Punjab government, which has recently distributed 125,000 laptops among students and is planning even more for the next year, did not spare 5,000 laptops for its agriculture officers.
In fact, it rejected such a proposal two years ago, and now has spared Rs5 billion for laptops when it came to countering youth offensive of the Pakistan Taherik-i-Insaf.
It also rejected a proposal to distribute mobile phones among agriculture officers when it was moved by the department, only to subsequently distribute blackberries among officer cadre.
Such measures might bring some political mileage to the provincial government, but it would not benefit agriculture.—Ahmad Fraz Khan