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Fixing the Agriculture Sector

Fixing the Agriculture Sector

Challenges and Opportunities

Agriculture, industry and services are the three main pillars of our national economy. The recurring floods and the spread of alluvial soil from the Indus and its tributaries make the plains of Pakistan among the most fertile areas of the world. Historically speaking, agriculture of the northwestern part of the Indian Subcontinent (modern-day Pakistan) has been the source of its global reputation and is the reason why hordes of foreign armies attacked the reign so as to occupy Punjab’s fertile lands. The British, in view of untapped and vast agri-potential of Punjab and Sindh, installed the world’s largest irrigation system that not only ensured a manifold increase in acreage of arable land but also helped strengthen the landed aristocracy by augmenting their political and economic clout. Now that 71 years have passed since we got independence, the agriculture and its allied industries still occupy a predominant position in our economy, and somehow in politics as well.

In many ways, agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy. As per the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2017-18, the sector contributes 18.9 percent to GDP and absorbs 42.3 percent of labour force. More than 62 percent of our rural population is dependent for sustenance, directly or indirectly, on agriculture. Not only is the agriculture a major supplier to the downstream industries and the biggest source of our exports, it is also a major market for industrial products such as fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and other agricultural tools and implements. Apart from economic significance, a sustained and improved performance of agri-sector is imperative to poverty elimination, eradication of the menaces of malnutrition and undernutrition, uplifting of economically and socially marginalized segments of society, combating rural to urban migration, mitigating and adapting to climate change and neutralizing the looming threat of water scarcity. Given the vitality of this sector in Pakistan’s economy, it is extremely important to diagnose the issues hindering its growth and, thereupon, suggest some remedial measures so as to enable the country to cope with the grave issues of fast-dwindling foreign exchange reserves and ever-declining exports.

Agriculture in Pakistan consists of four subsectors: crops, livestock, forestry and fishing. Despite the fact that livestock contributes more than the crops – livestock accounts for 58.33 percent of total share of agriculture – and substantial share of forestry and fishing (2.09% and 2.09% respectively in agriculture value addition), these subsectors remain grossly under-invested and utterly neglected. The disproportionate importance given only to the crop subsector is taking heavy toll as other subsectors fail to contribute befitting to their potential. And, it is one of the biggest reasons of persistently poor performance of the agriculture sector.

Water shortage is a big issue that is severely crippling the ability of agriculture to perform to its potential. Now that out of 44 canal command areas, 39 are suffering from drought-like situation, the cumulative live storage of Mangla and Tarbela has plunged to hardly one million acre-feet (MAF). The Indus River System Authority (Irsa) has warned drought-like situation for the ongoing Kharif season and the upcoming Rabi season unless the temperature increases substantially in Skardu and current monsoon yields unusually high rainfall. Amidst this situation, it is next to impossible to grow the water-intensive crops, like rice, sugarcane, cotton, etc., that constitute a bulk of our exports. Although, the data of current Kharif season have yet to be compiled, it is almost certain that the southern and central Punjab and lower Sindh are suffering the most due to water scarcity owing, mainly, to less cultivation of crops – major breadwinner for them.

Climate change is fast emerging as the most daunting threat to the agriculture. Apart from decreasing availability of water, the rising average temperatures (as per Pakistan Metrology Department report, during the last 30 years, the average temperature in Pakistan has increased by 0.5 degree Celsius which, in turn, has cut spring days from 45 to 10, winter days from 120 days to 80 and increased the summer days up to 180 days), unpredictability in the rainfall patterns, seasonal variations and extreme heat-waves have nearly broken the backbone of our agriculture. Now the old varieties and breeds have failed to cope with the fast-changing environment. Even the Green Revolution-led boom in production has lost momentum and for a decade or so, the production has remained stagnant and is still showing no signs of substantial improvement.

The migration from rural to urban areas and the consequent dearth of labour is rendering the agri-business less lucrative and unmanageable. Urbanization is creating demographic imbalances in rural communities where migration to the cities and towns out of socioeconomic considerations is becoming no less than a norm. With annual urbanization rate of staggering 3.19 percent and a rapid abandoning of villages, it is the agriculture that is being hit hardest. The situation is aggravating further due to the mechanization of agronomical practices. But, progressive farming methods are not being adopted as rapidly as demanded by shortage of labour.

Dilapidated irrigation infrastructure and wasteful agronomical practices are further depriving the agri-sector of supply of water. Silting and sedimentation in Tarbela dam have caused the reduction in its storage capacity by 36 percent and walls of Mangla dam are being raised to maintain its capacity. The transmission losses that include leakage, seepage, evaporation and operational losses cause 30 percent reduction in availability of water at farm level. Furthermore, the flood irrigation, cultivation of water-intensive crops and non-availability of drought-resistant varieties of crops are contributing to low water-use efficiency and water productivity. The near absence of agricultural infrastructure in rural areas such as state-owned silos, cold storages, mobile veterinary hospitals, effective functioning of veterinary hospitals in small towns and villages, lining of water channels, minor and major canals, facilitation centres by extension and agricultural department is also responsible for dismal performance of agriculture sector.

Rural communities in Punjab are being crippled financially by the socioeconomic evils. Fragmentation of agricultural lands generation after generation has caused the reduction in per-head ownership of the lands. Currently, 85 percent of total farms in Punjab, which account for 47 percent of the province’s total cultivated area, consist of less than 12.5 acres. Smaller land holdings effectively bar the farmers from employing larger agri-machinery and their access to credit also becomes limited over the fear of bankruptcy and default. It is a big reason of lower per-acre production in Punjab in comparison to Sindh.

Moreover, a proclivity to spend extravagantly on marriages and other such occasions, non-availability of inputs such as credit, fertilizers, better quality seeds, pesticides and lack of advice during the epidemic of plant diseases and insect attacks and proper marketing for agricultural produce are some of the important impediments to putting the agriculture on the track of sustained growth.

A holistic, organic approach is pressingly needed to resolve the issues confronted by agriculture sector. This approach demands immediate actions on legislative, administrative, economic and political levels and inclusive strategy involving all stakeholders from across the spectrum.

The enactment of National Agriculture Policy is the need of the hour. Though agriculture is a provincial subject under the current legislative framework, the federal government must adopt the role of an interprovincial coordinator and policy adviser. The said policy must deal with the demand and supply sides and present comprehensive solutions to problems related to growing population, increasing urbanization, decreasing soil fertility, shrinking under-cultivation area and other socioeconomic ills that hinder the growth of agriculture.

Construction of mega dams is not the panacea for the looming threat of water scarcity. Dams require huge financial resources and they displace communities, disrupt natural flow of rivers, inundate river valleys and create hazardous environmental repercussions. Moreover, dams have limited and inflexible storage capacity that is prone to silting and sedimentation. The solution for the imminent water crisis lies in managing both supply and demand sides. Innovative water conservation methods such as Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) to save the rainwater through sedimentation of basins, constructed wetlands, infiltration trenches, porous paving and Riparian Zone Management to increase the water-holding capacity of aquifers are required on a war footing. Introduction of precision irrigation techniques such as Drip Irrigation Methods, Sprinkler Irrigation Methods, and Furrow Irrigation would go a long way in saving water. It is pertinent to mention here that mere introduction of Furrow irrigation and laser-levelling techniques in Okara have helped increase the crop productivity by 30 percent and Water Use Efficiency (WUE) by 25 percent. In addition to these, the commodification of water and increase in Abiana are also vital to avoid water-shortage-induced catastrophe.

Like other sectors of the economy, innovations in agriculture are vital to increasing the global competitiveness of our finished agri-products. As per a briefing given to the Senate Standing Committee, the budgetary allocation for research and development (R&D) is merely 0.0005 percent of our total GDP. With this embarrassingly low allocation, we are awfully unprepared to fight against climate change, water scarcity and low productivity of industry and agriculture. Although our agri-scientists have, apparently, exhausted the available genetic diversity, which is evident from stagnant production in all major crops and breeds, there is plenty of untapped potential that needs cheap availability of modern genetic engineering tools such as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, (restriction of enzyme that can cut DNA at base level with absolute precision) and state-of-the-art laboratories and other infrastructure to be utilized. The government must realize that the Green Revolution has lost momentum and to cater for the needs of a fast-growing population, it must find an out-of-the-box solution: Gene Revolution and a combination of traditional and non-traditional breeding methods.

Insurance of crops and establishment of zones of specific crops are some of the pressing urgencies. Insurance of crops and breeds would mitigate the financial losses incurred due to natural disasters or outbreak of epidemics, and it would help farmers adopt progressive agronomical practices. Each crop requires a different quantity of water to mature. Depending upon the local availability of water and climate, it is extremely desirable to put a ban on specific crops for specific areas. The different incentives such as subsidized inputs or support price may also be announced to encourage the cultivation of desired crops. This much-needed practice would ensure the conservation of water and protection against wastage of produce due to glutting of markets.

Agriculture has huge potential for job creation, poverty eradication, women empowerment and mobilization of vast untapped human resources. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides a unique window of opportunity in this regard. CPEC envisions seven areas of cooperation in agriculture sector wherein China is especially interested in cotton productivity, efficient irrigation and post-harvest infrastructure along CPEC routes. The CPEC-led improvements in road, railway and IT infrastructure would definitely boost agriculture as it would help farmers in marketing their produce to the far-flung areas. It is high time our entrepreneurs explored new markets in China and invested in the finished products. Renegotiation of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China to remove the tariff and non-tariff barriers imposed on our exports to China and mutual exchange of genetic material and technical know-how would certainly help Pakistan revitalize the long-neglected sector of our economy: the agriculture.

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