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Wheat price increase alone is not enough




  • From the viewpoint of growers and productivity, the government has taken a positive decision by raising the support price of wheat by Rs50 per 40 kg; that the consumers would not be happy goes without saying.
    This, however, is a built-in problem in pricing and no administration can please both growers and consumers. Growers were subsidizing wheat price from 1999 to 2003 as the support price remained static for four years. This now is the consumer’s turn to pay.
    The price was raised by Rs50 per 40 kg bag last year as incentive to farmers to grow more but the decision came rather late in the day and made no impact on the total yield. It was in fact marginally lower than the previous year.
    The total wheat yield in 2003-04 was 19.66 million tons while the produce stood at 19. 83 the year before when the support price had remained unchanged. The difference was not great but showed that if farmers were to be encouraged, that should be done at the right time and in the right way; a mere raise in support price is not sufficient.
    The example of 1999-2000 was before the planners and decision makers when timely raise in the support price galvanized farmers in to producing Pakistan’s highest ever wheat crop of 21. 8 m tons. That not only freed Pakistan from imports but also enabled the country to export wheat and build stocks for future.
    Both advantages were lost in the next three years by the government’s inability or refusal to act as also due to conditions that were not favourable for higher production. But mismanagement of the situation was more responsible for reversion to imports than any other factor.
    What effect would the enhancing of the support price will have on the wheat produce this year is difficult to assess at this point in time but the there is every reason to expect better output, provided other important factors do not let down the farming community and the country.
    Availability of sufficient water is the most critical aspect of the next wheat crop and unfortunately, prospects are negative on this score. The cost of inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc, has been constantly rising while their timely availability and quality has not been fully reliable.
    The government is concerned about low produce and has reportedly prepared a comprehensive plan for ‘bridging the gap between the potential and the present yield’. While this should have been done years back, it is a question if the thinking is along correct lines now that the issue is being taken up.
    The ministry of food, agriculture and livestock (MINFAL) is looking at productivity through a comparison of produce from the farms of progressive farmers and remaining members of the wheat growing community, that is, small farmers. The former produce up to 50 maunds per acre while the latter’s crop is mostly around half of that quantity for the same land, if not lower.
    The reasons should be obvious to all and sundry, particularly the experts in MINFAL. As the deal is not equal for the two, the results cannot be expected to be the same from their fields. So the task before the administration of the agriculture sector is bridging the facilities gap between them before hoping for comparable performance.
    Another aspect should be taken in to consideration while working out output from different fields and that is yield from rain fed areas. Their highest produce is usually no more than 15 maunds per acre and is often even below that low figure.
    Farmers of these areas obtain a minimum of produce and income from their land and their contribution to the over all size of the wheat crop is consequently limited. A change of strategy in cropping in rain-fed lands is required.
    Farmers would be better off cultivating crops that require less water. That would economically improve their lot and if they were not sowing wheat, the loss would not be significant for the total national produce.
    Further, efforts to increase per acre yield are undeniably needed but the emphasis so far has been on increasing area of cultivation. The approach is to be appreciated but prevailing conditions, particularly shortage of water, do not justify the policy.
    Moreover, more area is added to the wheat crop mostly by replacing crops cultivated in the fields; new land is not brought under wheat. Such land has its productivity negatively affected by overuse; the land is already exhausted and its fertility stands scuttled. Positive results can only be gained if wheat cultivation is extended to virgin land.
    Balochistan has no dearth of fields yet to be put to agricultural use on a regular basis; there is even land that has not been explored at all. Water availability in Balochistan is a problem but that constraint is nation wide now. Hitherto uncultivated land in that province has the potential for increasing wheat produce of Pakistan.
    One of the most important aspects of wheat for obtaining optimum output is timely sowing of the crop. Wheat is alternated with cotton and sugarcane. But harvesting of both crops is almost invariably delayed. Cotton growers are hit by market manipulations for forcing down prices of the crop while the cane scene remains at the mercy of sugar mill owners.
    Wheat suffered delayed cultivation during the last two years because of sugar miller’s insistence on late crushing to pressurize growers and exploit their dependence on sugar mills.
    That contributed towards reducing yields in many fields. It wasn’t an irresolvable issue but segments in the government were supporting millers. As a result, wheat sowing could not start on time in many cane fields.
    A similar scenario is building in the Sindh province this year too. Sugar mill owners of the province have apparently disregarded the government’s instructions to start crushing by October 15. It requires no great insight or expertise to predict that wheat produce would suffer if the issue were not resolved without loss of time.
    Undertaking wheat cultivation on time is still possible but that can be done only if the government adopts a stern policy towards sugar millers instead of acting as their sales agent and protector. The administration would be solely responsible if wheat cultivation is delayed in cane fields.
    The loss may not amount to any substantial percentage of reduction in crop size but considering everything, every grain should be important because what we fail to produce would have to be imported- and that would have to be done at a higher cost, to meet consumption requirements of the population that stand at around 21 million tons per year.
    It is not clear if this figure includes smuggling out of Pakistan to adjoining countries and even beyond them to some former Russian states. Smuggling needs must be countered for ensuring that a minimum quantity is imported in case there is another shortfall.
    If that end were left loose, one would be forced to conclude that elements in the administration patronize smugglers at the cost of national interests. Smuggling plus delayed sowing because of late start of the crushing season are two factors the government can and must control for securing maximum yield and utilizing wheat crop for the people of Pakistan.
    Procurement arrangements in provinces also leave a lot to be desired. Farmers would be better motivated to work harder by assurance of quick and profitable disposal of their crop.
    A serious and major overhauling of procurement machinery and change of attitude in official agencies to accord preferential treatment to big landlords or influential individuals with connections in the administration is also indicated for encouraging farmers to produce more.
    A raise in the support price for wheat is a positive step but it is not an end in itself. It is a step towards higher production of wheat but unlikely to provide the best results if other vital factors of wheat crop are ignored.

    Courtesy : The DAWN

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