While holding seminars and conferences has become a popular past time on topics ranging from vital themes to superfluous subjects for many organizations , government ministries and departments and of course the NGO’s funded by foreign sources, one does come across a serious exercise once in a while.
A three-day Agribusiness conference in Lahore a few days back belonged to the later category and produced a number of points worth pondering. Whether concerned authorities heed its recommendations or act with unconcern remains to be seen but the relevance of the conference to the current agriculture scene in the country was undeniably authentic and the managers of Pakistan’s agriculture sector would do well to try to resolve issues underlined at the moot.
The most important recommendation of the conference related to the support price of food products. It emphasized the need for the support price to match the import price of the same products.
Pakistan often suffers shortage of some commodity or the other and when it is imported to meet the shortfall, the price of imported stuff is substantially higher than what is offered to local farmers.
It is both illogical and unfair that farmers in distant lands should be paid a higher price while local producers are subjected to rates that often do not even meet production costs. But this attitude is not restricted to imported food commodities only. The deal for local farmers is invariably unfair. How ordinary farmers are treated is one of the banes of Pakistan’s agriculture and one of the prime reasons for low productivity of the sector.
The shortcomings of the system comprising importance accorded to influence peddlers and well-connected individuals and corruption of some functionaries of the government combine to ensure that small farmers do not receive even the support price for their produce. The country’s political and social system is geared against their interests.
Wheat is one of the most important crops as it is widely consumed by the people; it is no secret that its farmers suffer almost every year. Officials satisfy politically important farmers or retired or serving officials granted prime land for services rendered-their contribution unknown to the masses of Pakistan.
Farmers of the holy cow denomination even purchase wheat from hand-to-mouth farmers who need cash to invest in the next crop at rates below the support price and have no problem disposing off the commodity at a profit.
Procurement organizations assist them willingly, indeed eagerly because farmers of this category are often their former colleagues. Small farmers are forced to sell as they cannot afford to hang on to their crop in the hope of an equitable deal. This happens when the crop is plentiful.
In times of shortfall, influential farmers are facilitated for selling their produce to private sector buyers while small farmers are pressurized to surrender to official procurement drive.
The government and its agencies thus work for the detriment of the small farmer. This arrangement has been an undermining factor for better productivity of the country’s agriculture and would continue to be its sensitive heel unless the approach is changed.
This brings us to marketing, one of the issues taken up at the conference. It proposed the framing of a comprehensive marketing strategy for the sector. But the question is who is to do that.
The Government of Punjab has already set up a marketing wing in its Department of Agriculture but that has been done in perfunctory manner; this could not have been otherwise.
Vested interests’ elements roam the corridors of power unchallenged and have access to decision makers; many of them are themselves decision makers. What is to be expected if the dispensation is distorted and differentiates between various segments of the population.
Further, government officials are not trained for marketing jobs and in any case, even if they show capability and commit themselves to honest sights, the present privilege-based system would not allow the development of genuine marketing oriented to serving farmers and priorities of the nation.
Preparing a strategy for marketing and then implementing it is the job of professionals but even the best of experts would fail if there isn’t a change of heart in the highest political and administrative levels in the country. The government has to look within for enhancing the quantum of productivity.
One cannot imagine that happening in the near future in view of the fact that vested interest groups are firmly entrenched in the government. Political groups that may be viewed as options for the people of Pakistan are not without their share of wheeling- dealing carpetbaggers. A prerequisite for efficient and farmer-friendly marketing is sincerity of approach. That, most unfortunately, is nowhere in sight.
Still, an effort can be, must be, made for paying a fair price to farmers for their produce. Elimination of exploitative practices, reducing them if that is a tall order can be an excellent recipe for making the farming sector more productive. Not much improvement can take place in the agriculture sector without a marketing system based on the principle of equity.
Exploitation is rampant in marketing of agricultural produce, particularly minor crops, vegetables and fruit. An average consumer is unlikely to have much idea of how small farmers are skinned by manipulators of the markets, arhtis generally known as middlemen.
When tomatoes sell for Rs75 per kg, the rate paid to the grower is never more than between Rs5 and Rs10 for that quantity. It is the same for a majority of small crops sown by small farmers.
When rates of agriculture items of daily use suddenly escalate in the bazaar, consumers should realize that the beneficiary is not the farmer who provides them with what they need but managers of the market are earning a quick fat profit at the expense of both farmers and consumers.
Marketing can improve with better storage facilities and making them available to growers of all varieties of crops and providing reliable transportation between farms and markets. That is essential if the produce is not to be damaged and disfigured by the time it reaches the wholesaler.
The percentage of vegetables and fruits perish on way to the consumer has never been properly and accurately assessed but it should be safe to place that at about twenty percent. The losses are for farmers to bear while profits are pocketed by the so-called market forces that have the patronage of the administration in all markets.
One of the major keys to higher productivity is thus better marketing and fair deal for farmers. Once the government ensures that, Pakistan would be on its way to self-sufficiency in many food items, particularly in crops in which we are supposed to be rich.
Courtesy: The DAWN