There has hardly been any government of Pakistan that has not pledged focus on, and sustained developmental work, in the agriculture sector but, except for brief periods , attention has been confined to declaration of intentions and rhetorical support.
The new Prime Minister, Mr. Shaukat Aziz, has also started on that note by aiming at “eight percent growth rate in agriculture in the current fiscal year”. His area of expertise is finance, banking to be exact, but as the chief executive of the state, he is expected to address the full spectrum of national needs and priorities and as manager of the country’s economy, a portfolio he is billed to retain, he would know the strength and weaknesses in the part of the economic body known as its backbone.
Agriculture has been constantly described as the strength of Pakistan’s economy but strangely and regrettably, a country with its strength in agriculture to the extent that all of its major industries, except automotives other than tractors, are based on the produce from the land or linked with it and exports heavily dependent on crops, Pakistan should be importing food to meet its domestic consumption requirements.
Mr. Aziz has been associated with a government that experienced, for the first time in decades, Pakistan meeting its wheat requirements from the country’s farms and then reverting to imports with in a period of four years. That has been a terrible leap backwards, unfortunately though not surprisingly, accompanied by rumors of a ‘wheat scam’ at quite a high level.
It is yet to be ascertained if there really was wheeling dealing but colossal mismanagement of resources, firstly in the form of mishandling of stocks and secondly through inadequate harnessing of resources is undeniable.
If these problems persist, the picture would become bleaker in the coming years. Indeed we may not have to wait for long for darker days because water shortage is already hurting the agriculture sector.
That is not unusual in countries like Pakistan where accountability is partisan, the government prefers to push its dirt under the rug and prefers to continue holding previous administrations for whatever mess it has created. As a result, wheat scam or mishandling has not received any attention from the government. The obvious consequence of this manner of management is to expect more of the same, that is, either increase in corruption or more squandering of resources.
The first important task in the agriculture sector before the new PM is thus stemming the rot. The guilty must be identified and removed from the scene, asking for punishments and accountability would be an unrealistic demand, and replace the incompetent and the corrupt with people who are at least relatively above board and capable of delivering.
Can the PM do that? There seems no hurdle in his way. But priorities must be listed at the outset. Pakistan’s main food imports are edible oils, tea and now wheat. Reducing edible’s imports is not an impossible undertaking. But doing that requires political will and commitment to take on the vested interest elements whose orientation to personal profits has been a destructive force for the national economy.
The importers’ lobby is strong and influential. It has successfully kept edible crops restricted to a small size at the cost of national interests, suggesting the presence of such elements within the government.
If the government makes a determined bid to support edible crops and creates conditions conducive for smooth functioning of the extraction industry, the situation can be substantially improved, if not reversed, within a short period of time.
Can the prime minister and his ministers for agriculture and commerce rise to this challenge? One does not know the answer at this point in time but one thing would become crystal clear if they fail to follow a policy aimed at reducing imports by increasing local produce, they would be regarded as part of the lobby that costs Pakistan a hefty import bill every year when the country has fields and means to scuttle imports significantly.
Working for self-sufficiency in edible oils is not impossible. The ministry of agriculture did this once under the secretaryship of Dr. Zafar Altaf but he did not receive the needed support from the government; indeed he paid for getting in the way of the importers and their patrons with a transfer. The reward of an effort to improve the economy was punishment.
The problem is thus within the federal government but it is something that a prime minister should be able to resolve. If it fails to do the obvious, one would be forced to assume not only that it lacks the will and the mettle but also that its sights do not coincide with national interests. The authorities would be seen as part of the import mafia if there were no improvements in this area.
A major problem has been created for agriculture by the government’s policies towards sugar millers. One of the reasons for the shortfall from last year’s wheat crop was a delayed start for crushing; this had an adverse impact in areas where cane is alternated by wheat. The farmers were forced to delay wheat cultivation and they lost on yield.
That the sympathies of the administration are with the sugar millers is no secret; indeed the government gives the impression of being the manager of their interests even if the millers’ targets are contrary to the overall needs of the country.
Such a policy is certain to lead Pakistan into a deeper mess and hurt the economy with no end. Prime Minister Aziz does not have to be told that in so many words. He has been in the thick of things long enough to know the lay of the land and realize what he must do.
Tea is another costly import, counting for quite a bill to the exchequer. The Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) Station in Abbotabad has been in the news for some years.
It is about three years back that the then agriculture minister had predicted that within the next three to four year’s time, Pakistan would be able to rely on its produce of tea leaves to a substantial extent if not totally. Since then, there have been two ministers in charge of the ministry but nothing has been heard on this count.
Either the PARC was needlessly blowing its trumpet, it had nothing reportable in its tea kitty and was leading the minister on the garden path, knowing that he would not be there for long or importers have prevailed on the authorities to ignore local production and let status quo continue in tea imports. It does not require special acumen to conclude that the situation is not beneficial for the country and its economy.
I am personally aware that the PARC had done good work at its tea station; the organization should speak for itself and say that its claim was not hollow. However, government organization are allowed to present only such matters before the public that suit the over all scheme of administration.
Explaining the correct situation in this regard thus rests with the government. One hopes that the new minister for agriculture would clarify facts and inform the public about the exact status of development of tea cultivation in the country.
This is essential because, with the change in the relations of Pakistan and India and groups working for trade with the neighbouring country for importing goods from India in fact, possibilities of improving tea cultivation in Pakistan would suffer. The profit makers would prefer that the commodity be imported from India.
The question is whether the PM would be able to command and counter vested interests. As finance minister, he pandered to the sugar lobby and did nothing to disturb edible oil importers while the tea issue was ignored.
If that is the line taken by him as finance minister who is the country’s new prime minister, there is not much to hope from the agriculture sector, particularly as water availability is growing more acute by the day.
Mr. Aziz is reported to have cited agriculture as one of his top priorities and hopes to achieve an 8 per cent growth rate in the current fiscal year. This is a tall but not impossible order.
The issues are clear. The government has resources to meet national requirements. All that is required is will and courage to counter vested interests.
The country would be beholden to him if Mr. Aziz manages to display these qualities. Otherwise, he would be just another name in the list of prime ministers of Pakistan who came with the good intention and positive declarations but left the stage by making the clouds of despair thicker and deepening the economic mess because of a non-performing agriculture sector. The gauntlet is there; he has to decide whether to pick it up or look the other way and bask in the fake glory of false power.
Courtesy: The DAWN