By Zafar Samdani
WHILE the Punjab government has ambitious social sector
sights, it is aware that the strength of the province rests
in its agriculture and livestock and is expected to subject
the sectors to sharp and sympathetic focus in the coming
intentions and plans have however been derailed to an extent
by the federal government’s decision for duty free imports
of some vegetables and meat animals from India. The decision
has thrown a spanner in the wheel of progress for the rural
areas of the province that house over 60 per cent of
population of Punjab that lives by agriculture activities or
by breeding livestock.
Vegetables have traditionally been the prime produce of
farmers living on the periphery of big cities. Such
cultivation has been under pressure for decades because the
policy of expansion, the successive governments have pursued
for urban housing, forced small farmers living on the
fringes of cities to sell their lands to government agencies
at throwaway prices.
Real estate developers followed close on the heels of
official town planners and purchased farm lands near cities.
Almost every habitat of over one million population has vast
areas purchased by these developers waiting for their turn
to raise houses on lands that were known for raising
vegetables, particularly onions and tomatoes, two items on
Pakistan’s import list from India.
However, the outer circles of expanded cities remained
agriculture land and vegetables continued to be grown by
these farmers. They would now have to look for alternate
crops. That is none too easy because most tracts of lands
have undergone extensive fragmentation due to division
through inheritance; their size is no more unsuitable for
major cash crops.
The market for other vegetables and fruits like melons and
water melons is also saturated by the produce from other
farmers who find the marketing of their goods hard going
because the cultivation cycle of Sindh is about a month
ahead of Punjab and many of the items Punjab’s farmers grow
are disadvantageously placed by the time they are ripe for
The federal government’s imports from India-China is also an
option for the imports but that is an academic possibility
only, came too late for the provincial government to try to
offset its impact on vegetable growing small farmers and in
any case, the issue does not appear to have been accorded
serious consideration by the administration. Other than
that, it has agriculture and livestock as priority areas for
the next budget.
The government has already launched a major initiative to
boost livestock by announcing easy loans for setting up
livestock farms and extending veterinary facilities for
animals but this project would remain in addition to
allocations in the budget.
In view of the fact that agriculture produce mostly sells
below the cost of production and it is livestock that gives
breathing economic space to farmers, planners are closely
looking at the breeding scene and analyzing problems and
issues it confronts.
The most important problem in this regard is extremely
restricted fodder crops that are a factor in keeping animals
under nourished and consequently low in milk and meat yield.
Fodder production appears to be an area on which the
government would be concentrating. The area under fodder
crops cannot be extended widely as cash crops are more to
the taste and economy of individual farmers. Setting up
small feed mills for fodder is one of the proposals the
government is reported to be considering to increase fodder
for nourishing animals.
While meat animals from India would be imported,
approximately about one million of them under the duty free
import strategy, ostensibly to reduce the price of meat,
experts feel that the market is unlikely to undergo
reportable change by imports. According to them, mutton,
beef and poultry prices would remain at their present high
level and the possibility of further increase in their rates
is not ruled out.
A further escalation is indeed on the cards because many
breeders would start looking towards exports, particularly
in Gulf and Middle East regions where mutton from Pakistan
is rated high and regarded as more juicy and tasteful than
imports from western countries, Australia and even India.
Exports would place the country back at square one, if not a
few paces behind the previous price position.
However, even if common consumers do not get relief, the
policy of import of meat has potential for increasing
exports and in that, it would be instrumental in proving a
better deal to breeders. But consumers may be the losers due
to inferior quality of imported meat.
Exactly how the livestock and poultry sectors would be
affected would however depend on the volume of imports. If
they flood the local market, Punjab’s breeders and poultry
producers may be hit because building exports would take
time. They would recover in time but initially, the policy
would place them under pressure.
One of the serious problems the government has been
confronting, particularly in its wheat procurement efforts,
has been shortage of standard storage facilities. Government
officials have become increasing conscious of the fact that
existing warehouses are old and dilapidated and the quality
of wheat stored in them is affected and losses are also
caused by inadequate storage that cannot protect wheat from
insects and birds, besides other loss inflicting factors.
This problem does not confront wheat alone and is to be seen
in other crops as well. Officials have been mooting the
possibility of building storage facilities that reduce
losses and protect the quality of produce. While farm level
storage has been discussed, it is unlikely that the next
budget makes headway in that direction. However,
construction of warehouses is expected to earn the attention
of budget makers.
Private sector experts have been concerned for some time
about the attention to and quality of research in the
sector, specifically with regard to building new and higher
yield seeds for various crops. The provincial government
presides over a number of research organizations but they
have been mostly sterile.
Some of them have been non-productive because of lack of
funds; allocation are often just about sufficient to meet
the salary bill of employees. Grants for research
organizations is expected to be increased to make them
productive and research for increasing yield of crops,
particularly major crops that are either basic food for the
population or major foreign exchange earners.
Another issue before the managers of provincial agriculture
is availability of water. There is nothing they can do to
increase water resources or expedite the building of new
reservoirs- an idea they support all the way, but small dams
can be built to store rain water. This year’s rains drove
the point home that the administration must take up
construction of mini dams on a priority basis and
indications are that this would feature prominently in the
government’s priorities in the budget for 2005-06.
The agriculture sector is vital for the province
economically but the government has other concerns too.
Local bodies elections are close and national and provincial
polls not far away. Politicians of the ruling party, as also
in the opposition, many of them from rural areas realize
that their success would be linked with their standing in
the farming community. As such, the main focus of the budget
would be on the agriculture with a view to benefiting
farmers who constitute the majority of the electorate.
Whether the efforts strike the right chords is a question
only the budget can settle.