RICE is the second major crop in the country whose contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) stands at 0.6 per cent and 3pc in the agricultural value-added sector.
Since rice is not a staple food in the country, a large quantity of the produce is exported, fetching around $2 billion foreign exchange each year.
Still, the commodity fails to appear on policymakers’ priority list, at least in Punjab which produces 97pc of the fine aromatic rice.
Rice growers generally complain of high fertiliser prices, shortage of canal water, high price of farm inputs, high rent charges of agricultural machinery, and a lack of consultancy facilities and finance during the crop production stage.
Moreover, they also say that research institutes have failed to develop new varieties of basmati having better yield and resistance against pest attacks and climate change.
Rice growers are sowing the same super kernel basmati variety for the last over two and a half decades. But the seed is now losing its productivity and attracting more pest attacks, says Chaudhry Nisar Ahmad, the central president of Kissan Board Pakistan.
He says there is a need to introduce new hybrid varieties that could yield more and perform better in case of pest attacks. This, he believes, will help growers earn more and bring down the production cost of rice. However, he doesn’t think a new variety could be developed in the near future.
Stakeholders say the government is ready to spend huge sums on compensations or reliefs but is not developing new seed varieties that may help farmers stand on their own feet
His pessimism is not that misplaced as policymakers in the province have allocated a meagre amount in the latest budget for the purpose.
Budget documents say that a sum of Rs8.74 million has been allocated for the provision of laboratory and field equipment to the staff of the Rice Research Institute in Kala Shah Kaku for developing hybrid basmati rice that is resistant to bacterial leaf blight disease as well as flood and salinity.
The project, with a total estimated cost of over Rs44m, was approved in 2015 and was allocated Rs8.84m that year and Rs12.86m in 2016. The completion of the project or provision of the equipment will take at least two more years as budget documents show its throw-forward beyond June 2019 to the tune of Rs5.66m.
Interestingly, the federal government allocated a sum of Rs20bn in the year 2016-17 as cash support for rice growers at a rate of Rs5,000 per acre to help them come out of the financial crunch caused by falling global prices.
Pakistan Kissan Ittehad President Khalid Mahmood Khokhar regrets that the government is ready to spend huge sums of money on compensations or reliefs but is not ready to allocated sufficient funds for research work to develop new seed varieties that may increase farm yields and ensure a better return to the growers so that they may not look towards the government for support.
Some private parties are now trying to fill the void. A rice exporting firm, which also runs its own farms, claims it will provide a new basmati seed for the next crop (in 2018).
Shahzad Ahmad Malik, CEO of the Guard Agricultural Research Services, says the firm will first introduce the open pollen variety while in the 2019 season it will also provide hybrid variety of the rice.
He claims that the new varieties will be capable of yielding 3,200kg per acre while the length of its grain will be 8mm plus, which is in highest demand in the international market.
India, the main competitor of Pakistani basmati rice on the world market, has already developed 8mm-long rice grain variety.
“Currently, we are finalising formalities for the registration of the new seed with the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council,” he adds.
An official of the agriculture department acknowledges that the government is performing poorly in providing growers with seeds of various crops.
He says the government is meeting 30pc of the seed needs and a similar contribution is made by the private sector, while the rest is taken care of by the growers themselves who save seed from the previous crop for use in the next season.
“But the absence of an effective quality monitoring system is causing a new problem, i.e. a lack of uniformity as the seed is not coming into the market from a single source,” he adds.