Annihilating Agriculture by Design?
By Shireen M Mazari
While the nation welcomes a new prime minister and a new democratic dispensation, it has every expectation that its struggle for the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary and its desire for an independent judiciary will both be fulfilled. In many ways, this positive mood has temporarily pushed back the critical issues that presently confront the nation – including the terrorist problem, the spiraling prices especially of basics and the growing power cuts and impending water crisis. At least in the urban areas the mood presently is upbeat and full of expectation.
However, in the rural areas the mood is more somber, notwithstanding the awareness and expectation from the new political dispensation in terms of resolution of the judicial crisis. Coming to my village after a three-month period, it is crystal clear that over the years there has been an almost deliberate attempt to destroy the agricultural sector. We have seen the wheat and sugar crises in the midst of wheat and sugar cane bumper crops continuously over the last few years, so the agriculturalist can only assume that these crises were deliberate creations of powerful lobbies within the ruling elite. Now things have reached crisis level with the power crisis.
While urban dwellers bemoan the outages that range from two hours a day to almost six or more – depending on whether one is living in Islamabad or Karachi – in the rural areas, the dispensers of power are providing barely six hours of electricity per day. At least that is the case in the area of southern Punjab to which I am witness. The result is that tubewells cannot be used and as the weather turns hot, the poor farmer and his family have no respite, night or day. Even the rural elite cannot run their generators for the fifteen to eighteen hours that the power is out. Apparently, the explanation for such long power outages is that the urban areas must be supplied first and given the scarcity of electricity, as usual it is the rural population that must bear the major part of the burden. No one seems particularly pushed that if tubewells are unable to work properly, the bumper wheat crop that is standing in the fields will be destroyed; the cotton sowing that is to take place in late April-early May will be destroyed; and the sugar cane that began at the end of February will not finish in time. All this because of the power outages which prevent the functioning of tubewells at a time when the canals are also dry.
Interestingly, the sugar mills all have excess power capacity during their functioning and can easily supply this excess capacity to the WAPDA grid especially if the mill is using gas, but except in one case WAPDA has shown little interest despite the fact that this would help alleviate some of the power problem in the rural areas. The one exception has been the agreement, if local news is to be believed, between Shakarganj sugar mills and WAPDA in Jhang. Why this one exception only?
Ironically, the rural areas are confronting these problems despite the fact that there is a substantive representation of the rural areas in our elected houses -- both provincial and national. Could it be that just as our ruling elite seems overwhelmed by the US, our rural legislators are overwhelmed by their urban counterparts and forget the urgency of at least protecting the agricultural sector if not improving it? Or, worse still, is there a deliberate design to destroy the agricultural sector and make the country totally dependent on food imports despite our land's ability to produce competitively if allowed to under fair conditions? Of course, unless the present power and water shortages are rectified, some industrial sectors like textiles will also be impacted but it seems the "barons" and cartels are too powerful. At the end of the day, it seems no one is particularly pushed if we become ever more dependent on imports for all vital needs!
In our passion for all things foreign we are fast losing our sovereignty at all levels -- whether it is feeding our people through our own abundant but deliberately destroyed resources, or protecting our territorial extremities and our people abiding there, or willy nilly accepting foreign officials of dubious credentials to serve in Pakistan as their country's representatives. It is all part of the same colonized mindset that the ruling elite has not been able to rid itself of. post-9/11, this has been compounded by a seeming psychological confidence deficit.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect is that sections of our ruling elite have always deliberately undermined national priorities. After all, whenever we have had bumper wheat crops, either the state has been unable to store it, or it has been unable to pay the market price to the farmer in terms of the international market. So we have landed up buying wheat from India, while our own wheat is smuggled to Afghanistan and beyond! At a time when the international price of wheat was around Rs1000 per maund, the Pakistani farmer was getting less than Rs500 per maund. As for the issue of subsidies, the developed world especially the US and Europe heavily subsidize their uneconomical agricultural sector; yet here in Pakistan we have gone that extra mile to please the international agencies like the IMF and World Bank and moved a step closer to destroying our vibrant agricultural sector. Of course, the US needs to sell its wheat somewhere especially the excess that is produced as a result of subsidies. And the EU's butter mountains' scandal is well documented.
The same story is repeated in the case of sugar -- bumper crops but the sugar mills blackmail the farmer, and presently the situation is so bad that some farmers are destroying their sugarcane because of the low price being offered by the sugar mills. As for the sugar barons and their hoarding of sugar as well as the imports -- again from India -- the story is not new. But no one seems to want to do anything. Under the myth of the evil agriculturalist who pays no taxes, the agricultural sector is being destroyed. The reality is that like any other sector, there are black sheep in agriculture as well who pay no taxes – similar to the tax evaders in the industrial and professional sectors. The rest of us regularly pay our agricultural tax and abiana – and the former is based on holdings rather than yield - so good or bad harvest, the tax remains the same. Not exactly fair but by perpetuating the "feudal mindset" theory, vested interests get away with undermining the agriculturalists. It may be wise to remember that feudalism is a mindset that can prevail anywhere -- including amongst urban industrialists. To destroy our national agricultural assets in the hope of destroying "feudalism" is a dangerous absurdity – but one that is also being fuelled by some foreign donors also.
Will our new political leadership that has a strong agriculturalist flavor reverse the trend and allow the agricultural sector a level playing field? The signals will need to be made immediately if this year's crops are to be rescued. Under present trends, it seems the agriculturalists are being seen already as a dying breed in the age of economic dependencies – only we Pakistanis seem to be seeking dependency in a suicidal fashion on all fronts.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)