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Risking food security … again

THE agriculture sector that accounts for one-fifth of Pakistan’s GDP has not received the attention it deserves in the next fiscal year’s federal and provincial budgets.

The federal government has allocated Rs10 billion to provide relief to the agriculture sector and fight the ongoing locust attack. Separately, it has earmarked Rs12bn for food security and agriculture in general. In the 24-page federal budget speech, we find just two lines about food security, locust attack and agriculture. What can one make of it? The locust attack is so severe this time that it threatens 40 per cent of our crops.

The budget speech could have included some details about how much of the Rs10bn allocation is for the locust attack and how much of it is for providing relief to the agriculture sector. After going through the federal and provincial budget speeches, one still cannot get an idea of how much funds a certain province has committed to fighting the locust.

Similarly, announcing a Rs12bn allocation for food security and agriculture in general does not make enough sense. The federal budget speech could have informed the nation how much of that amount was for food safety and how much for agriculture.

The provinces cannot hide the incapability they have shown so far in energising agriculture by blaming the federal government

We don’t have a clear picture of what the nation’s locust-fighting plan is. Similarly, we don’t know what our food security plan looks like. We heard in the federal budget speech that there was a Rs12bn allocation for “food security” and “agriculture”. And that’s it. Period.

In Punjab’s provincial budget, a total of Rs53.76bn has been allocated for the agriculture sector — Rs8.73bn for forestry, Rs13.3bn for livestock and Rs31.73bn for agriculture in general. Now we all know that the allocation for agriculture in general is primarily meant for meeting current expenses and only a part of it goes towards agricultural development schemes. Should the largest province, where more than half of Pakistan’s entire agriculture activities take place, have allocated such lowly amounts for livestock and forestry? We must not forget that the province claims to have spent Rs144bn under the Ehsaas programme.

Providing direct cash relief to people under such programmes is a commendable job. But these programmes cannot be a substitute for economic growth–promoting initiatives. They inflate political assets of the party in power that runs these programmes. Where do Punjab and the other three provinces stand in terms of their defined roles in the implementation of the national food security, locust-fighting and agricultural development plans? We don’t know. They chose not to talk about their roles and share details in their provincial budgets.

One reason why they didn’t do this is obvious. If there is a national food security plan, it is on lifeless papers. If there is a national locust-fighting plan, it is also on lifeless papers. And if there is a national agricultural development plan — and the PTI boasted of it after coming to power that there is one — it is also on lifeless papers.

These policy papers are there. But the lack of coordination between the federal and provincial governments is such and their passion to make these policies work is so conspicuously absent that the nation remains clueless about them even at the beginning of a new fiscal year. This cluelessness leads to speculations and gives birth to misgivings. And more importantly, it blocks transparency and accountability and makes it difficult for society to produce and nurture active citizenry — a very strong pillar of democracy.

By just blaming the 18th Amendment that has made agriculture a provincial subject, the federal authorities cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to take care of agriculture with active cooperation from the provinces. And just by blaming the federalist forces that they are bent upon enervating the 18th Amendment and, thus, provincial autonomy, the provinces cannot hide the incapability they have shown so far in energising agriculture.

Do we see the federal minister for national food security and research doing a press conference along with all the four provincial food and agriculture ministers via video link? We don’t. Do we see any chief minister sharing details with the media on how his province is doing well in agriculture and can do even better if the federal government plays its due role and helps the provinces seek greater cooperation from each other? Again, we don’t.

In its budget for the next fiscal year, the Sindh government allocated Rs14.84bn for agriculture plus a Rs3bn targeted subsidy collectively for quality paddy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides.

The budget does not mention any allocation for food security efforts and one has to presume that the Rs14.84bn allocation for agriculture covers the expenses the provinces will have to share with the federal government in fighting the worst locust attack. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has allocated Rs17bn for agriculture of which Rs10bn is for development and Rs7bn for current expenses.

The Balochistan government has set aside Rs11bn in the name of the promotion of agriculture. Again, both provincial budgets are silent on food security and their planned sharing in the national drive against the locust attack. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the locust threat is not so far visible. But in Balochistan, locust has been damaging crops for some time.

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