Despite a significant proportion of the Pakistani labourforce still working in agriculture, this sector is poorly organised and inefficient, and now it is being increasingly threatened by climate change. To better contend with the varied challenges facing our agricultural sector, it is necessary to rethink the top-down process of agricultural development which continues to bypass poor and landless farmers.
There is a colonial legacy which continues to haunt the agricultural sector in Pakistan, but this damaging legacy has been further perpetuated by the post-colonial governments within the country. The British created canal colonies by making major investments in irrigational schemes, but this was primarily meant to boost export of cash crops like cotton to feed the textile mills in Manchester. Instead of asking small holders and landless farmers to cultivate newly irrigated lands, the British relied on peasant proprietors to boost agricultural yield. The canal colonies also allocated large agricultural lands for the military, setting the precedent of military farms, and provision of agricultural lands to retiring officers.
Large cultivable areas across rural Pakistan are still owned by a very small number of families, whereas a significant proportion of farmers own very little or no land. While those with sufficient resources can lease land for cultivation, poorer farmers have to either work as sharecroppers, seasonal workers or daily wage earners.
Despite the urgent need to harness the potential of poorer farmers, agricultural policies in Pakistan have been dominated by top-down priorities. While the so-called ‘Green revolution’ in the 1950s and 1960s boosted agricultural productivity, it primarily relied on increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and mechanisation. Besides the ecological impact of chemical farming, promotion of mechanisation proved to be a labour displacing strategy which led many poor famers and sharecroppers to be driven off agricultural lands and into the urban slums.
Fixed cropping patterns, reliance on few major crops, narrow genetic pools, poor seed quality and inefficient water management practices are often cited as major problems which continue to dampen agricultural productivity in Pakistan today. Despite being a major producer of wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton, rural areas across the country remain poor, and food insecurity is a growing problem for the country as a whole.
Large and mid-level farmers in the country continue engaging in wasteful practices such as flood irrigation to grow crops like rice, and they have recklessly drained the underground aquifers using pumps to water their crops. Such inefficient water use practices have laid vast tracts of land uncultivable due to water logging and salinity.
Urgent action is needed to improve agricultural production practices across the country. As the climate change crisis accelerates, we will continue seeing more floods, droughts, and growing water scarcity. There is no single technological fix to the varied threats posed by climate induced disasters. Instead, adaption is going to require pursuit of a range of strategies. Some of these strategies will need to be adopted over the short term, while others will require a longer gestation period.
In the longer term, Pakistan needs to switch to growing better yielding as well as heat and drought resistant crops specifically suited to the varied agro-ecological zones within the country. In the more immediate term however, using agricultural methods such as terracing can help improve soil health and maximise water usage. Technological methods such as laser land leveling could also enable more efficient water use and solar power-driven irrigation systems would help lessen air pollution and emissions. Yet, adoption of such measures should not bypass poor farmers, as that will worsen rural inequalities, and cause further depeasantisation and a corresponding pressure on already burgeoning urban centres.
It is vital to avert elite capture and make agricultural policies in Pakistan more progressive and accessible. Besides ensuring that landless agricultural workers are paid fairer wages, there is need to craft subsidy schemes and other incentives which focus on making smaller farmers actively involved in making agriculture more productive, resilient and sustainable.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2022.
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