Poverty has remained Pakistan’s legacy and its quantum has deepened over the years. The country’s poverty crisis is largely concentrated in its more than 45,000 villages.
The real challenge of alleviating poverty, therefore, lies in developing the rural sector. Our rural belt primarily consists of the land of small farmers and landless labourers who are categorised among the rural poor. About 35 percent of the rural population lives below the subsistence level where social services are extremely inadequate.
Pakistan’s economy, security, solidarity and integrity is based on its rural sector, which presents a dismal picture of poverty; ill-health; alarmingly low rates of literacy; malnutrition; high population growth; poor social and physical infrastructure; low production and productivity; unemployment; massive exploitation; and the abuse of the poor by landowners and government officials.
Pakistan is blessed with an ideal climate and vast alluvial plains along with a river system that is capable of stimulating the highest level of agricultural production. Its economy derives its strength from the agricultural sector. It would not be wrong to assume that the safety, security, solidarity and future of this country largely depend on its villages. Therefore, rural development becomes the heart of Pakistan’s economic development crisis.
Pakistan was far ahead of India in almost all sectors of development – particularly in terms of agriculture – in the early years of Partition. In the decade after Partition, India began a balanced approach towards rural and urban development by giving due priority to the rural sector and focusing on its infrastructure; electrification; village tubewells; and subsidies on inputs required by small farmers.
Since rural development programmes intend to reduce poverty, it must be clearly designed to increase production and raise productivity by adopting the time-honoured integrated rural development approach and selecting the production areas of between 50 and 60 villages with a will to improve the socioeconomic status of the target group: the rural poor. The initial focus should be on increasing agricultural production and productivity through the intensification, diversification, and commercialisation of agriculture based on a sound physical, organisational and institutional infrastructure. Rural development depends on sustained growth as rural income is primarily derived from agriculture and has the capacity to meet the cost of any development programme.
In Pakistan, a number of rural development programmes were launched to increase its agricultural production and productivity. They were implemented with the intention of creating abundant job opportunities to improve the social and physical infrastructure in rural areas. Unfortunately, the most important element that has been overlooked is the human development.
Successive governments have launched various well-publicised programmes. These include Village Aid in the 1950s; the basic democracies system in the 1960s; Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) in the 1970s; and the five-point programme in the 1980s. However, the beneficiaries of all these initiatives were large, influential farmers who had already received patronage from the governments. Small farmers were mostly sidelined.
While formulating the concept of the IRDP, all shortcomings were taken into consideration. This programme remained operational through political will and commitment for seven years between 1972 and 1979. With the sudden change of the government, the IRDP also met the same fate and was rolled back without any cogent reasons and evaluation.
Unfortunately, it seems that doing away with rural development programmes started by previous governments has become a tradition. This has happened in the case of Village Aid, basic democracies and the IRDP – though the IRDP was a time-tested programme that was duly approved and applauded by the international community and UN organs.
These programmes did not create the desired impact owing to the absence of political commitment; non-participation of the people at the grassroots level; a lack of local resource mobilisation; and the dearth of an empowered local government system and people-centric institutions, including NGOs and CBOs.
To sum up, we can say that very little emphasis was placed on integrated rural development and most of the government programmes were run for a single purpose, with isolated efforts imposed by the political leadership from above. Little or no effort was made to evolve a leadership from the grassroots and above that implements programmes on the principles of self-reliance, self-support and accountability that monitored these initiatives.
Pakistan’s future relies on its rural sector as a majority of our population lives in villages. Therefore, steps should be taken to develop this sector on a priority basis. The emphasis should not only be on improving poverty alleviation, but also on introducing strategies to promote poverty eradication. The solution lies in strengthening rural infrastructure and ensuring that all villages are accessible through road links. Villages should also be provided electricity and gas, with subsidised rated for tubewells.
Modern technology should be introduced for pre- and post-harvest. Such technology should especially be provided to small farmers at their doorsteps.
Growth centres should be established for every 10 union councils that should work towards marketing produce and establishing small and medium-sized industries to create jobs for the rural population so they don’t have to migrate to cities. Arrangements for setting up agro-based industries through local raw materials should also be prioritised. In addition, the local leadership should be encouraged.
As an agrarian economy, Pakistan strongly relies on its rural sector. While planning and developing the urban and rural sectors, priority should be given to rural areas so as to ensure that small farmers – who are the backbone of our economy – reap the benefit and production and productivity improves.
The provincial administrations ought to implement local government programme and revive the IRDP by ensuring that it has the political commitment to reduce rural poverty.
The writer is the founder of the Rural Development Foundation.