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December 10, 2018

The chicken and the fox

Opinion

December 10, 2018

This is the kind of wisdom we had lost in colonial slavery. Unfortunately, it still remains beyond the reach of colonised minds.

Imagine what we had lost. This is the very land where our ancestors had trapped a bird in the forest and turned it into chicken through centuries of hard work. Yes, adopting a wild bird for human needs is not easy. We are the ones who gifted chicken to the rest of the world and now we are telling the people of the green planet how to use this flightless bird to end poverty forever.

According to Punjab’s Livestock Department, a family that cares to raise only six egg laying birds can earn 16,000 rupees a month, which is in fact more than what a security guard or a construction labourer earns working twelve hours a day. Once this knowledge reaches the public domain, we can see a reversal of rural to urban migration. Grabbing six chicken each, such families may soon be on the way back, emptying our slums and giving begum sahibs the challenge of finding new domestic workers. This, in turn, may ignite the demand for vacuum cleaners, dishwasher etc, and stir our manufacturing industry as well.

With roots in farming, I am particularly happy with the wisdom of the new government. During the last three years, I have seen people of my village and hundreds of villages around it descend into the worst forms of poverty. First, floods played havoc and the cotton crops failed year after year. Even at the best of times, cotton had ceased to be a profitable crop. Every year, as cotton was picked, industrialists made a concerted effort to drop the farm gate price, and prices went up as soon as the cotton had left the farmers. A very senior agricultural scientist once told me about the pressure he faced every year to lie about the size of the yield to help depress cotton prices.

As water tables went up due to the floods, sugar cane was the new choice. Jumping on the opportunity, the Sharifs relocated two sugar mills to the area. Some other sugar mills were already there, set up by the tabdeeli Che Guevaras.

The tabdeeli Che Guevaras went after the Sharifs with Marxist fervour. Aitzaz Ahsan, our own Pablo Neruda, was their lawyer – as you find him in every revolutionary court case. He argued that the people of southern Punjab must grow only cotton for the sake of the nation. It was a lesson that our Neruda must have learnt from Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy that resulted in the elimination of 45 million peasants, thus substantially alleviating poverty in post-revolutionary China. The honourable judges agreed with the wisdom and the Sharifs’ stinking mills were ousted to northern Punjab which badly needs industrial development and which does not have the national obligation to grow a particular crop.

The halal sugar mills refused to buy the crop when it was ready. They made load-bearing trucks, bull carts and tractor-trolleys wait for weeks, bankrupting farmers through transportation costs alone. The long wait resulted in a drop in the weight of the crop, without any loss in sugar content for the mills. There were go-betweens – working on behalf of the mills –offering half the price to farmers. Many picked the offer and returned with a paper promising payment. Some farmers gave up and burnt their crops.

Something similar is happening again this year again, all over Punjab. (I am assuming it is not dramatically different in other provinces as well.) Imagine: where would farmers go if the chicken had not been rediscovered?

It is not just about cotton or sugar cane. Two years ago, I had a chance to look into the economy of the potato crop after the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif boasted that potatoes were selling at merely five rupees a kilo. The prime minister was correct. The price of potatoes has gone down substantially as hoarders had offloaded an estimated 300,000 tonnes of the previous year’s potato stock in the wholesale at a price of Rs6 to Rs9 per kg, at a time when the new crop had just arrived. The purpose was to put pressure on the price of the fresh potato crop as they were warming up to build new stocks. As always, they succeeded.

The then prime minister appeared to be unaware of the warnings made by officials at the Ministry of National Food Security and Research. These officials had noted that farmers might face serious losses if immediate measures were not taken for potato export. A year earlier, the middlemen had procured potatoes from farmers at Rs2 per kg but in the market it was sold over Rs30 per kg throughout the year.

Let me turn to the other discovery made by our brand new prime minister. He has learnt that farmers can benefit immensely if they knew that ‘kattas’ (male calves) can be raised for beef. What a googly! During the last ten years, veal farming in Pakistan made tremendous progress. Farmers were fattening kattas everywhere. This development was based on robust demand from Afghanistan. Last year, the whole sector collapsed and, collectively, farmers had to face losses in billions as export of cattle to Afghanistan was abruptly banned. In Pakistan, beef is mainly consumed by low-income groups and can no longer compete with chicken in price. Veal farming can only be viable through export demands. While our Adam Smiths can plan to export beef to Switzerland, our best markets are in the neighbourhood where we have least competition.

Perhaps poverty does not come naturally to people. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the rich and powerful to keep the poor poor. In the rural economy, more than the chicken, it is about the fox – which sits in every cabinet and plans to eat the chicken while raising revolutionary slogans and promising to make the chicken fly.

Dear readers, you must decolonise your mind to comprehend the post-colonial ‘Naya Pakistan’. Believe me, it is not easy, particularly if you are my kind of desi liberal. In order to decolonise your mind you have to study at a school set up by colonists to prepare their brown replicas; you have study at a college set up by colonists to train white masters; you have to be champion of a sport popularised by colonists in their colonies; you have to marry a grand-daughter of your former colonists.

Finally, you have to hand over your children to former colonial aristocrats to raise them in the proper anti-colonial manner. Only then my friend can you understand how to end poverty in your land – egg by egg.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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