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October 7, 2019

The Economy of Modern Sindh: Opportunities Lost and Lessons for the Future


October 7, 2019

Reviewed by Dr. Erum Khalid Sattar

In The Economy of Modern Sindh: Opportunities Lost and Lessons for the Future, Dr Ishrat Husain, Aijaz A. Qureshi, and Nadeem Hussain have written a vast book, ambitious in the scope of the material and research they have amassed. They dedicate their book to “the poor households of Sindh who deserve a better future” and it is with that aspirational spirit that their work should be approached.

As the authors point out, even though the title of the book seems to suggest that it is focused on Sindh, their focus is broader and includes a juxtaposition of Sindh’s economy with Punjab and situates the two overall within the broader figures for Pakistan as a whole. In particular, where specific studies are available, they include comparisons with southern Punjab, and given on many counts its similarly underachieving nature, the comparative with Sindh is a fruitful one. This broader focus on the economic conditions in two provinces enhances the reference value of the book and it is hoped that people turn to it for its vital broader inter-provincial insights. Broadly, the authors helpfully lay out what they view as some principal challenges faced by Sindh’s economy such as the need to raise agriculture’s productivity in the face of water shortages, food insecurity, and rising demand for meat, dairy, and fruits by the urban middle class such that these will be the principal areas of concern for the purposes of this review. More importantly, they tell us that they propose a strategy for tackling these challenges in their (brief) concluding chapter to which we’ll return at the end. Broadly, on such an important topic as the economy of a region that is a current flashpoint of regional conflict that threatens to escalate into a wider and even more dangerous escalation, one perhaps needs no justification for yet another review of this already well-reviewed book on the topic of the economy of Sindh and more broadly, Pakistan.

There is a clear link between those whose lives the authors wish to improve through their work and the figures they cite such that in Sindh nearly 48% of the population lives in rural areas and 38% of them continue to derive their livelihoods from agriculture, livestock, forestry, and fishing. Given this is the case and they wish for their work to be relevant for policy-makers it would have been good if they had teased out some of the clear implications of their findings.In particular, given the reliance of the population on agriculture, the problems they document vis-à-vis Sindh’s downstream location within the Indus river basin are unfortunately all too familiar. Further, in the province itself these range from inequity in land distribution and water availability between larger and smaller farmers and resulting productivity differentials between them. The authors conclude that there is overall poor resource management the most egregious being that of water access and availability. As is also well-known, larger landlords continue to utilize all levers of power to access more than their authorized shares of water. Unfortunately for us, while the authors clearly lay outthese well-known stark facts about the critical issues in the agricultural economy, they do go further and raise fundamental questions about its long-term sustainability in its present form. Clearly, the system is working for the few at the expense of the many and while these are critical issues of political economy, it would have been good to hear some of the authors’ proposed possible solutions to them as without such engagement, the overall contribution of the work on these issues remains limited. To take one example, they seem to lay out without question some key assumptions that they should make explicit instead of proceeding on their unstated basis such as that in coming decades Tarbela and Mangla dams will silt up and new reservoirs won’t take their place till the late 2020s. This assumption that new dams will get built on this timeline may likely be taking WAPDA plans on their face and given the huge questions ranging from issues about their financing to impacts on humans and ecosystems, especially the misgivings about them that downstream Sindh continues to express (after all, the main focus of the book), these grave issues deserve more nuanced engagement.

As the authors tell us, in the seventh decade since its founding within the Pakistani federation, the incomes of Sindh’s rural residents are on average as the authors report, one-third that of its urban citizens. There is in effect, vast income inequality that results from being born and raised in this region. Of course, the stark disparity of rural incomes vis-à-vis those of urban residents is a worldwide challenge. For example, as the People’s Republic of China enters its seventh decade, urban incomes in that country remain nearly three times that of rural residents; in China, part of the reason for the gap in urban-rural incomes is the fact that farmers are not allowed to own the land and can only lease land from the state. But this trend extends even beyond China, and is a significant cause of the political turmoil in both the U.S. and the U.K., according to credible arguments from many analysts, from disparities between rural and city incomes and life opportunities.

Given the authors catalogue the challenges particular to their area of focus, it would have been good if they had made the connections that the rural-urban divide in life opportunities is not unique to Pakistan and nor does it excuse Pakistani policy-makers from the obligation to work towards the uplift of farmers within their own provincial and national jurisdictions. Perhaps policy-makers in Pakistan will want to solve the problems of farmer inequality because they deserve to be solved but also because they’ll come to see that the widespread global prevalence of the problem will make any solutions they devise of interest to others beyond the country’s borders. Surely, being a part of a productive and critical global discourse should be an aspirational role for the country and hearing the authors’ views on such possibilities would have benefitted readers and policy-makers.Further, given the academic and policy grounding of the authors, perhaps they could serve as the conduit for further research and collaborative policy development across borders in this critical area through their ability to engage with a broad group of stakeholders.

As the authors could have highlighted, the income and hence opportunities gap between the residents of urban and rural areas couldbe of potential concern for policy-makers for at least two reasons. While the authors do not directly provide these reasons as an outcome of their study, they are reasonably inferable from a close reading of their findings. First, because the statistics they offer concern the welfare of approximately 40% of Sindh’s labour force. Second, given the facts that the authors report, the question arises urgently whether and how policy-makers envisage bringing about a transition from the likely underemployed (and hence surplus) labour in the agricultural sector. While the authors do not clearly state the question directly in these terms, from much of what they tell us about under-performance in the sector across the country’s two main irrigated agricultural provinces of Sindh and Punjab, the structural question arises regarding the desirable percentage of the workforce to be employed in agricultural work, and the relative productivity of that work vis-à-vis other sectors. According to the authors, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends that an economy’s productivity gains need to be analysed carefully to disaggregate whether the gains are coming from people moving across sectors (e.g. from agricultural jobs to jobs in urban areas) or whether a sector itself such as for instance agriculture is itself becoming more productive. These are questions that need to be studied and answered carefully and unfortunately for us the authors do not describe the potential consequences of following the information the data provide either to its logical conclusion (no gains in productivity in agriculture) or whether the gains people are experiencing come when they move out of agriculture. Such in-depth analysis by the authors of their findings would have benefitted readers trying to understand all the collated material.

The figures indicate that people who could be more productively employed in urban jobs both in terms of numbers and in terms of productivity have not found that any such opportunities exist, and so they stay on their rural plots within the confines of their dwindling opportunities. The percentage of the labour force employed in agriculture, as high as it is, masks the attention that it merits from policy-makers in another key sense, and that is the very high population dependency ratios as the authors report in the country for working age populations. In their presentation of the data, essentially, the country’s high dependency ratios should also be a separate policy concern as the authors could have made clear when they report them in a table. As the authors note, on average, adults in their prime working years support approximately nine to ten dependents. Unfortunately, the dependency ratios are not disaggregated by rural and urban areas and further studies are needed to fill in this critical information gap which may have serious implications for policy design. Again, it would have been good if the authors had recommended that such further work be carried out by researchers and government agencies increasing the utility of their book through specific recommendations that they see in terms of the gaps in data and research that at a minimum need to be developed. This is particularly so as the authors have informed us, rural incomes are a third of urban incomes. This means that there needs to be a much keener appreciation than is visible from a policy response on the part of planners for how much more available money needs to stretch in rural areas. Given this urban-rural gap, it is hoped that in any proposals to tackle these structural challenges that they may devise, policy-makers will come up with aspirational goals to help shift these trends with the right incentives.

More importantly, whether planners are relatively content with how over the course of the past approximately twenty years, as the authors report, the share of employment in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors of the economy has remained relatively stable? While the overall trend has shifted significantly from the decade of the 1960s when employment in agriculture hovered just over 60% of the population, nevertheless the fact that the shift has stalled over the last two decades should be a source of concern. It would have been good if the authors had discussed the implications of these long-term trends especially as they see the challenges playing out for policy-makers.

Overall, given what the authors have told us about the persistent underachievement prevalent in the rural areas, an overarching question for the country is one of vision. How does it see itself going forward as what sort of nation in the 21st century? To be clear, the authors do not explicitly state the question in these terms but again, the question of how the country sees its future is one that their work necessarily leads us to and it would have been good to have seen their discussions of the implications of their findings for the country’s direction-setting. To take just one possible example, to incentivize away from the oft-repeated self-conceptualization of Pakistan being an agrarian nation will be a difficult yet necessary task in the long trajectory of the country’s development. It will stem from an appreciation of the fact that there is vast rural stagnation and miserable conditions borne by agricultural workers in many forms not limited to for instance oral contracts between illiterate labourers and the keeping of accounts by vastly more powerful landlords as the authors carefully document. It is likely that even all of this taken together may not move policy in desirable directions so the discourse will need to go beyond assembled facts and studies. It will essentially mean that all of the vast troves of information taken together will need to be distilled in a way such that there is a broad-based recognition that to date, no country in the world has made major strides in lifting its people from poverty and hunger in which a significant chunk of the population has been engaged in low-value producing agriculture.

Of course, there is no one overarching entity that can set a vision for a nation of an estimated 220 million people projected to rise to approximately 340 million by mid-century. What is important though is that through an analysis such as the one that the findings of the book necessarily lead to, deeper questions about the pace, scale and direction of change are raised. As before, it would have been good to have the benefit of the author’s insights on these critical structural challenges. Let us recall that the grounding of the country’s rural economy in a structure of large-scale canal irrigation was laid during British colonial rule of the subcontinent. Given these historical colonial-era foundations of the country’s vast canal irrigation network that undergirds the rural agricultural economy, how do planners envisage its future in a time of increasing stresses on the system such as for instance the impact of a changing climate on the behaviour of glaciers and on available river water from their overall reduction. Further, to extend the authors’ analysis of the impacts on Pakistan’s rural agricultural economy and irrigation network within a consideration of its geopolitics is a necessity. To do so, the authors may have had to go beyond the scope of their disciplinary boundaries but given they’ve relied on a broad range of studies, including some from a wider range of disciplines including geostrategic studies may have enabled them to paint a fuller picture of the conditions within which modern Sindh’s economy, particularly its rural agricultural economy is situated. At first glance even though this may seem far from the core of their study, on closer reflection it is clear that given the huge scale of the gravity-flow canal irrigation network, developments far upstream and transboundary developments in the region more broadly have the potential for outsized impacts downstream. This means that the analysis could have benefited from a consideration of any potential impacts from Indian actions upstream on the Indus rivers system as well as any predictions about future developments that may occur there including effects on the long-term functioning, viability and prospects of the operation of the Indus Waters Treaty 1960. Any consideration of agriculture and irrigation in Sindh and the Pakistan more generally at least as it is currently practiced within the confines of present large-scale water transfer technology needs to have a keen understanding of the stability and long-term availability of water. Unfortunately for us, in the present work the authors have declined to engage in this sustained analysis. It is hoped that alert policy-makers spurred by the authors’ findings will go further to question the fundamentals and viability of the agricultural economy going forward into the 21st century.

In a trend that hopefully bodes well for the production of future research in Pakistan, the authors rely not only on experts in particular fields, but also worked extensively with both undergraduates and graduate students at the IBA in Karachi as research assistants who (one assumes) tracked down many sources and leads. Working with students for producing such research not only improves the quality of the work but also trains students to work with experts and authors leading hopefully to a continuum of ongoing training and research. It is hoped that educational institutions throughout the country will encourage the production of such research collaborations. However, a singular problem with such a work that is based on the compilation of data from numerous sources are the limitations of those sources themselves. Given this inherent shortcoming and the vast spread of data throughout the book, it would have been good had the authors included either an overall discussion that addressed some of the general problems or had interspersed the shortcomings and limitations of data sources within the substantive sections where they relied on them. To give just one instance, on their very important chapter on “Poverty and Inequality”, in a table on the proportion of the population classified as poor in Pakistan, the table stops at the years 1999-2000. Given this is a very recent book published in 2019 it seems imperative for readers to be able to understand why the figures seem to stop two decades ago. The source for the table is Government of Pakistan data and surely it must continue to maintain this information to the present. Given the importance of this information and the vast expenditure on poverty-alleviation efforts in the country, the non-inclusion of the data for recent years merits discussion. The need for such an explanation is particularly clear as the authors intend for the book to be used as a text book, as a reference for other researchers and scholars and as a guide for policy makers. Thus, while it is important to compile information and data extensively, it is also imperative that authors engage critically with their data sources and their overall utility in moving the project of knowledge production forward.

To close with the authors’ proposed strategy for tackling problems of food insecurity, irrigation water shortages, and lower crop yields arising from global warming in the face of increasing demand from the urban middle class for higher quality and quantities of food, the authors propose a broad range of strategies from improvement in water use efficiency, rationalisation of water pricing, water conservation techniques to substitution of flood irrigation by drips or sprinklers amongst others. As they acknowledge, for this to succeed, a whole host of governance reforms, creating a greater use of private economic agents, and capacity building of research and development institutions will need to happen for the process to succeed. These are very difficult and complex challenges indeed and perhaps with this effort of the authors and others that it may spur, Sindh and Pakistan can begin to move in the right directions.

The reviewer has a doctorate in law from Harvard University and teaches water law and policy at Tufts University. She will be a Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore School of Law in 2020.