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June 1, 2020

Tackling failure — saving livelihoods


June 1, 2020

News Analysis

Food security minister Syed Fakhr Imam’s detailed comments on the locust attack confronting Pakistan, marks a badly needed first step towards tackling Pakistan’s growing food insecurity.

On Friday, the widely respected politician and former speaker of the national assembly brought in to tackle the fast sliding agriculture sector, in comprehensive comments spelt out the broad contours of this mounting challenge as he urged complete national unity on the matter.

Imam’s remarks have wider implications not only for the future of the economy but more vitally for the future of Pakistan. In the past year since reports first surfaced of locust sightings in Sindh and parts of southern Punjab, Pakistan’s ruling structure has lagged behind in displaying the badly needed urgency to deal with this rapidly mounting emergency.

It took the federal government almost six months till early 2020 to finally declare a locust emergency. And the subsequent response on a range of fronts has been lacking.

Food insecurity has haunted Pakistan in the past year amid shortages of sugar and flour, that simultaneously also triggered overnight price escalation of these key commodities. The political storm triggered by this sorry saga continues to unfold in the wake of the explosive revelations from the investigations that probed the matter.

The findings have wrapped a range of influential players from politicians to well known investors, who all reaped huge dividends from a generous government subsidy to support sugar exports. For now, its unclear exactly how far Prime Minister Imran Khan will take the matter to oversee further action.

But there is indeed an often ignored side to the matter-the plight of Pakistan’s farming community and the fate of the crucial agricultural sector. In the past year, some of Pakistan’s key crops like cotton have failed while other essential commodities such as maize and rice have under-performed. Consequently, half of Pakistan’s population which relies directly or indirectly on farm incomes have been left short changed.

But the story of Pakistan’s ailing agricultural sector is far from just over the short term. Years of neglect over multiple fronts have cost the country dearly both in terms of a large segment of its population left short changed, and increasing reliance on imported food stuff that has unreasonably inflated the national import bill.

This sorry dilemma has been fuelled in part by the sustained depletion of critical areas like agricultural research and institutional support to farmers. Meanwhile, the weakening of institutional mechanisms including those central to agriculture have virtually ended support to farmers across Pakistan. In stark contrast to the times when extension services fanned out across the country’s rural heartland to help farmers on their doorsteps, those services have practically ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, the government’s strategy to either revive or rebuild Pakistan’s economy in the wake of the Corona virus pandemic is doomed to fail unless human security through a revival of agriculture is ensured. In the wake of Pakistan’s ongoing economic downturn, Prime Minister Imran Khan moved swiftly to carve out a controversial package for the construction industry.

To date, the main beneficiaries of that exercise appear to be the well endowed entrepreneurs armed with the financial muscle to dish out new investments. The exercise has also opened the gateway for money laundering as it rooted in a ‘no questions asked’ policy on the source of construction related investments.

Some in the ruling class also appear to anchor their hopes on raising Pakistan’s exports to further build up the country’s foreign exchange reserves, notably as the world economy continues to slide downwards. These and other ideals are lofty at best, but hardly tied to Pakistan’s fundamental realities.

The missing element appears to a large enough exercise to support agricultural incomes, in par with the exercise undertake for the construction sector. Even if laborers are driven back to employment with new construction projects coming up, a failure to ensure food security will leave behind a lingering and a dangerous gap.

As Prime Minister Imran Khan oversees the final touches to next years’ budget due to be announced on 12th June, he needs to empower the food security mechanisms both at the center and the provinces.

Syed Fakhr Imam’s remarks on Friday have marked a timely warning to tackle the crisis surrounding Pakistan’s economy where it matters the most. In the coming months, a raft of measures to follow up this message with essential steps will help secure Pakistan’s economy and stability as the country along with the rest of the world goes through unprecedented and continuing turmoil.