Aug 21, 2010

Too slow to save

The authorities need to introduce low-cost
techniques of construction and also give subsidies to the flood-affected people

By Alauddin Masood

The recent flood is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the country’s history. The UN estimated that up to 500,000 people are homeless and 1.4 million acres of agricultural land has been destroyed in central Punjab, but added damage was worst in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

According to Federal Flood Control (FFC) data, over 289,086 houses have been destroyed or partially damaged with 3,610,735 persons affected by flash floods across the country. FFC says the floods affected 4,772 villages, including 1,472 in Punjab, 468 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 2584 in Balochistan and 193 in Gilgit-Baltistan.

According to officials, some 1,400 persons have perished in the floods, which have caused incalculable damage to agriculture and to the infrastructure, in particular the roads and bridges. There have been reports of death due to starvation and disease. The authorities will need to answer for its failure to take timely steps to tackle the floods.

The torrential rains and devastating floods have also badly affected the agriculture sector. According to some circles, the cotton crop alone is likely to suffer a loss of five billion rupees. Initially, it was estimated that due to increase in the area under cotton, Pakistan would have 14 million bales of cotton this year, but some 1.5 million bales have already been damaged by the unprecedented floods. Consequently, this has pushed up the price of cotton, with an increase of Rs800 per maund to Rs7,000 per maund in Punjab and with an increase of about Rs400 per maund to Rs6,300 per maund in Sindh. In the coming months, analysts say, the price of cotton could increase further.

Pakistan is the fourth largest producer of cotton, producing about 10 percent of its total global production. Cotton provides raw material to Pakistan’s 337 textile mills, some 1500 ginning factories and about 5000 oil mills. Cotton and its value added products contribute over 53 percent to Pakistan’s annual export income. A couple of indigenous industries, such as pharmaceutical, soap, chemical, and feed industries, rely on cotton by-products. Besides, cotton provides livelihood to 1.5 million farming families and jobs to 40 percent of labour force. In view of its contribution to the economy, cotton is often called the life-blood of Pakistan’s economy.

While an estimate of flood-related losses can be made only after the waters recede, apparently these are beyond the country’s resources. The natural calamity has tremendously added to the woes of people, who are already groaning under poverty, inflation and sky rocketing prices. Meanwhile, the number of hungry people in the country has increased to 77 million, while 36 percent of Pakistan’s population has been badly affected by poverty and millions of them do not have food security. The rising hunger could increase the incidents of violence in the country, according to Woodrow Wilson Centre of America.

The global response to recent floods has been lukewarm, while the country itself lacks resources to tackle the floods and to mitigate the sufferings of the millions of its citizens. This brings to the fore the need to launch well-concerted efforts for alleviating poverty and generating funds to meet such unforeseen calamities in future.

Confronted with natural calamities, some countries could succeed in converting crisis situations into opportunities. For example, in early twentieth century when London (UK) faced plague and a devastating fire, the city fathers grabbed the opportunity for building a modern and planned metropolis on the grounds of the old town.

Likewise, Pakistan needs to plan in a way that the people could reap the benefits of modern day living. Instead of old kucha houses they need to be facilitated to own sturdy houses built with concrete; and instead of the old decaying infrastructure they need to be provided with modern infrastructure that caters to the needs of the future as well.

For the houses, the authorities need to introduce low cost techniques of construction and also give subsidies to the flood-affected people and vulnerable segments that opt for concrete-built houses. For building infrastructure, emulating the precedent set by the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the local chamber of commerce and industry in every district should take the lead in replacing the dilapidated infrastructure with new sophisticated network.

If the Sialkot Chamber could build and operate on a self-help basis, an international airport and also contribute in upgrading their city’s road network while contributing to providing health and education facilities to the people why other chambers of commerce and industry could not do so. Apparently, some of the chambers are more affluent than their counterpart in Sialkot. At least, the chambers of commerce could take the lead in converting the indigenous raw materials into high value added products and market the same abroad..

In the economic development and prosperity of nations, "value addition" has played the role of a catalyst, laying the base for fast track development and rapid progress and prosperity by engaging the people in fruitful ventures. The nations which learnt this early, now dominate the economic horizon, irrespective of their numbers and the size of their country, as developed countries of the world.

Value addition, however, depends upon the quality of human resources of a nation. The higher the literacy and skill levels, the better would be the prospects for a nation to add value to its products/raw materials. On the other hand, the nations with low levels of literacy and skills have no option but to export their materials in raw form.

In a highly competitive world, the exports of countries in the second category naturally do not earn sufficient foreign exchange. According to economists, the countries in this category are destined to remain poor and at the bottom level on the development index of nations unless they transform themselves into robust industrial nations and increase their export earnings.

In agricultural production, Pakistan ranks amongst the top 10 countries of the world. Pakistan produces one of the best varieties of rice, which is universally acclaimed for its aroma and good taste. It is the fourth top producer of cotton and the fifth top producer in mangoes and dates, while its Kinnow is rated among the best citrus fruits in the world. Still, Pakistan’s gross domestic product and, in particular, its exports, are neither commensurate with its agricultural potential nor its size and the number of its people.

In fact, these are abysmally low as even the exports of many medium-sized multinational companies are more than that of Pakistan’s total exports. Due to low exports, every year, the country faces a huge trade deficit, which remained around 18-20 billion dollars during the last few years.

Pakistan loses about 110-120 billion rupees annually because a majority of its farmers, being illiterate, are still using primitive farming techniques and inefficient technological practices. As the country exports bulk of its produce without any substantial value addition, it is not able to earn foreign exchange commensurate with its actual agricultural potential.

Take Pakistani mangoes, these are acclaimed the world over because of good aroma, excellent taste and almost total absence of fibre content, but the country exports some 6.0 percent of its annual production while 40 percent of the mangoes never reach the market due to spoilage and poor handling. The situation is not very different when one looks at the export of dates, honey, vegetables and animal stock. Likewise, Pakistan could do much better in rice and substantially increase its export earnings if it could increase the yield, reduce the cost of production and market the crop more scientifically.

The country can easily curtail the losses, accruing from spoilage at the farms and poor handling of the produce, by adopting modern techniques of sowing, harvesting, irrigation, processing, packing and marketing, which are, presently, the main factors contributing to inflation.

We can enter into the realm of high value addition only if we have a sizeable number of businessmen who are educated and high quality professionals who are also fully aware of the advantages of recruiting educated and highly skilled work force.

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