Nov 22, 2010

The missing ingredient

Substandard agricultural inputs, or sheer absence of standard ones, have greatly damaged productivity

By Tahir Ali

Costliness and non-availability of farm-inputs are two main reasons for low agricultural productivity and farmers’ poverty in Pakistan. With wheat-sowing season underway, it is high time the government introduces a sound mechanism for easy, timely and cheaper provision of agriculture inputs to farmers, if it wants to ensure food security and develop agriculture in the country.

Establishment of village-based agriculture inputs/services centres (AICs) could help ensure vertical and horizontal increase in agricultural output and prosperity of farmers, farmers’ leaders say.

The president of the Kissan Board Pakistan, Murad Ali Khan, says agricultural inputs were the main headache of farmers throughout the year. "In times of need, they either disappear from the market or are too costly and unaffordable for the poor farmers. A robust system of availability and distribution for these is, therefore, the call of the hour. With the wheat sowing season underway, there could not be better time for advocating the set-up," he says.

"If implemented fully and efficiently, the revolutionary idea could solve all the agriculture related problems. It may provide cheap agriculture inputs and services. It may offer farmers guidance and marketing services for their outputs which in-turn would increase their incomes. What else farmers need," he asks.

Niamat Shah, the General Secretary of the Anjuman-e-Kashtkaran Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says farmers’ income could be substantially increased if quality seeds, fertilisers, machinery, pesticides and other services are given to farmers in time and on cheaper rates.

He says the AICs would be like agriculture utility stores which also would serve as store houses/marketing centres. "All agricultural inputs would be made available to the member farmers. The bodies will provide inputs, soft loans, guidance and training and other services to farmers on comparatively cheaper rates and in time. These are vital for capacity-building of farmers and are supposed to create linkages between farmers and public/private line departments and associations. The centres will also develop and fund some demonstration farms. The high yield of these farms will serve as incentives to other farmers," Shah claims.

AICs can be established on the basis of union councils or villages and will comprise all stakeholders in agriculture, i.e. farmers, livestock owners, agriculture department field assistant, patwaris, veterinary doctors, seeds/fertilizer industry and bank representatives.

To minimise the chances of corruption and wastage of resources, there should be oversight bodies over the local village-based chapters at the district and provincial level with membership in the same pattern.

"It will surely be a long and arduous process and as a first step towards the goal, the government should open a centre at each of the 986 union councils in the province. Then the bodies should be organised on Patwar halqa and ultimately on village basis to cover most of the farmers of the province. These centres must function under the supervision of the provincial agriculture department," he advocates.

Every AIC should have certified seed, fertiliser, pesticides and farm machinery, repair workshop, veterinary hospital, the latest information about various aspects of farming, branch of Zarai Traqiati Bank to disburse interest-free loans, a multimedia workshop, storage facility and a branch of insurance company for crop insurance.

Finances for the centres are likely to be the most pressing of problems. But the issue could be talked by taking some steps. Farmers should contribute a membership fee of at least Rs200 and another Rs800 as share money in the revolving funds of the bodies. This should be augmented by a matching grant by the government. This revolving fund will increase with the passage of time as the bodies will invest in agriculture inputs and services and earn money.

Farmers would also be provided training, guidance, credit facility to start businesses locally to earn more money for their families. Revenue collected from agriculture can/should also be spent on its development. Cooperative bank, that has been revived fortunately, should also fund the entities once these are established. Banks could also be asked to be a share-holder in the business.

The seeds research farms have developed high yielding wheat, maize and fruit and vegetable seeds but their timely and easy availability has always been a problem.

When quality seeds, fertilisers and pesticides are not available to farmers, they have to use substandard, often dangerous, inputs and are thus looted by the profit-hungry agriculture inputs mafia. This explains the low per acre yield in the province.

"How can farmers be blamed when they go for these non-quality seed which is available to them when they need it, while standard seeds are not available in the market or are costlier. The government has failed to streamline seeds distribution. It has not been able to check and crackdown on substandard seeds in the market," Shah says.

In villages, the government need not build huge buildings for the purpose. Houses available in plenty therein can be utilised for the purpose. "The AIPCs will surely help develop agriculture in the province. This will solve the farmers’ problem of easy and timely availability of agriculture inputs and services on the one hand. On the other, it will also change their farming from subsistence and outdated farming to commercial and modernised one when expert advices, machinery, and marketing support is provided by the bodies," says Sajjad Haider Khan, a farmer from Mardan.

The government and farming community seems oblivious of the expected potential shortage of seeds and fertilisers in coming months. As thousands of tonnes of wheat seeds and other inputs have been washed away by recent floods, there is an urgent need to procure and store substantial amount of the commodities in advance. The government should be able to provide these two basic inputs free of cost as farmers are in no position to pay.

It is a tragedy that there is no official mechanism to check the standard and rates of important agricultural inputs like fertilisers, seeds and pesticides. Thousands of employees of the agriculture department should be authorised to check the rates, quality, quantity and weight of different types of inputs.

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