Sunday, May 28, 2017

Pakistan - The farmers’ story

Beyond the headlines, no one really knows why farmers were protesting the day the country’s annual budget was announced. During the budget speech, both the opposition and the government made a show of being on the side of the country’s farmers. But there they were – our farmers: outside parliament, being beaten up and arrested but insisting that they would not go until their demands were met. They eventually left after a fierce police crackdown and were soon forgotten as the budget speech laid out the government’s plans for next year. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar laid out what seemed like a grand vision for the agricultural sector. Taxes on agricultural machinery are to be reduced, tax holidays to be offered on agricultural chains, fertilizer subsides to remain in place, agricultural electricity tariffs to also remain subsidised and Rs700 billion in small agricultural loans to be provided. With the agricultural sector showing almost 3.5 percent growth last year, Dar’s story suggests that farmers have nothing to complain about.
The protesting farmers told a different story – a story of how each budget finds a way to make headlines, but is unable to address the challenges faced by the very constituencies it wishes to address. The farmers’ protest was not a sideshow; it was the actual story. But it is a story no one seems to have the ability to decode. Does anyone truly understand why our farmers are angry? Most media coverage, despite a decade of farmers’ protests, remains opaque. It fails to mention key demand and when it does, very few venture into ‘Pakistan’s agricultural backbone’ to see what is going on. Access to water, shrinking landholding sizes and the encroachment of housing schemes are issues that find no mention in the budget – or the much-touted Kissan Package of 2015. Issues of market-access continue to be seen as a debate on whether to import or export a particular agricultural product while issues in the domestic farmer-to-market chain are not thought worth talking about. Farmers themselves have called for support prices for a number of key produce as well as an end to cheap agricultural imports from India. Both demands speak to different challenges but have a basic logic: the cost of producing crops in Pakistan remains higher than the rest of our region. This is not to suggest that India is an ideal example. Pakistan has not seen the type of farmers’ suicides our neighbour is plagued with, but we may not be far from such a time. The crisis in agriculture is compounded by a crisis in policymaking.          The challenge of policymaking, however, is not to just accept the demands of a particular economic group, but to anticipate challenges that the group is unable to see. The problem is that no one in the government or the opposition seems to want to truly understand why farmers in Pakistan are protesting.

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