At the beginning of third decade of the 21st century, Pakistan stands at political, social and economic crossroads. It needs to make big and bold decisions at each of these crossroads.

In the economy, the country needs to decide as to what extent should it rely on China for miracles and whether it is ready to make big sacrifices for this.

In a recent meeting of the parliamentary committee on CPEC, it transpired that some members, particularly those from the opposition benches, preferred local solutions to Pakistan’s structural issues in the agriculture sector and wanted to reduce reliance on China for the purpose.

This development comes at a time when Beijing is unfolding the second phase of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – where one major area of focus is agriculture.

Prime Minister Imran Khan frequently expresses his deep admiration for the Chinese model of economic growth and poverty alleviation through small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the Chinese model of agricultural development. But it seems that Pakistan as a state still wants to limit its reliance on China for economic development, particularly for agricultural progress.

For argument’s sake, reducing reliance on China does not mean Pakistan is capable of boosting its own capability to deal with structural problems in the agriculture sector without help from outside.

Less reliance on China only means that it is eager to seek the required technological cooperation from other countries as well, most notably the US, Canada and Australia.

China, on its part, may not openly object to Pakistan’s eagerness to seek cooperation from these and similar countries for boosting its farm output.

However, it may surely continue to emphasise that agricultural cooperation agreements signed between Beijing and Islamabad under the umbrella of CPEC must remain intact and flexible enough to create more room for Chinese companies and state institutions to work on projects of mutual benefit.

Unless we keep the aforementioned background in mind, we cannot understand why the federal and provincial governments are yet to reach a broad consensus on how to take agriculture to the next level in Pakistan and why even in federal bureaucracy opinions remain divided on how sustainable farm productivity can be achieved.

Areas of concern

In agriculture, there are six main areas of concern that require critical attention through a sustainable agriculture development plan. In each area, seeking foreign funds and foreign expertise is a must.

First, our food crop yields are low and food processing industries lag behind in value addition. Second, livestock productivity is low and meat processing industry is at a nascent stage.

Third, fields, farms and orchards producing vegetables, pulses, oilseeds and fruits are yet to be organised and maintained in line with the national requirement. Fourth, fisheries and poultry sectors suffer from lack of modern farming and processing practices.

Fifth, there is a need to ensure food security for a large and growing population. And sixth, which is tied to the fifth area, should the country continue to earn foreign exchange via export of agricultural commodities after taking care of growing local demand?

There is no magic wand in the hands of policymakers to tackle all these challenges without seeking foreign help. Making even a small attempt in this regard requires heavy funds, which are neither available at present – and may not become available in the foreseeable future – as Pakistan needs money for running day-to-day government affairs, domestic and external debt servicing, and defence needs.

Once the policymakers realise the gravity of the situation, instead of chanting slogans of self-reliance (before time for self-reliance comes eventually), they will be able to lay the foundation of a sustainable agriculture development plan.

Once they do, the next step will be to decide how wisely they can turn to a combination of successful countries with rich agricultural development history in a manner that creates little or no trouble on the diplomatic front.

At this stage, the focus should be on finding out such a combination and it seems that Pakistan as a state is trying to do just that, which is good. It may take a little longer if the country continues to search for this combination.

In the long run, this is the only viable option because agricultural growth dependent on a single country runs the risk of weakening the desired sustainability and even food security.

This is no philosophical discussion. The concerns highlighted here are well-known in the policymaking circles and Pakistan’s media continues to highlight them.

Agri revolution

A massive agricultural development plan – in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) parlance an agricultural revolution – also requires harmonious relationship among provinces and between a provincial and federal government. Making that happen seems just next to impossible right now but, nevertheless, it remains achievable if politicians begin to see things from a nationalistic prism.

But that said, the development of such a relationship between the two main tiers of the government and among all provincial governments will take some time.

The country can, however, start from somewhere else. It would be desirable if the federal government starts taking baby steps.

Why can’t the prime minister, for example, meet ministers of food and agriculture of all provinces and address their complaints of non-cooperation by the federal government and bureaucracy?

Or, why can’t he take all provinces into confidence on operational details of the agricultural reforms agenda prepared under the umbrella of CPEC.

Provinces complain that these details have not yet been shared with them. Time is running out. Any delay in pursuing all-inclusive and pragmatic reforms in agriculture can eventually lead to food insecurity.

Pakistan already ranks low on the food security index. According to the Global Food Security Index of 2019, Pakistan’s overall ranking was 78th – far behind China (35th) and Indonesia (62nd) and lower than even Uzbekistan (71st) and India (72nd).

The writer is a mechanical engineer and is doing masters

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