Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.
The agricultural problems must be addressed, as the sector is without a doubt one of the most important sectors of Pakistan. Its importance can be inferred from its contribution to the GDP as well as its employment share. Since 2010, the share of Pakistan’s agriculture sector to the GDP has remained around 20%. It also provides employment to almost half the population.
Around 35-40% of export earnings come from Pakistan’s export of cotton, rice and leather. Aside from farm income, non-farm agricultural activities have accounted for 40-60% of the total rural household income thereby playing a crucial role in poverty alleviation and reducing rural-urban income disparity.
In addition to these contributions, the rising food insecurity and population explosion provide more reasons to invest in the agriculture sector. According to recent statistics, more than 20% of Pakistan’s population is undernourished. The rising malnourishment, scarcity of water resources, climate change and constantly falling growth rates call for reforming Pakistan’s agriculture sector in order to create a healthy, productive and functional Pakistan.
After decades of falling growth rate, the rise in growth rate by 3.81% during 2017-18 was significant for it was not only more than the previous year’s 2.07% growth rate but also more than the projected growth rate of 3.5%. This was made possible by supportive government policies, attractive output prices, and improved agriculture technology.
This increase in growth rate is emblematic of the potential of Pakistan’s agriculture sector that can be realized by mapping out and operationalizing few policy reforms.
In order to streamline agriculture technology as well as productive and sustainable methods in Pakistan, irrigation techniques, water management and the food supply chain must be reformed and modernized.
To this end, a lot has been said and done, and although the performance in this regard is less than exemplary, the problem hasn’t eluded the eyes of the policy-makers and researchers. For this reason, in the greater scheme of things, such a problem can be managed if given enough resources and political will.
The more threatening is the agricultural problems that haven’t caught the eyes of the policymakers in Pakistan yet. These include lack of investment in research and development in the agriculture sector; delinking of agriculture researchers from the private sector and government; lack of investment in talent development; and fragmented data collection process.
Any reform policy that does not account for these issues is bound to be a band-aid at best and band-aids ultimately come off, for they are temporary by their very nature.
Investment in Research and Development in the Agriculture Sector
Pakistan, due to a multitude of agricultural problems, has been unable to invest in research and development (R&D) in most sectors. Agriculture is one such sector. In the past, the neglect of R&D in the agriculture sector has been covered up by the import of foreign technology.
Global geopolitics (Cold War, Afghan war and 9/11) and the domestic socio-political landscape were such that this import-oriented policy worked, but in the near to mid-term future, the ongoing trade war between the US and China and solidification of ties between the West and India are bound to put Pakistan at a disadvantage.
Hence, funding to agriculture research institutes must be increased. The low priority assigned to R&D in the budget has to change. To deal with budgetary constraints, the government can emulate the Shaukat Khanum model. All agricultural research institutes must be centralized.
To this end, a command and control centre should be created to better coordinate and facilitate ongoing research. Cost can be cut by creating a command and control centre at one of the existing institutes and assigning a few existing government personnel to this task.
Investment in Talent Development
Pakistan has been continuously ranking low on the human development index. The banking concept of knowledge, language barriers, lack of proper guidance and career counselling has created a batch of graduates and scholars with less than exemplary skill-set, particularly when it comes to agriculture programmes.
This trend not only adversely impacts the quality of researchers in agriculture research institutes but also the quality of students accepted into graduate programmes. Moreover, due to a lack of quality research opportunities, serious candidates opt for foreign research institutes. This brain drain has taken its toll on Pakistan’s economy.
There must be an introduction of agricultural programmes that focus on practical and research-based skills at a small scale. Bahauddin Zikria University (BZU) or Faisalabad Agricultural University (FAU) can be used for this purpose. A challenging screening test must be introduced so only the best students get accepted into the pilot programme.
To attract the best candidates, incentives like guaranteed employment in an agriculture research institute must be provided, given the candidates show stellar performance. Aside from this, farmers should be trained and educated about productive agricultural techniques.
To monitor the utility of the training, the difference between the crop yields should be measured before and after the training program is administered. The program can be administered at a small scale initially and then scaled up gradually.
Linking Researchers, Private Sector, and the Government
The delinking of academia, the private sector and government widen the valley of death (the gap between research and development of technology and commercialization). This problem is particularly important in Pakistan’s context. Plan 9 and the ITU model serve as helpful prototypes in this regard.
The creation of an incubation centre with close links to the government within an educational centre is exactly what is needed to power through the valley of death. The abovementioned programme in BZU or FAU could be linked with an incubation centre with close links to the government.
One of the best features of Plan 9 within ITU is its flat, non-hierarchical, team-oriented and cooperative atmosphere. Care must be taken to replicate these organizational features into the proposed programme lest it gets bogged down by red-tapism or hierarchical decision-making.
Creating a Unified Data Collection System
Information is the key to the successful implementation and accountability of any policy or programme. Fragmented data collection systems create fragmented information that later on translates into faulty policies. Machine learning and AI can solve this problem. To this end, the government can secure the services of Dr. Umer Saif’s SurveyAuto. He helped the government in setting up ITU, Plan 9, and bringing Uber to Pakistan.
The policies proposed above are bound to face a few hurdles due to their long-term nature and lower political utility in comparison to short-term policies like subsidies which guarantee immediate political returns. Pakistan is one of the countries with the lowest investment rates in R&D.
The past policies even when trying to address the issue have only mentioned it in passing. This attitude has also translated itself into university campuses where even the brightest students, -particularly in STEM, opt for the private sector or civil service due to lucrative wages, job security and prestige.
An engineer who can design a cutting edge instrument for improving crop quality is far more important for agriculture research institutes than the private sector or civil services. The government will have a hard time attracting the best talent despite incentives due to tough competition from the private sector and civil services.
Career politicians are wired to value and prioritize projects that are visible enough for laymen and hence, appealing to their voter base. Hence, they are much more likely to approve projects like the construction of a road than investing in R&D.
To deal with the agricultural problems in Pakistan, the government can start screening candidates at an early stage, that is, the high school level. For this purpose, tests (voluntary) can be administered at 8th, 9th and 10th grade (O levels) and those who score high in critical reasoning, argumentative essays (in the language of their choice) and concept clarity can be offered scholarship till their doctorate.
The federal government and HEC already have multiple merit and need-based scholarship programmes. Funds from some of these programmes can be rerouted to an integrated scholarship scheme for this purpose. The acceptance of the scholarship programme will bind the candidate to work for the government for a 10-15 year period after completion of their education.
Furthermore, to develop the research acumen of the awardees, they should be assigned to research institutes in 10th grade. This hands-on experience will help them more than rote-based learning administered in classrooms. There is no doubt that social media has polarised the world, but it has also made it harder for politicians to lie, push false narratives, or take credit for projects that they have no role.
Recently, when a career politician tried to take credit for the e-stamp initiative started by the previous government, the lead architect of the project with a considerable following on Twitter called out the former’s bluff. Moreover, projects like Plan 9, ITU and other IT related initiatives continue to be the previous government’s legacy and are hard to be rolled back.
This government’s PIAIC initiative also figures in this category. Hence, career politicians can be made to assign high priority to the aforementioned policy proposal via this argument. These solutions will prove to be quite useful in curbing the agricultural problems in Pakistan.
The agriculture sector is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and our best shot at battling food insecurity. The importance assigned to irrigation techniques, water management and food supply chain in the policy-making process is completely justified but steps need to be taken to give due importance to R&D, talent development, data collection and strong links among researchers, private sector and government.
On the off chance, if we continue to ignore these areas then along the road, we would neither be able to fulfil the nutritional requirements of our population nor maintain the agricultural exports due to changing geopolitics, climate change, and water scarcity.
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