“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”—
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
A couple of years back, the Planning Commission of Pakistan took an initiative to start nationwide public debate on preparing policies for long-term economic development. 67 years of Pakistan have already been wasted despite having great potential in terms of natural and human resources. We boast of many brilliant economists yet the economic mess in our country continues to surmount. Although some of these stalwarts were in the driving seat, nothing concrete was done to bring about any structural changes. Even in the presence of outstanding experts in all spheres of knowledge, their services were never solicited by the government. No wonder our economic system has become one of the most corrupt and inefficient in the world—With the fall in gross domestic product, tax-to-GDP ratio has also decreased from 13.5 % in 1992-93 to 8.2% in 2013-14. Are we intellectually barren or professionally incompetent or morally bankrupt that we have remained unable to tap our potential and make optimum use of our natural and human resources?
Pointing towards the main causes is much easier compared to providing on-ground solutions of the prevailing pathetic socio-politico-economic situation. Inefficient, corrupt, repressive, insensitive and outrageous governmental departments and corporations, least bothered for the welfare of the common people, are essentially responsible for the present state of affairs. There is a dire need for right-sizing, monetizing all perks and benefits and providing a fool-proof system of their accountability but the vested interests in the establishment and parliament are absolutely unwilling to introduce reforms having a direct bearing on the over-all economic empowerment of the country and its people since such a move would disinvest them of powers through which they exploit the masses. Unless affairs are handed over to people—through councils elected by the residents—Pakistan will never prosper.
There is no denying the fact that economic development is not possible without a dependable political and justice system but at the same time we desperately need to pick up an important strand from the perplexing ball of problems and then endeavour to untangle in a gradual manner. Agriculture, that is the backbone of our country’s industries and the bread basket of our people, is one sector from where such beginnings can be made. Since time immemorial, this part of the world has been known for its rich agricultural produce attracting other nations which made their inroads, not only subjugating the locals but also exploiting its wealth of resources. Any sane government in power should focus its attention in promoting agriculture by first of all conducting research to gain up-to-date knowledge, enhance production capacity and introduce modern means to bring into cultivation, those tracts of arable lands that remain neglected due to dearth of resources. Brazil is a country that could provide an important case study.
In an article appearing in the 26August 2010 edition of The Economist, some important questions such as, could Asia learn from Brazil’s agricultural success and should Asia try to copy the Brazilian model of agriculture to help feed its people, were raised. The Brazilian story of success highlighted in the article, should provide some food for thought for our government. Besides increasing productivity, the only way to ensure that there is sufficient food to feed the country’s explosive population, there is a pressing need to put new land into production.
In addition to the Brazilian example, benefits could be derived from the study conducted by The Tracking Development (TD) project between 2006 and 2011. Funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this multilateral, international research project directed its study to the comparative development trajectories of Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa over the last 50 years. It observed that since 1960, Southeast Asian countries achieved massive economic growth and large reductions in poverty rates compared to similar countries within Africa. TD’s conclusions hold that the most important weakness is in the neglect of productivity improvement in smallholder agriculture, not just in Africa, but within the Southeast Asian countries before their periods of sustained growth. Since, the same is applicable to the Pakistani context lessons can be learnt from this study. According to the Tracking Development Project, three policy features stand out:
1. Macro-economic stability,
2. Pro-poor, pro-rural public spending, and lastly,
3. Economic freedom for peasants and small entrepreneurs
Those in Pakistan who make claims of expertise in agriculture and associated fields and those who are heading the Ministry of Agriculture could benefit from such studies to ensure a complete turn-around in this area. If countries like Rwanda can take advantage of Southeast Asian countries’ history of economic transformations and models for poverty reduction, using these studies as a guide to achieving the same development and poverty reduction for its people, why cannot Pakistan? If we want to make Pakistan an egalitarian society, we need to concentrate on empowering the overwhelming masses living in the rural areas, making them economically independent by providing employment at their doorsteps.
In addition to understanding the ways and means to increasing production and reclamation of land for agriculture, the three policy features mentioned by TD merit consideration. These indicate the much-needed reforms of governance along with appropriate accountability in matters related to public spending. TD has emphasized that government expenditure is not enough alone; the quality of its expenses are highly crucial. Providing labor-absorbing activities, widespread irrigation, and rural infrastructure were only a few of the key factors to Southeast Asia’s success, as concluded by it.
Any important project cannot be initiated without adequate study and concrete deliberation. Civilized nations conduct years’ long researches before daring to embark upon something which involves taxpayers’ money but in Pakistan, it has been observed that money is instantly poured out on the basis of whimsical opinions conjured on short notices of a few minutes. The ones who are in charge of utilizing public funds cannot absolve themselves from the outcome of irresponsible spending and should be given exemplary punishment for their deeds. Only then would the government officials be deterred from mishandling public funds.
Together with increasing productivity of agricultural land and reclaiming further land for cultivation, agro-based industries not only need to be set up on a large scale but the existing ones also must be brought at par with international standards. Rather than exporting raw farm products, the same could be effectively processed to increase exports that would result in valuable foreign exchange for the country besides improving rural areas and raising the standard of living of the people residing here. This would certainly not be possible if due attention is not paid to uplifting the present industries in addition to establishing new ones. The acute shortage of employment opportunities can easily be overcome by changing the direction of economy towards development of agriculture and associated sectors.
The writer, lawyer, editor of magazine Taxation and author of many books, is adjunct faculty, at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).