Mahmood Nawaz Shah is a progressive farmer based out of Tando Allah Yar, Sindh. His family-owned agri-produce business, Genuine Delight Farms (GDF), grows sugarcane, wheat, mangoes, onions, bananas, and cauliflowers among several other crops. GDF is a reputed exporter of fruits and vegetables from Sindh. Shah also manages Sindh Mango Growers & Exporters (Mangorio) as its director of marketing, sales & strategic planning.
“Urban bias in policymaking responsible for decline in agricultural productivity”
Beyond his unique entrepreneurial agri-ventures, he serves as a member of BoD Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), and Pakistan Horticulture & Export Board, and Hisar Foundation, a think tank for water policy. In the past, he has also served on the boards of Privatization Commission, Sindh Board of Investment, Zarai Tariqiati Bank, Sindh Enterprise Development Fund, and Hyderabad Electricity Supply Corporation. Currently, he also serves as Senior Vice President of the Sindh Abadgar board, a non-governmental advocacy group representing progressive farmers of Sindh.
Shah has an MS in Engineering Management, and a BS and MS in Marketing from George Washington University, USA, and has over 25 years of professional experience in wide-ranging industries. As a lifelong farmer and public policy enthusiast, he has a keen eye for commonly debated issues surrounding agricultural policymaking, in particular the role of governance and federal province relationship in formulating farm policy.
In this interview with BR Research, Shah presents his views on a host of issues currently dominating the agri-policy debate in Pakistan. Below are the edited excerpts:
1. BR Research: The dominant narrative in Islamabad suggests that Pakistan’s agriculture sector growth has taken a turn for the worse since the 18th amendment. However, constitutionally, agriculture has always been a devolved subject, even before 2010. What is your understanding?
Mahmood Nawaz Shah (MNS): Many constitutional experts note that agriculture has always been a devolved subject as it was neither part of the federal legislative list or concurrent list in the original constitution of 1973.
As a non-expert, I am not in a position to offer an authoritative view on the constitutional position. However, it is important to note that even before independence (and afterward), several legislations such as The Sugarcane Act, 1934 or The Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act, 1961, et al were enacted at the provincial and not the federal level. More importantly, legal experts note that even water governance was originally a provincial subject, especially irrigation. This position was further restrengthened when One Unit was dissolved, and the constitution of 1973 reinforced provincial autonomy.
Whatever the position may have been a pre-18th amendment, as things stand today, agriculture is now a fully devolved subject, both in letter and spirit of the law.
2. BRR: Why then are provinces held responsible for the retrogression in the governance of agriculture over the last decade?
MNS: It is correct that the performance of the agriculture sector has suffered markedly over the last 10 years, much of which is attributed to poor governance. In retrospect, it may be argued that the executive branch and the bureaucracy were ill-prepared to manage the devolved powers.
Across the world, devolution has been successful wherever it was preceded with capacity building in the provinces. This has not been the case in Pakistan. Although provincial administration is better placed to succeed in service delivery as it has an ear to the ground and is now financially empowered, poor capacity has hampered performance.
3. BRR: Some are of the view that the last decade has coincided with the pronounced impact of climate change amid extreme weather events. Since climate change and environment ministry only exist at the center, is it possible that provincial administration is toothless when faced with the onslaught of global warming?
MNS: Authority needs to be commanded, not demanded. Sindh has been at the receiving end of extreme weather events – both in terms of increased temperatures as well as heavy downpours in some years during monsoon. What’s stopping provinces from improving the watercourses and waterways – natural and constructed – or the drainage systems?
And effects of climate change are only one example. Seed marketing falls under provincial purview, as does marketing of pesticides and insecticides. Islamabad has no role in these areas, yet poor quality seed and pesticides are flourishing in the markets.
In fact, I believe that by announcing federal-led policy measures for the uplift of the agricultural sector, federal governments invite criticism upon themselves for unfulfilled promises that are not their responsibility in the first place.
4. BRR: Do you believe that after 10 years of rudderless vision, the bureaucracy and administration at the federal level no longer have the capacity to lead the agricultural transformation?
MNS: Agreed. It needs to be emphasized that provinces are far better placed to legislate and implement agricultural policy change. Under the last federal government’s tenure, an agricultural package of Rs 320 billion was announced. In 2019, a similar amount was announced under Agriculture Emergency Program when this government took over the reins. Yet, no funds were released for Sindh under either of the initiatives, while Punjab also received very little funding.
If provinces lack the absorption capacity to lead the change, while they control both the legal authority and administrative machinery to implement those policies, there is little point in the federal government announcing ‘transformation packages’ every two years. The very first prerequisite is for provinces to develop the ways and means for policy implementation by building their own capacity. Provinces must develop their own policies and seek federal funding if necessary. But the vision and leadership both must be bottom-up, rather than top-down.
5. BRR: Where exactly are provinces lacking in effecting change?
MNS: In addition to lack of capacity, lack of willingness and indifference are also becoming serious constraints. Take the example of notification issued for province-wide lockdown in Sindh over the weekend. The list of essential services makes no mention of farm and agricultural services.
When a much more severe nationwide lockdown was imposed in April 2020, agricultural services were placed on the list of essential services as farming cannot stop overnight. If a crop is due to insecticide/weedicide spraying, it cannot wait a week or two. The same goes for fertilizer application or harvest. Similarly, can dairy milking and supply stop overnight?
The administration is in its right to lockdown commercial activity if it concludes that it may lead to more harm than good due to the spread of infectious diseases (such as Covid-19). Farmers and agricultural service providers have a vested commercial interest, as do other businesses. However, the subject at least merits a discussion, just as public transport, restaurant deliveries, and marriage halls do.
Unfortunately, agriculture does not even feature in discussions by policymakers. Pre-budget meetings between policymakers and the business community have representations by tens of different industrial trade associations, whether its KCCI, KTI, SITE, FPCCI, or PRGMEA, while the agricultural community is represented by one organization, and is given only a few minutes to present its recommendations. This indifference explains the breakdown in service delivery, which has manifested itself in different ways over the past decade.
6. BRR: Is the indifference explained by the low contribution of the agricultural sector in the form of direct income taxes?
MNS: It is correct that the quantum of tax collection from the agricultural sector is very low. But that’s not as much a reflection of tax evasion, as it is of low profitability and economic returns in farming.
But should the focus and attention of policymaking be purely determined on the basis of revenue collection by a particular sector? Consider that less than 5 percent of public sector funding goes to the agricultural sector in the form of various input subsidies, commodity procurement operations, price guarantees, agri-credit, and insurance programs. As per the government’s own admission, the agriculture sector contributes up to 20 percent of total GDP, 40 percent of employment, and supplies raw material for up to 80 percent of the country’s exports.
Moreover, low revenue collection alone cannot explain the lack of attention and indifference afforded to agri-policy. After all, other largely undocumented sectors such as public transport, or hotels/restaurants, marriage halls et al are also able to exercise influence over policymakers, as has been demonstrated throughout various lockdown cycles over the past year.
Either way, a state that allocates manhours for policymaking based on revenue collection instead of the potential of various commercial sectors is bound to fail a vast majority of its citizens, which may have nothing to gain from such policymaking at all.
7. BRR: Is the unorganized nature of the agriculture sector responsible for this neglect?
MNS: Unlike other economic sectors, the agricultural community is not only unorganized, but it is also highly geographically fragmented, which sets it apart from other sectors of the economy. Most other industries operate as clusters, and as such have a baseline commonality in the list of challenges faced by them. Because farming by its very nature is geographically fragmented, the issues (and the proposed solutions) faced by a sugarcane farmer in Tando Allah Yar may be very different from challenges faced by cane farmers in Ghotki.
And this only makes the need for devolution of agricultural policymaking even more pronounced. Because challenges faced on farms can be very unique based on region, policy recommendation and its implementation need to originate from the grassroots rather than being forced to operate on received wisdom from the top.
It is also true that farmers cannot afford to organize physically (and logistically) in ways similar to other trade associations, such as small businesses, who can go on strike. That means agricultural issues are rarely flagged by mainstream media. Sadly, because federal and provincial governments in the country have over time adopted a reactionary attitude where they are usually busy in firefighting in response to issues highlighted by media, challenges faced by agriculture fail to receive any attention by policymakers either.
Source: Business Recorder
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