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Agriculture is a key to transforming Pakistan's destiny

Publication Date : 24-01-2014


Not particularly fond of driving to Lahore, a journey of around four hours on the motorway, I have had to make this trip fairly frequently over the past few months.

Mercifully, I have been chauffeured on these trips, allowing me the luxury of a voyeuristic peek into the surrounding countryside (rather than focusing on finding the next speed camera before it’s too late!).

A journey in winter along this route has its own charm. The mostly rural landscape is a splash of colour.

Starting from Islamabad, the dull Chakri countryside with blobs of green fuses into the dusty, part-flat and green, part-undulating and barren, Chakwal plain.

Soon we arrive at the steps of the otherwise barren Salt Range with brilliant ochre spilled onto some of its stern mountain faces. Carpets of yellow mustard and rapeseed fields, and verdant and lush green rice and fodder plantations begin soon after, peaking around Hafizabad, swaying sensuously in the afternoon breeze.

Endless dots of orange come in between, hanging expectantly from trees, mile after mile, marking Pakistan’s citrus belt around Sargodha.

Deliciously-named villages and towns zip by: Mona, Lilla, Midh Ranjha, Kholoo Tarrar. (From an earlier journey around Sialkot and Wazirabad, ‘Doonga Boonga’ is forever etched in my memory. I kid you not!)

The red-and-white of newly painted government schools zips by, as ubiquitous as the sight of children playing cricket.

An occasional dash of orange, red or green is provided by the clothes of women working in fields. Black is provided on this Divine canvas by clusters of buffaloes, contrasted against the white trunks of birch trees marking boundaries between fields.

Amidst all this colourful beauty, there is moment for pause, reflection and worry: one passes dried up rivers that once were formidable and mighty foes of invading armies crossing into India.

The Jhelum, Chenab and Ravi have all now been reduced to little more than rain-fed nullahs or over-indulgent streams.

The colours that envelop the surrounding countryside are not just of the landscape. Green and black flags and alams dot the rural landscape, marking sectarian denominations.

Amid all the mayhem in the rest of the country, these flags flutter incongruously at ease with each other, revealing a reality increasingly hidden from our eyes — that the sectarian violence borne out of the bigotry of a minority is induced as much by our own tragic history as by the designs of others far away.

As the evening approaches, another layer of colour marks the landscape. It’s the evening before Rabi-ul-Awwal 12, and houses in Barelvi and Ahle Hadith villages are lit up with colourful lights. Darker patches in between probably represent clusters of villages of a Deobandi bent — or the work of Wapda! Who knows.

This journey of nearly 400 kilometres through northern Punjab is hardly representative, of course. Pakistan has been endowed with such diversity in landscape and people — something I’ve been truly blessed to have witnessed from Thar to Khunjerab, from Gwadar to Khyber.

Nonetheless, there is an eerie similarity in the rustic setting, in how even after a harsh and frenetic day of backbreaking labour, the thick bluish-white smoke billowing from hearths in the evening signals the descent of somnolent tranquillity on God’s earth. From Gulmit in the Northern Areas to Mithi in the south, it represents peace and quiet. “Silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound….”

A true modern day Luddite, I romanticise the countryside and feel rejuvenated even with a passing interaction afforded by hurtling down the motorway. But there’s another reason I feel elated after each trip.

This land is so fertile that it could grow gold if we wanted it to. With the right interventions, most notably greater focus on agriculture and a slight improvement in governance of the sector, Pakistan can quite easily increase the yield of its crops and livestock by at least 50 per cent within a decade.

If it can achieve anywhere near this — which experts consider still below Pakistan’s potential — it can conservatively add around 5 per cent to the growth rate.

There is ample evidence of what can be achieved. Leaving aside the near-world average yields of progressive farmers in Pakistan, even smaller farmers have managed stellar productivity gains with better farming practices, a testimony to investing in farm extension services.

I have seen export-quality tomatoes and lemons grown in the Thar desert; a top-notch farm in the barren and rocky part of Attock, where traditional farmers hardly grow anything.

Around Charsadda, I have met small bitter-gourd farmers who, with the right help with better farming techniques and a bit of social mobilisation, now export their produce to Dubai and have raised their incomes by 100 per cent, within a span of three years.

Around Islamabad, tunnel farming has provided out-of-season quality vegetables to farmers, increasing their incomes.

The required interventions encompass improved seeds, unadulterated pesticide, research on pest-resistant crops and arid technology, in addition to rebuilding farm extension services.

While I’m not a farmer or an expert on agriculture, improved extension services, in my opinion, hold the key to unlocking the productivity potential of Pakistan’s agriculture sector, at least in the medium term. In the longer run, the payoffs from investing today in crop research (and water storage) should stand us in good stead when the water situation becomes even more challenging.

If we treat it well, the agriculture sector can yet again transform Pakistan’s destiny.


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