EDITORIAL: The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB’s) latest brief, ‘Impact of Covid-19 and Locust Swarms on Farm Households in Sindh, Pakistan’, could not have come out at a better time since it is the only credible warning that the government has received about the grave threat to food security that lies just ahead. Based on an analysis of data from a cross-sectional survey, ADB has warned very seriously that the combined hit from the continued impact of Covid-19 and locust swarms could cost the country very dearly in terms of compromised or lost agriculture production and food insecurity. The Covid-19-related lockdown and social distancing requirements seriously disrupted food supply chains a few months ago as farmers complained of all sorts of problems including far more expensive than usual seed and inability to market produce because of unavailability of adequate labour force and the fact that markets across the country were shut down. And since the coronavirus is making something of a comeback the need for vigilance has only increased. There just isn’t any more fiscal space in the economy for another comprehensive stimulus package that could at least provide bare minimum support to the job market. The locust attack, too, which was the worst of its kind in more than quarter of a century this year, still presents a very real problem since this is the season when adults lay eggs, making way for more of their kind in a few weeks’ time.
Seeing things in this perspective, it is a bit of a surprise that just as the ADB was explaining the problems that might lie ahead, the local Met Office was playing down the threat posed by the locusts. The upsurge has ended, it said, and only small infestations remain around the coast of Lasbella, Karachi, and along the eastern belt of Cholistan and Thar deserts. While it is true that the magnitude of the threat from locusts has reduced a little bit, even though what remains will still require the government to take immediate corrective action, the Bank was in fact cautioning against the combined threat from locusts and Covid-19, something that the government would do itself a great favour by taking very seriously. According to the survey, most farmers complained that the government left them helpless even as they were overwhelmed by the locust invasion.
This attitude will have to change very quickly and the government must take proactive steps like ensuring timely supply of agri inputs and easing the burden of loan repayment on farmers. In the last round its performance as far as the coronavirus is concerned was no doubt very impressive, but the way it dealt with the locust problem left a little to be desired. And what might count as just one year of bad statistics in one sector for the government, something it can improve in the next year, is often a far more depressing story for the people that suffer the direct result of its inaction. For if only the centre had listened to cries of help from various quarters at the right time, especially the government of Sindh which requested spraying aircraft when the situation could still have been salvaged, so many farmers would not have faced such steep losses and the shortage of essential items like wheat would not have pushed up prices in the marketplace.
Surely, Islamabad will take ADB’s very timely warning seriously and begin making necessary arrangements immediately. Food insecurity is about as grim a matter as any that a government can face and unnecessary problems arising from official neglect, especially in the present political setting, will only give the opposition one more stick to beat the ruling party with. On top of all the food inflation, and the very real possibility of a rise in electricity tariffs to meet the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) demands, yet more trauma in the agriculture sector which would mean job losses, food shortage and punishing inflation is the last thing that Pakistan needs at the moment. It is now up to the government to keep such a scenario from developing, especially since it has been warned, not just for the sake of the people but also its own. Already half the electoral cycle is over and the opposition is looking to exploit any and all weaknesses in the time that is left.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020