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EDITORIAL: If by saying that the PTI government was supporting the cotton growers in every capacity, Federal Minister for National Food Security Syed Fakhar Imam meant that the government was in fact doing nothing even as area under cotton cultivation shrank and cotton production diminished, then there was nothing wrong with what he said. But politically correct lines that ministers are forced to take notwithstanding, it ought to be a matter of great concern that the Cotton Crop Assessment Committee (CCAP) has revised downward the commodity’s production target for the year by almost 20 percent; from 10 to 8.46 million bales. And that’s because the cotton sowing target was first missed by more than 13 percent.

Perhaps the government should ask itself, and also farmers, just why the latter feel forced to move away from cotton production. Could it be that the government isn’t as hands-on about agriculture as it likes to claim, especially about subtle things like the timing of announcing support prices, etc., not to mention the fact that a lot of politically connected people have been known to use their contacts to get land meant for cotton and the like allotted for sugar plantation because that way they can earn big bucks?

And while it’s at it, perhaps the government should also work out why much of the cotton crop that is cultivated here is contaminated. When you consider that there is a clear premium on contamination-free cotton in the international market, and quality matters even more for us because cotton is also the prime input in the country’s prime export sector - textiles - then it doesn’t make much sense that we still haven’t turned towards mechanised, internationally preferred ways of picking cotton and continue to do so by hand. Our production and export base, and hence revenue, is already so miniscule that we must make the most of what we have. The prime minister has made a great deal about turning agriculture around, and even made it a priority for this fiscal year, but there hasn’t been much progress on the ground and mere words and promises can only get you so far, especially if you need substantial earnings to get out of trouble.

What needs to be done is pretty obvious but what is not is when or even how it is going to be done. Firstly, the trend of declining cultivation area needs to be arrested. Then it would make sense to also get out of the habit of missing the sowing target, which forces a downward revision of the expected production figure. Secondly, the government needs to keep cotton farmers from moving onto other options. Of course for that it would have to break its own bad habit of not consulting important stakeholders before taking important decisions. And thirdly, and most importantly, it must calculate how much neglect of agriculture has hurt the kitty due to missed targets and also export opportunities.

It is not less than a national tragedy, given how we were naturally endowed with agriculture, that this sector has been so badly handled in this country, particularly in the last couple of decades. One of our biggest failures has been missing the bus of technological innovation and mechanisation; an element of the trade that now separates the men from the boys in the international market. It almost beggars belief that government after government wants to put agriculture at the centre of its growth policy but nobody wants to adopt modern tools, technology and practices. Agriculture is still the economy’s largest employer and has more families associated with it than any other sector. And since it also feeds the export industry, bolstering it is not just about more revenue, it’s also about common sense for a country desperately looking to get back on its feet.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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