In his impassioned speech at the jalsa over the weekend, PM Imran Khan reminded that the agricultural sector has outperformed under his government, with “record crop output” for nearly all major crops, signaling revival of Pakistan’s neglected agricultural sector. But does the PM’s claim stand the test of evidence?
The archives of history are filled with similar (yet tiring) claims by every government in power. “Record output” may possibly be the oft-most repeated phrase in annual budget speeches over the past two decades. Naturally, the public may rightfully raise suspicion, considering the frequent news of crop shortfall, abnormal price spirals over short periods, and recurring import dependence for crops that are largely produced domestically.
Are the claims false? No (or at least there exists no independent method to verify these claims, as GoP is the only official enumerator of farm output). Even so, official claims need not be false, yet may counter-intuitively still lead to repeated shortfalls. Why?
For two basic reasons. At the risk of stating the obvious, arithmetically, every year is a year of record production, even if output rises by 0.001 percent over the previous year. But more importantly, shortfalls occur because the rise in output is often outpaced by rise in local demand. Put another way, farming output can be highest-ever, yet policymakers may still fail at their jobs if the rise fails to keep up with increase in domestic demand.
So, how has PTI fared? To find out, BR Research built output index for 5 major crops: wheat, rice, maize, cotton, and sugarcane, using production statistics from Economic Survey of Pakistan. The year prior to governments took power has been used as the base period (see illustration). A comparison is drawn with years in power for past three regimes: Musharraf-era (FY00-FY04); PPP (FY09 to FY13); PML-N (FY14 to FY18); and PTI (FY19 to date). Five-year data is used for each government to ensure full picture, except for PTI, which is yet to enter its fifth year in power.
Turns out, major crops output has indeed risen for PTI by its fourth year in power (FY22) for all major crops except for cotton – when compared to base year (year prior to it took office: FY18). But in that, PTI’s performance is no different than PML-N’s, which also managed to raise output for same four crops by the time it completed fourth year in power. Except for – you guessed it – cotton!
In fact, it was during PPP era that crop output rose at record pace for wheat and cotton – Pakistan’s top cereal and cash crops - by the end of its fourth year in power (FY12). In contrast, cotton output has underperformed during PTI’s fourth year, while wheat output may also fall short (although government’s target output has been used for indicative purposes in the illustration). The rise in maize crop output is possibly the only enduring success under PTI’s four years in power, where the rise in production has outpaced growth under past three regimes.
Which brings us to the most significant explanation hiding in plain sight. The rise and rise in Pakistan’s maize output over the past 20 years – has little to do with any government. Maize crop is the most deregulated segment within Pakistan’s farming sector, which perhaps has been the key to its success. On the other hand, other crops suffer from marked governmental interference. The spasmodic rise in wheat and sugarcane output under each government – for example – has been a result of rise in officially notified prices. On the other hand, the secular decline in cotton output is an outcome of resistance to adoption of modern seed technology, which has remained shamefully resolute across every political regime.
Did PTI fail then? Yes, but in that it has been no different than past three governments, which also failed equally to bring modernization to farming, or in enabling productivity. If higher farm prices is PTI’s only claim to fame, then it bears highlighting that in this respect it still trails behind the PPP era. And what about reforms? Those may have to wait another 20 years.