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EDITORIAL: The most striking feature of the farmer protest in Islamabad is not that their concerns fell on deaf ears for too long, nor that the kind of demands that they have put up are going to be so obviously unacceptable for the government; at least in their entirety.

It’s that nobody from the federal government bothered to come and talk to them even after they moved barriers, and containers, blocked the capital city and vowed not to budge till they were heard. And it is this attitude, more than stiff conditions of an aid programme that must be met or Mother Nature setting the agriculture sector back by half a century, that is largely responsible for this impasse.

The agri sector, just like most others, was set back very badly by Covid. And the government knew very well that raising taxes and tariffs and cutting subsidies, just as it was exposed to rapid inflation in prices of fertiliser and other inputs, amounted to giving it the kiss of death.

To make things worse, as farmers are so bitterly complaining, it did not feel the need to consult with sector stakeholders before raising taxes here and ending subsidies there.

And however much it hides behind its helplessness in the face of the IMF’s (International Monetary Fund’s) conditions when it comes to things like power tariffs and targeted subsidies, it could still have done a better job of cracking down on the black market in fertiliser and urea; something that could easily have been prioritised earlier and better if only the sector was consulted. Yet now we have a rate hike of around 400 percent in some input items.

The farmers have very genuine concerns. Their input costs have risen exponentially and they have been ravaged by the floods. Let’s not forget that this sector still has the most number of households associated with it, which means that the trauma is spread really far and wide.

And since the floods also destroyed about half the cotton crop, the export industry will also suffer because it will have to import inputs to make products that fetch the country the bulk of its precious little export revenue.

According to the government’s own calculations, this year’s floods affected about 40 percent of the agri workforce. And for farmers to be priced out of the market at this point should sound a very loud alarm in Islamabad because the country’s natural comparative advantage in this sector, which has already been eroding for years, is now threatened very seriously.

That is why the government cannot just shy away from demands to reduce the power tariff, ease prices of diesel and fertiliser, and abolish taxes on machinery and tractors, especially since production of major crops including wheat, sugarcane, rice and cotton stands to decline because of these factors.

These things make even lingering problems like lack of technological innovation, poor seed quality and use of primitive methods of irrigation take the back seat. A good and methodical way to approach this situation, instead of scrambling for a solution at the last minute, would be providing soft loans to farmers so they can begin to meet their immediate needs, and then also consult with them about a way forward that can suit everybody’s interests.

Nobody wants a different version of the Indian farmer protests from the last few years to play out in Pakistan; especially when the country itself faces a deep financial crisis. Even though the farmers there felt wronged for very different reasons, they too worried that their very existence was in peril, and were able to mount a formidable enough challenge for the government to back down.

Our economy is even less diversified and agriculture remains the largest employer and biggest provider over most of the country. It feeds not just much of the nation, but also the textile industry, the flagship of the export sector. Therefore, its problems ought to make the government go running to farmers, instead of erecting barriers to keep them and their protests away from itself.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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