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The 2010s recorded the slowest decade-wise growth rate for Pakistan’s agriculture, at just 2.2 percent. The poor show – led by a volatile performance by major crops – is often seen in the context of devolution and lack of capacity in the provinces to steward sectoral development in the aftermath of Eighteenth amendment.

It is correct that the amendment marked a watershed moment in rearrangement of centre-province relationships. But the impression that agriculture became a devolved subject only in the aftermath of Eighteenth amendment is misleading, if not downright incorrect.

The existence of agricultural department at provincial level precedes the One Unit arrangement, leading to a common-held assumption that the subject was jointly governed by the federation and provinces. But a review of Legislative Lists in the original 1973 constitution indicates that the subject was never a part of Federal or (now abolished) Concurrent Legislatives Lists to begin with.

In fact, the only mention of agriculture in the first edition is where taxes on agricultural income, governance of agricultural contracts, and transfer of agricultural land and property are explicitly ‘excluded’ from the domain of federal or concurrent lists subjects.

So how exactly did the Eighteenth amendment result in devolution? Afterall, it resulted in the rebranding of the erstwhile Ministry of Food, Agriculture & Livestock. Several documents currently available on the since rechristened MNFS&R website - such as the National Food Security Policy - also claim that the functions of MINFA now stand devolved.

This leads to two questions. One, what constitutional provision previously (but no longer) allowed federation to legislate on agriculture when it was not a part of exclusive or concurrent central domain? And two, have the functions of agriculture department been devolved in any meaningful sense, so that the provinces may be held accountable for sector’s poor performance ever since?

Eighteenth amendment made addition of a powerful ‘residuary powers’ clause to Article 142(c) which states that the “a Provincial Assembly shall, and Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) shall not have power to make laws with respect to any matter not enumerated in the Federal Legislative List”. Before the residuary power clause was added, agriculture may have very well been a provincial subject, but its mere absence from Federal or Concurrent Lists did not preclude the central government from legislating on the subject.

Although the Amendment successfully managed to remove any ambiguity w.r.t roles and jurisdiction, a powerful ministry continues to exist at the centre in the form of NFS&R. Moreover, for all intents and purposes, the federation has subsequently continued to legislate on the subject.

Does the federation have a constitutional right to do so? Only to the extent allowed under Article 144(1), that is, if constituent units may consent to do so by way of resolutions passed by provincial assemblies. A perfect example in this regard is the Seed (Amendment) Act, 2015.

The original Seed Act, 1976 was promulgated when all provincial assemblies at the time passed resolutions empowering the centre to regulate and control the quality of seeds of various varieties of crops. However, it is of note that Article 144 empowers provinces with a perpetual right to opt-out of such legislations at any time.

However, since the 1976 resolutions were never repealed by any provinces, the federation reserves the right to legislate/amend on any subjects that were previously consented to by provinces, even if such consent pre-dates the rearrangement following Eighteenth amendment.

As a result, powerful regulatory functions that were notified as federal domains in the constitutional structure pre-dating 2010 continue to rest with the federation. These include national level research & development organizations such as Agriculture Policy Institute, Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, National Agriculture Research Centre, Pakistan Central Cotton Committee, Federal Seed Certification & Registration Department, National Seed Council, Pakistan Oilseed Development Board, Livestock & Dairy Development Board, among many others.

Ordinarily, this would be of little concern because after all, policymaking of national and strategic importance should take place at the centre. Except, bulk of budgetary allocation for agriculture since 2011 now takes place at provincial instead of federal level, starving many of these regulators of much needed fiscal space.

At the same time, while provincial agricultural departments now stand constitutionally and financially empowered, legislation made in the past (pre-dating Eighteenth amendment) that transferred many of their regulatory functions to the centre means that as regulators, these departments are effectively toothless. Agriculture in provinces still function as extension departments, monitoring supply, procurement, distribution, and prices. Even as policy making continues to remain a domain of regulatory bodies at the centre.

Take the example of seed related regulations. While both Sindh and Punjab have semi-autonomous seed corporations, their stated mission does not go beyond “production, replication, and marketing of quality varieties”.

Seed research, trials, testing, certification, and registration purely remains in the federal domain, where – in the case of cotton, for example – approval from at least five regulators is required before a new seed variety may be approved for commercial purposes. Even as a new generation of bureaucrats note in private discussions that seed research and approval is best conducted at provincial level, considering that changing environmental patterns mean that varieties earlier suited across country may no longer viable for every region.

Whether regulation of agriculture should take place at the centre or provincial level is beyond the scope of a newspaper column. But it is still important to point out that the Eighteenth amendment has in effect caused little change in the governance of a sector that is often insisted to have since been ‘devolved’. Major regulatory functions that previously rested with the centre continue to do so, even as MNFS&R and its reporting bodies lament limiting fiscal space.

If the dismal sectoral growth rate during the past decade is any guide, the need to streamline centre’s regulatory functions with available resources has never been higher. In its absence, provincial governments will remain inflicted with a more hazard: regardless of governance capacity, provinces will refuse to take charge citing past legislation that empowered the centre, even though they possess the right to opt-out and pursue own policymaking.

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