Let them eat cake
Perhaps there is no single professional class more useless in the modern world - dominated by the neo-liberal economy - than peasants. According to an anthropologist, the world would barely notice if each and every peasant disappeared from the face of the earth one night.
In Pakistan, however, they serve a purpose - there is a whole class of scavengers that feeds on their poverty and powerlessness. As the Sharif model of development holds sway and agriculture fails, small farmers are facing unprecedented hardships; and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Except for a small number of farmers who own large tracts of land, most agriculturalists are struggling to survive. However, for smallholders it is tough to feed their families and ensure the bare minimum necessities of life. I am not talking about small communities living somewhere in Thar or in the Himalayas. There are 5.36 million marginal farms that comprise one hectare or less land according to the agriculture census of 2010.
Attach a family of eight persons to a farm and we find every fifth Pakistani depending on such a small farm for their livelihood. Even the owners of these farms are lucky. One notch below them are the landless sharecroppers, daily wage labourers and artisans, facing even tougher conditions. According to some estimates, 67 percent of those in the rural population own no land in Pakistan.
There is nothing new about transfer of resources from the poor to the rich, from agriculture to the industrial sector and from the poorer areas to the more developed districts in Pakistan. Despite the funny claims made in our textbooks that our country is a welfare state, Pakistan was born as an elitist state - and it remains one. The Sharif model of development has only taken these timehonoured, warped priorities to new heights with an utter disregard for the plight of the poor and less developed areas. The farmers who came to protest in Lahore recently must have been impressed to see how the capital of Pakistan's largest province has been transformed. A senior PML-N leader told me recently that the chief minister has a vision to turn the city into a Singapore. Considering a city as the centre and the rest of the country as the periphery is a centuries-old imperial model.
As Amir Taimoor (Tamerlane) told Hafiz Shirazi, he had devastated half of the world to make two cities - Samarkand and Bukhara - the envy of the world. (The poet, in one of his popular ghazals, had promised to give away both the cities to his beloved as a tribute to the beauty of a mole on her cheek). As more than half of the province's budget is diverted to develop one city, the poorest segments of society and the poorest regions of the province are paying for the imperial fantasies of the ruling family.
For farmers sorrows have come in battalions. Even as farm productivity has declined due to high input prices and climate change, commodity prices have also collapsed. Farmers all over the country speak of climate change and its disastrous consequences on farming. According to Dr Mohsin Iqbal, director of the Global Impact Study Centre at Quaid-e-Azam University, the production of wheat could drop 10 to 20 percent while production of rice could drop 15 to 18 percent due to climate change. Experts fear that climate change can have a serious impact on livestock as well.
Such a situation requires a robust response from the government in the form of research on adaptation, and sharing the results of the research and innovation with farmers through effective agriculture extension services. However, agriculture departments are amongst the most neg- lected, under-resourced and inefficient in all the provinces. A huge confusion prevails in the government since the Ministry of Food and Agriculture that was responsible mainly for policy formulation, economic coordination, and planning with respect to food grains and agriculture was devolved to provinces as a result of the 18th Amendment.
Investment in agriculture research has gone down and officials of the extension departments can always be found at the farms of politically influential agriculturists or pushing the products of private companies. The collusion between industry and government officials has resulted in low quality, expensive inputs for farmers, particularly seeds and pesticides.