- Stagnant economic status of rural poor responsible for food insecurity
Among the developing countries, Pakistan is bracketed with countries having a large rural impoverished population. According to a World Bank report, this group of countries on the globe is distinguished for having almost 90 percent of their rural population falling in the categories of either landless labour or those having uneconomic farm holdings, thus placing almost 80 percent of their rural population at the threshold of poverty.
Pakistan ranks 8th globally with regard to farm output according to the list of countries GDP wise but unfortunately, according to the Asian Development Bank report despite poverty reduction strategies in force continue to increase in rural areas. During the period from 1991 to 2001, the percentage of poor on a country basis sharply increased from 25 to 39 percent. After various economic upheavals and onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic percentage of rural poor has gone above 48 percent lately.
Cultivators who form the bulk of rural poor are directly engaged in cultivation and managing the crops till these are marketed. Quite a number of them are involved in farming sub-sectors like livestock, poultry farming, fisheries and forestry etc for earning their livelihood. But due to intermittent economic crisis caused by the frequency of natural calamities like drought, floods and unusual extreme weather conditions owners of small farms and landless labours/tenants are found worst affected. Almost every year major portion of their assets is eliminated due to natural disasters.
Women who are equal participants in managing farming and non-farming activities are victims of domestic violence, undernourishment and lack of access to education and health facilities, hence their overall working efficiency is affected. Resultantly entire family continues to entangle in a whirlpool of poverty and resultantly both small land owners and landless cultivators are always under increasing pressure to get out of the agriculture sector altogether and move to urban areas where they mostly earn their livelihood from the informal sector, thus adding to urban poverty also.
According to UNO reports relating to Pakistan almost every year around 180,000 people migrate from rural areas to big cities making these cities more crowded. Industrialisation has also led to the migration of landless labour and educated rural youth to urban parts of the country for employment both in the formal and informal sectors. The use of new technology in industrial processes also prompted rural-educated youth to switch over to the urban sector for employment. As such rural-urban gap in social and economic indicators continue to increase significantly in recent years. In order to halt the mass migration of the rural population to urban centers, a systematic rural sector development program needs to be undertaken with a focus on modernised farming approach and also on the development of agri-based industries by providing the necessary infrastructure.
In rural areas of the country, non-cultivators are perhaps the poorest among the rural poor and on top of that fastest increase in population growth rate is visible among this particular segment of the rural population. These workers including women depend on seasonal demand for labour for agriculture, particularly for harvesting of crops and for rural informal business activities, small-scale/micro businesses and services. These landless workers are more vulnerable to fluctuations in demand for labour, wage rates and food prices. Their survival is at the whims of big landlords/waders who in fact have promoted absentee landlordism culture in the rural sector and above all they have a major representation in all parliaments and senate of the country and have a strong grip on both rural and urban economy. The landless rural poor unlike their counterpart in urban areas are normally excluded from social sector safety nets (like food coupons and financial assistance from Benazir Income Support Programme etc. provided by the government.
Now it is a universally recognised fact that good governance, sound macroeconomic policies, competitive markets and public sector investment in physical and social infrastructure and people’s participation are the cornerstone for development strategies leading to poverty reduction. Macroeconomic policies of a country finally effect market conditions and infrastructure of a country, which directly impacts the rural poor. The market in which rural poor operate are of agriculture inputs and wage labour and most important financial market. Rapid fluctuations in prices of agriculture inputs and wages of labour and poor farmers’ inaccessibility to the formal financial sector and their reliance on borrowings from private money lenders and other informal sources have deepened the roots of poverty in rural areas. For enhancing the well-being of farmers through improved farming and allied agricultural sub-sector activities, needed infrastructure should be in place.
Rural poor should have access to all utility and public services, new farm technologies, roads and transport systems for access to markets, which in turn have repercussions on the overall working efficiency of farmers and finally determine the extent of effective human capital available with agriculture sector ensuring food security in the country.
Inaccessibility to institutional credits continues to be an impeding factor for the sustained growth of farm businesses of small farm owners and landless tenants/haris (farmers). Despite past and present agriculture credit schemes launched through specialised financial institutions like Zari Tariqiati Bank and leading commercial banks and microfinance banks to make institutional credit more accessible to farmers who have nothing to offer as conventional collaterals, almost 50 percent of the rural population still remains deprived of formal sources of credit.
Growing human capital
According to a World Bank report released on the performance of the microfinance sector in Bangladesh only through efforts of Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) Bangladesh could reduce its poverty by ten percentage points by 2015. Pakistan government’s efforts to promote microfinance banking both in the public and private sector through the promulgation Micro Finance Banks Ordinance of 2002 has given a fillip to the establishment of Micro Finance Banks and by now one public sector funded and nine privately owned banks have started operations on country as well as provincial basis. However, there is a need to extend their outreach.
No doubt government sincerely aims for improving the living standard of farmers by improving their income but due to the recent economic crunch faced by the country last year‘s budgetary allocations for agriculture infrastructure development have been considerably reduced both at the federal and provincial levels. As such public sector development program of Rs16.52 billion includes sizable allocations for building dams ensuring perennial water supply and building roads linking rural areas to urban markets. Besides that arrangements are in hand to provide quality seeds and fertilizers to farmers leading to a substantial increase in yield per acre and growers income. For that government has already given subsidy for the supply of fertilizers.
Agriculture sub-sectors like livestock, fisheries, poultry farming and forestry also need to be promoted not only to create tremendous employment opportunities but also for ensuring nutritious food to the poor at affordable prices. It is heartening to note that the government’s medium-term development plans for agriculture aim for achieving an annual growth rate of 1.7 percent for the agriculture sector (despite severe economic constraints ) as a whole with a greater focus on sub-sectors like livestock, poultry farming and fruit orchards etc. Besides that there is a need to eliminate the menace of absentee land ownership in order to mobilise owners interest in improving farming through the use of the latest farming technologies.
Further, good macroeconomic management needs to be recognised as routine practice, which of course is basically reflected in expected controlled inflation targeting, which in turn does not permit subsidised pricing of agriculture products, which presently is one of the main causes of fiscal and current account deficits being faced by the country.
Besides the above, there is a need to provide incentives to rural poor through social sector safety nets to enable them to develop their human capital to participate in economic processes effectively to get out of the clutches of poverty. Intensive cost-free health care and education programs through quality schools and technical training institutes, imparting the latest farm and other related business technologies should be in place for rural poor with a focus on girls and women who are the most impoverished segment of the rural population. On the pattern of the previous government of Punjab, cash incentives should be allowed to girl students of all levels.
Under the present political and cultural environment possibility of rural poor participation in decision-making relating to rural development issues is totally out of the question. Their representation in assemblies for the legislation process has always been through big land owners MNA and MPAs, hence the issue of land reforms was neither taken up and if some headway was made it was not implemented in letter and spirit.
Since the rural poor’s right to adequate land and access to water is of key importance to reducing rural poverty, a comprehensive land reform program needs to be undertaken on a priority basis.
China’s efforts to lower the poverty level to 5 percent in 2005 from 80 percent in 1981 was the outcome of a focus on developing the agriculture sector through the introduction of market-oriented land reforms. Apart from legal reforms for proper redistribution of agricultural land and market in land use rights, Pakistan needs to reallocate land in such a way that small cultivators who own and cultivate small pieces of land inefficiently be allowed low-cost opportunities to increase their productivity.
A move on the part of the Sindh government in the recent past to allocate land to farmers including women needs to be reinforced and replicated by other provinces also. This needs to be done with strict monitoring by provincial and local governments. These land reforms need to be introduced at the earliest to enable farmers to respond to market incentives by raising output in the wake of dramatic increases in the prices of food crops in the international market. Further to lessen food insecurity apprehensions for all times to come land reforms must be accompanied by a comprehensive program for infrastructure development with an emphasis on the regular water supply to farms.