By Tayyab Safdar
Express – The agriculture sector continues to be of little interest to policymakers. In official circles, there seems to be little effort to understand the complexities and challenges facing it. The performance of agriculture has repercussions at multiple levels for the national economy. For one, it continues to be the largest employer in the country accounting for 45 per cent of the labour force.
This brings us to the results of the latest Agriculture Census of Pakistan (ACP) 2010, released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. The agriculture survey is carried out once every 10 years, the last one being in 2000. The data from the ACP-2010 brings to the fore a number of issues that can be seen besetting the rural areas and requiring urgent attention, not only from policymakers and politicians but also from academics.
So what are the changes that have taken place in the rural landscape of the country? For one, there has been a substantial increase in the number of private farms in the country in the decade between the two surveys. While farm area has increased by a lower percentage, much of the increase in farms has been a result of natural division of landholdings. On delving deeper into the results of the census, one finds that the largest increase has taken place in the category of marginal and small farmers.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation classifies farms of less than 0.5 to one hectare as ‘marginal farms’. The latest census data shows that the number of marginal farmers has increased by slightly over 50 per cent in the period between the two censuses. While such marginal farms made up to 36 per cent of the farms in 2000, covering almost six per cent of the farm area, they now account for almost 44 per cent of farms owning a paltry eight per cent of farm area in the country. In absolute numbers, the increase is perhaps more stark. In the previous census held in 2000, the number of marginal and small farms was 3.81 million; by 2010, the number has risen to 5.36 million farms. Most of these small and marginal farmers are dependent on less than two hectares of land for their livelihoods.
These figures are extremely troubling. The availability of small areas for cultivation is a hindrance to the welfare of entire families, especially when livelihoods are greatly dependent on agriculture. One outcome of the increasing numbers of small and marginal farmers could be an increase in urban migration as a way to escape poverty. Pakistan is already the most highly urbanised country in South Asia. Increasing migration from rural areas is bound to create more pressure on already stretched urban metropolises. Secondly, as industrial growth in the country remains stunted and much of the installed industrial base is already capital-intensive, most migrants will be forced to work in the service sector. Constraints of capital and education mean that a majority of them will probably end up working in the informal service economy; often at extremely low wages and the cycle of poverty and exclusion will be reinforced.
While research by international organisations and NGOs has, in the recent past, paid increasing attention to improving the conditions of small and marginal farmers, the state in developing countries like Pakistan needs to urgently take the onus. The Pakistani state is perhaps ill-equipped for dealing with these challenges. Even the fundamental realisation that the increasing number of small and marginal farmers is a serious social and economic issue that needs to be addressed urgently seems to be missing.
For the government, dealing with the increasing numbers of marginalised and small farmers needs to start with a fundamental rethink of rural development strategies. Increasing investment in the provision of agricultural extension and management services that focus on this segment of the rural population could be a good starting point.
While many economists in Pakistan talk about the knowledge economy and leapfrogging labour-intensive stages of development, dealing with the increasing number of marginal and small farmers that make for a substantial portion of the rural poor is a problem that is likely to get far worse if urgent steps aren’t taken to address the problems they face.
The writer is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge