FAISALABAD, Pakistan, Jan 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistani farmers have dismissed a government-backed electricity subsidy for agricultural consumers as a political stunt, calling instead for a financial assistance package for fertilisers, seeds and pesticides.
Muhammad Anwar, chairman of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, a body representing farmers, said the government announced the power price cut to appease growers after hundreds burned their electricity bills in recent months.
“(They) are suffering a loss of around 30,000 rupees ($298) per acre in their cotton crop and over 25,000 rupees ($248) in their rice crop due to poor agricultural policies,” he said.
Farmers are suffering financially due to a lack of compensation for crop damage caused by extreme weather, including floods and droughts, and the power of middlemen to determine prices for produce, he said.
Many are pressing the government to set prices for crops before they reach market, and want support to cope with the rising costs of agricultural inputs.
In late November, the government announced it would charge a fixed rate of 10.35 rupees ($0.103) per unit of power for growers across the country – a cut of almost a half. The backdated arrangement will run from July 2014 to June 2015.
The government will cover the cost of 22 billion rupees (around $218.4 million) in electricity subsidies to agricultural consumers.
Riaz Khan, a 37-year-old farmer in the Faisalabad district of Punjab province, said the money should be redeployed to pay for pesticides and fertilisers to lower input costs.
“The power subsidy for agriculture consumers is just a political gimmick as the farmers will get no real benefit from it,” he said. “We cannot irrigate all our land in just the two to three hours in which we get electricity.”
Government policy dictates that farmers’ tube wells do not receive power during peak hours, from 6pm to 10pm in winter and 5pm to 11pm in summer, while the whole country faces 10 to 12-hour blackouts daily, Khan added.
Pakistan's agriculture sector contributes a fifth of gross domestic product and generates work for just under half the country's labour force, according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2013-14.
Qamar-uz-Zaman, an expert on climate change with LEAD Pakistan, a non-profit organisation in Islamabad, said Pakistan has over 1.1 million agricultural tube wells, of which only 30 percent are electricity-operated.
“The power subsidy is a positive thing but it caters only to a limited number of growers,” he said.
The government could help farmers raise their incomes and crop yields by providing meaningful subsidies for fuel, seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, he suggested.
Annual diesel consumption to operate tube wells is around 2,000 million litres. The government should help farmers convert their tube wells to solar energy, he added.
“This would not only help reduce carbon emissions but also boost growers’ income,” he said.
Anwar of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad said the government should take concrete measures to compensate farmers for their losses and help them install electric-powered tube wells.
“The government is charging 17.5 percent general sales tax on fertilisers and 22 percent on pesticides. This must be abolished to support small growers,” he said.
Zafar Altaf, former chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, said the government and research institutions should focus on developing new crop varieties to increase production and incomes.
“The power subsidy is not a long-term solution to the crisis the farmers are faced with,” he said. Pakistani growers will only be able to compete in international markets if their production increases, he added.
The government should also invest in training farmers to use modern agricultural technology, he said.
For example, large amounts of water and capital could be saved if growers started to use drip and sprinkle irrigation methods rather than flooding their fields, he noted.
Pakistan is one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, and is close to being classified as water-scarce as it has less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Creating a better balance between crops that need less water - like wheat, maize and millet - and thirsty crops like sugarcane, rice and cotton would ease farmers’ problems, said Pervaiz Amir, country director of the Pakistan chapter of the Geneva-based Global Water Partnership.
The electricity subsidy for powering tube wells could result in depletion of ground water as in Pakistan’s neighbour India, he warned.
“The power subsidy in India has already had a negative impact on farmers in Pakistan along the border area,” he said. Excessive extraction of ground water in India has led to a 60 to 70 foot drop in the water table in Pakistani areas too, he noted.
The real challenge is to bring Pakistan’s farmers on a par with growers in the developed world, and this requires much more than temporary price cuts for electricity, he said.
(Editing by Megan Rowling)
Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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