DR MUMTAZ ANWAR CHOUDHRY - Pakistan’s economy is primarily agro-based and is the largest employer, absorbing almost 43% of the total population and contributing 19.82% to the country’s GDP. In it, Punjab plays a vital role as it contributes 55% to the national economy.

For overall economic growth, Punjab plays a vital role as agriculture is a mainstay for the province’s economy. According to leading economist Dr Hafeez Ahmed Pasha, “70% of Punjab’s industry is agro-based, 50% of the wholesale and retail trade is based on agricultural commodities. Similarly, 60% of the transport movement relates to agricultural commodities. So, overall the agriculture has a 45% role directly or indirectly in Punjab economy.”

As per the ESP 2015-16, the agriculture sector provides employment to 42.3% of the country’s total labor force while in Punjab it provides employment to 43.5% of the people in the province, and to more than 61 % in the rural areas.

Moreover, 68% of Punjab’s population is rural based, according to the Punjab Development Statistics of 2016. Hence growth in the agriculture sector is a necessary precursor both for the economic growth in the province and for rural development. This is according to Punjab Economic Report 2017 (PER) which was launched by the Punjab Economic Research Institute (PERI).

The report states, “Recent performance of the sector has not been encouraging. Between 2010 and 2015, per hectare yield of wheat in Punjab has dropped, whereas the yields of rice and cotton have not shown any significant improvement (Punjab Development Statistics, 2016). As compared to 2014-2015, all crop subsectors in Pakistan (important crops, other crops and cotton ginning) registered negative growth rates in 2015-2016 whereas the textile sector, which constitutes majority of the country’s exports, registered a negative growth rate of 8.2 % in 2016 as compared to the preceding fiscal year (Pakistan Economic Survey, 2015). This reflects poor performance in Punjab’s agriculture sector that had a production share of more than 50% in all major crops (with that of wheat being 76.9% and of cotton being 73.6 % in 2015). The total cropped area in Punjab has also dropped between 2004-2005 and 2013-2014.”

The sector’s lagging performance can be accounted to various factors. Higher cost of production combined with the effects of climate change has played a significant role in decreasing the agriculture output.

While, Punjab government is currently taking different initiatives to boost the agriculture sector, experts at PERI believe that technology can play a vital role in the development of this sector.

“In today’s world, technology is specifically being developed to cater to the agriculture sector with its primary focus on assisting farmers in increasing production output”, stated Director PERI, Dr Mumtaz Anwar. “For a country like Pakistan where the challenges are immense, information and communication technologies (ICT) in agriculture can offer effective solutions.”

The Punjab government, in an effort to resolve the issues faced by farmers, is slowly integrating ICT. According to Punjab Agriculture Department, they are utilizing all modes of ICT that include social and digital media platforms, broadcast and print media as well as telephone landlines.

Even The Punjab Growth Strategy which was specifically formulated to ascertain developmental goals along with a comprehensive roadmap aims to adopt ICT. The strategy outlines several areas where ICT adoption can be beneficial. These consist of inclusive development, farmer-centric service delivery, enhance productivity and private sector led growth.

According to the Punjab Economic Report, the government has undertook several initiatives to push the agriculture sector in this direction that include the farmer-targeted subsidies through the Kissan card, encouraging the private sector to participate in wheat procurement by announcing that wheat procurement will be brought down to 1 million tonnes from 5 million tonnes and encouraging the use of ICT based solutions by floating interest-free loans to poor farmers disbursed through an online portal.

If successful, it can help farmers who consider themselves ‘information deprived’ make informed decisions by receiving relevant technical information. Moreover, major crop failures due to extreme weather can also be minimized as technical sophistication has made forecasting techniques more reliable. Farmers can get connected to a wide network where they can interact and exchange ideas. Moreover, they can get in touch with potential buyers on their own as well as avail mobile banking and government programmes that will ultimately result in decreased production cost. On a larger scale, specialized applications can be used to increase productivity and effectively manage farm operations. 

On a government level, monitoring of different agri projects will be made easier as well as they can stay connected with farmers, acquiring pertinent information right from the source. This would not only help identify specific problems but close the communication gap that exists between research departments and farmers. Researchers would be able to acquire first-hand, critical information that will help them in solving critical issues.

In conclusion, ICT tools have the potential to revolutionize the agricultural sector. However, for it to be effective, a comprehensive policy framework needs to be implemented.