LAHORE - The desired results of the timely announced Rs 100 billion agricultural package by the Punjab government to meet the challenges of the climate change cannot be achieved until big landholders give space to the small ones to secure its benefits, the farmers representatives say.

The Chief Minister Mahammad Shehbaz Sharif, taking stock of agri situation and keeping in mind the future challenges due to climate change, had announced the said hefty package to directly provide relief to the common farmer. This amount is over and above the Rs 342 billion package the Prime Minister had announced last year.

The Rs100 billion package aims not only at redressing problems of the cotton and rice growers but also enable the growers to make their produce competitive in the international market where a severe recession prevails due to climate change, which will continue to affect production of agri items in the years to come.

The major challenge is making the agriculture cost effective and competitive otherwise the province would not only lose its own productivity but its dependence on import will also increase.

This aspect was highlighted at the working group meeting that followed the opening of the unique agri conference held under the auspices of Punjab government the other day. It was suggested at the meeting for holding such gatherings at the lower level where common farmers are taken in the loop.

From the background comments passed by the farmers it was transpired that benefits of such huge packages mostly go to the big land owners who have access to the high-ups, have representation in the Assembly, roots in bureaucracy and top hierarchy, while the small land holders, who are truly needy and have huge potential to deliver, remain deprived of its fruits.

Agri sector contributes up to 18 per cent to the GDP while 44 per cent of the human resources is involved in this sector. Punjab, which once fed the whole country, is today dependent on export of vegetables from India, China and Thailand. Pakistan has agri based industry wherein textile figures high but last year the cotton growers failed to get due price of the commodity and thus he is not willing to cultivate cotton as per the country needs. The same situation was faced by rice growers while the non-payment of billions of rupees to the sugarcane growers by the millers was another issue. Punjab exported tomatoes worth Rs12 billion from India just in a year while potato growers suffered huge losses due to loss of markets and low rates of the yield in the local market. Same situation was faced by the kinnow growers.

Many suggestions were invited at the conference wherein Chief Minister also announced to set up a Kissan Commission to personally monitor the situation and have direct liaison with the tillers.

However, privately speaking, the small growers said Punjab can rise up again in a big way if land reforms are carried out with sincerity and in the national interest. If the poor farmer is given ownership, he can deliver much more than what the government can expect.

At the working group discussion, a suggestion was presented for taking advantage from the machine developed by Agricultural University Faisalabad for separating pulp and seeds. It was stated China has earned 12 times more from selling tomato paste using the same technique. It was also suggested that a little attention on producing the flowers and their packing as per the international standards can yield huge revenue to the country. It was advocated that India lobbyists should be discouraged and import of vegetables from that country be banned. They also voiced for making the agri policy simple and understandable to a layman.

Faisal Hassan, a rice grower worried by the import of outdated seeds, called for ending the dependence of small farmers on big ones for agri equipment. He said Rs 1 billion subsidy on five types of equipment mostly benefited the big landholders. Mushtaq Gill, an ex-DGA, laid stress on ridding from backwards method of farming. He said 89 per cent tubewells were based on diesel while only 11 per cent on electricity which was much cheaper source.

Majority of growers representatives called for ending GST on agri inputs. Many suggestions were also made for better management of water.

In a nutshell, the timely initiative by the Punjab government has been termed as a positive move by the growers to streamline the agri sector. The government and growers expressed their determination to face the challenges jointly.