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Shrinking food basket

Tomato, onion prices have spiraled due to crop failures and government’s policy of not importing from India. What’s the solution in long run?

Shrinking food basket

Like every year, this time also the prices of food items have gone out of control and despite official claims to arrest these there is not much relief for the masses. The worse is that the non-affording ones, who are advised to consume vegetables if they cannot buy meat, are also in a fix because a large number of vegetables are being sold at exorbitant rates across the country. The prices of vegetables have spiraled primarily because of crop failures due to different reasons and the avoidance of farmers to grow these.

Prices of tomatoes and onions, that are a must for every recipe, have caught most attention as everyone regardless of their purchasing power has to purchase these. For months, tomatoes have been sold for Rs 250 to Rs 300 per kg and now onions for Rs 120 per kg and even more. In the past, whenever such a situation arose the government would go for a quick-fix and control the situation within days or weeks by improving supplies in the market.

But this time the response period seems to be comparatively long and there is a reason to it as well. “For the last eight to nine months, the government has not issued quarantine certificates to importers to bring food items from India through Wahga,” explains Aftab Ahmed Vohra, the head of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (LCCI) standing committee on Pakistan-India trade promotion. Though there have been limited imports of tomatoes of onion from Iran and Afghanistan, the huge transportation costs have reduced the overall impact on prices.

The dependence of Pakistani market on Indian vegetables is obvious from the fact that farmers in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, India, made tomato their main crop, with the intention of selling this product to Pakistan.

Vohra is convinced that the government has decided not to import food items from India regardless of the criticism it faces for failing to bring their prices down. The other vegetables whose import from India has been halted include okra, ginger, red chilli, green chilli, potato and garlic. So, the fact is that the influx of Indian vegetables has been checked through non-tariff barriers and on the context of ensuring quality and that these items are healthy and not disease infested.

The Federal Minister for Food Security, Sikandar Hayat Bosan, and the Punjab Minister for Industries, Commerce and Investment, Sheikh Alauddin, have hinted at the fact that instead of relying on imports from India they would look at the domestic growers to increase production and keep prices under control. They also issued warning to the “mafias” that were pushing it to import food items from India and advised them not to mull this option.

No doubt, the strained relations between Pakistan and India are a major reason why the former is not availing this option while farmers on the Indian side are throwing their produce on roads or feeding these to animals in protest. For years, the farmers in India have focused on growing the vegetables that are in demand in Pakistan and earned well by supplying these to Pakistan but now they are suffering losses due to this policy decision.

The dependence of Pakistani market on Indian vegetables is obvious from the fact that farmers in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, India, made tomato their main crop, with the intention of selling this product to Pakistan. For many years, these tomatoes have been supplied to Pakistan on a regular basis through Wahga border which is quite accessible. It takes 20 to 36 hours for the trucks to reach Jhabua depending on the routes they take. The different varieties of tomato they have introduced have extended the tomato season from October to March. On the contrary, in Pakistan the seasons are shorter and dependent on produce from different provinces.

Against this backdrop, there are quarters that are not clear about the plans the government has on mind to tackle structural issues and improve indigenous supplies of vegetables if it wants to end its dependence on imports.

Waheed Ahmed, Patron-in-Chief All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters, Importers and Merchants Association (PFVA), laments there is no horticulture policy of the government and the farmers are left on their own to decide which varieties to sow and when and where. “Rain patterns and weathers are changing due to global warning due to which crops get destroyed quite often,” he says.

Onion crop gets destroyed when it gets immersed in water and this is what has happened exactly this time. So, he suggests, the farmers must be informed about changing crop patterns and trained on how to change sowing times according to the expected weather conditions. “Introduction of new seed varieties and increase in per acre yield are also a must to enhance local supplies and that also on a regular basis.” His point is that Balochistan and Sindh are the leading onion-growing provinces in the country and therefore there is an urgent need to provide agriculture extension services to them.

The argument about lack of knowledge and guidance from the government departments to offset impacts of global warming does not impress farmers’ leaders like Khalid Mahmood Khokhar, who is the president of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI). He says it was the lack of interest among Pakistani farmers to grow the vegetables that were being imported from India — a country that highly subsidises its agriculture sector. “As it is unable to beat Indian vegetables due to their low input cost they find it impossible to compete with them,” he adds.

He is quite hopeful that if the imports from India remain suspended, Pakistani farmers will grow vegetables in huge quantity and next year tomatoes and onions will be available for much lower price. “The government of Pakistan shall also provide incentives to farmers like what happens in India if it wants to become self-reliant in this regard,” he demands.

He adds there is optimism as well about demand for Pakistani vegetables in China, so it’s the right time for the government to invest in this sector. “Indian government covers 80 per cent of the transportation cost of farmers selling their produce to Pakistan via Wahga border. If they can support their farmer, why can’t we?” he questions.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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