Renting out the agricultural sector

There are two major changes taking place in Pakistan’s agriculture sector as we speak. The first is the recent decision of the Lahore High Court striking down an earlier order in which the court had stopped the transfer of land to the Pakistan Army for corporate farming on a 20-year lease.

The second development was the announcement by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was flanked at the event by the top military leadership, of the Green Pakistan initiative. With both of these projects it seems that the country’s top leadership and policymakers are all focused towards the agriculture sector now and are trying to look towards extracting as much from the land of Pakistan and exporting it. 

But where is this new passion coming from and what is with the obsession with exporting, and in particular exporting to the Gulf countries? Let’s look at the background behind these two major developments and what they tell us about the future. 

First the recent LHC decision regarding the military being allowed to conduct corporate farming on government owned land. A few months ago the Punjab government had notified the allotment of over 45,267 acres of Punjab land to the army in three districts — Bhakkar, Khushab, and Sahiwal — for a corporate agriculture farming project. The allotment came after, on February 8, the director general of strategic projects of the Pakistan Army wrote to the Board of Revenue in Punjab requesting it to grant up to 1 million acres of state land in Punjab for “corporate agriculture farming.” 

For the project, the military proposed the immediate release of 10,000 to 15,000 acres of irrigated land, followed by 100,000 acres by March 1st and then the rest of one million acres by April. A month later, the Governor of Punjab and the Pakistan Army signed a joint venture agreement to lease up to 1 million acres of state land in Punjab to the army for corporate agriculture farming, for a period of 20 years. The agreement also finalised a profit-sharing mechanism, under which 20% of the profits earned from the venture will be used for research and development, while the remaining profit will be divided 50-50 between the government of Punjab and the army. 

The million dollar question being why the army has to get into corporate farming and why the government cannot itself develop existing farmers and train them in best practices. The same problem exists with the Green Pakistan Initiative which the PM claimed would bring about an agricultural revolution and create four million jobs. The PM said gulf countries were ready to invest in the agriculture sector and bring modern machinery to boost crops production. “Pakistan needed political stability to attract investment as in an unstable environment investors shy away,” he asserted. Pakistan could attract investment of $ 40 to 50 billion in the coming years and it could make food exports to the gulf countries which were presently importing food products worth $ 40 billion, the PM added. 

But are we not focusing on developing our own systems and intent on exporting food to gulf countries? With a population of 249 million and a forecasted population of 403 million in 2050, can we really afford to export food when we won’t even be able to cater to the local population. The intent may be right in terms of developing the sector, but the end result which focuses more on collaboration with Middle Eastern governments who are securing the food supply for their population is one which is ill advised. 

The Government and stakeholders are advised to invest in local farmers, upgrade their skills, invest in machinery and develop best practices for ensuring that future generations in Pakistan benefit from this instead of such short term measures which may increase exports and generate revenue but maintain the status quo for the majority of the population.

Omar Javed Chohan
Omar Javed Chohan
Omar Javed Chohan is a practising agriculturalist with an avid interest in the economy and entrepreneurship.



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