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Agriculture: Through the Ages in Pakistan

by Jawad Ali

Dr. Anjum Ali, the Director General (Extension) Punjab Agriculture Department, sheds light on Pakistan’s agricultural scene through the prism of history, technology and best farm practices. He spoke with Jawad Ali for MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

Punjab was considered the food basket of the subcontinent before Pakistan’s independence. What happened? What measures should Pakistan take to make things better?

The cultivated area of Indian Punjab is almost one third of Pakistan’s Punjab but its irrigated area is over 90 percent with cropping intensity of 189 percent. Indian Punjab can be divided in to three fertile zones if you will:  one, Malwa—the area that lies between Sutlej River and Jamna stream, two, Maja—which lies between Ravi and Biaas rivers, and three, Doaba—which comprises of Sutlej and Biaas rivers. There is plenty of sweet water underground. India has taken full advantage of that by installing about 1.2 million tube wells to irrigate that farm land.

Even though, their Punjab is smaller than ours in size, their operational farmland is bigger than ours because of the Non-Resident Indians’ (NRIs) large landholdings. NRI is a citizen of India who holds an Indian passport and has temporarily immigrated to another country for six months or more for employment, residence, education or any other purpose.

Moreover, technological adoption is also high because of bigger operational farms, i.e., Indian Punjab has only 31 percent farms, out of which 34 percent area is of farm land holdings of 5 or less than 5 acres, but in Pakistani Punjab, it’s the opposite. Around 63 percent of total farmlands consist of subsistence farmers, with 65 percent farm landholding area of less than 5 acres, which is further multiplying rapidly.

Likewise, the number of tractors is almost equal with us despite less cultivated area, with better machinery package and higher consumption of certified seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, which resulted in better productivity in many crops for India.

India is bigger in size and densely populated and was even like that at the time of independence (1947) so they were always more focused on food security. The Indian government initially started with irrigation improvements by offering free irrigation supplies to its farmers under the Nehru Plan. They built water reservoirs, dams and canals. Secondly, in order to reduce their dependence on imported food, the Indian government gave support prices as well as subsidies on essential farm inputs to its farmers which helped them in better yield enhancement. It also started developing other resource-rich provinces.

Read more: Pakistan at Risk

Pakistan also initially started by making improvements in its irrigation resources –  we also built water structures like Mangla, Tarbela and link canals. However, our pace was relatively slower when compared with India, which stuck to its original (Nehru) Plan and kept on constructing water reservoirs.

Pakistan’s huge cultivation area remained under non-perennial water body. Mangla command area (irrigated from Mangla reservoir water) of Pakistan consists of almost 12 million acres and Tarbela (irrigated from Tarbela reservoir water) commands 8.5 million acres. The remaining area is almost 31.5 million which is irrigated through tube wells and other sources, mainly pumping ground water out for irrigation purposes.

We are also making best efforts to keep steady pace of agriculture development in our part of the Punjab. Government of the Punjab has distributed 30,000 tractors in recent past on subsidized prices and is distributing small machinery units to the farmers having tractors to convert available farm power into better tillage and other farm operations since the last 5 years in different phases. This new scheme will have subsidy of PKR 1 billion for small farmers. In addition, high tech machinery centers will be established soon and huge efforts are underway to promote drip and sprinkler technologies for water conservation.

It is apt to mention here that laser leveling scheme has been introduced for the first time in Pakistan and has also been gifted to Indian Punjab farmers for adoption for table top leveling to conserve water.

The two Punjabs’ are usually compared through their productivity in wheat, which is no doubt better in Indian Punjab because of irrigation systems, better fertility and sowing time. In Pakistani Punjab wheat is planted in all regions with good and average soils while water shortages and delayed sowing are also issues because of our significant area under basmati rice and cotton, which cause delay in sowing of wheat. However, less than two crop scenario, i.e., wheat-cotton and wheat-basmati, the performance of Pakistani farmer is not bad. We are fully cognizant of low wheat production and are making efforts to develop short duration wheat varieties and evolution, demonstration and promotion of new technologies like zero tillage while relay cropping, wet sowing, dry sowing and seed priming techniques are being promoted to reduce the impact of delayed sowing of wheat. Our wheat production has increased with a significant production from 15.6 million tons to 19.5 million tons from 2008 to 2016. The variety replacement rate of promising varieties in Pakistani Punjab is very high. One can also understand that Pakistani farmers are also highly responsive to new techniques if cost of input is within the acceptable range, marginal rate of return is significantly high and soil and water conditions are compatible for planting of new crops.

Punjab’s share in national production of major commodities.

We are trying our best to create an enabling environment through appropriate legislation, import of technologies, reduction in input prices, revitalizing field force and maximizing the use of Information Communications Technology (ICT) tools. The government has announced two dedicated packages for the welfare of farmers with an allocation of PKR 341 billion under PM Package and PKR 100 billion under CM Package. New programs to support farmers through initiatives like interest free credit to small farmers, provision of urea and DAP at reduced price at PKR 400 per bag and PKR 300 per bag respectively in addition to reduced prices of pesticides and tube well charges. This reduction in prices will have positive impact on socioeconomic well being of the farmers.


How technology can help improve our irrigation system? Please also explain our water conservation measures.

In some cases, flood irrigation is a soil requirement so it’s not wastage as commonly perceived. The Punjab government is working on efficient management of irrigation supplies through drip and sprinkler irrigation technologies, laser leveling and bed and furrow techniques. The share of subsidy is also very high. Moreover, irrigation agronomy has improved a lot. Latest moisture meters are being tested to improve water efficiency besides, promotion of ridge and bed planting and use of laser levelers.

Read more: Pakistan’s Cotton Emergency


What measures are we taking to address issues related to climate change and its worst effects on cash crops? This has been hitting hard the country’s export and the overall GDP.

Climate change is a serious threat to the security and prosperity of Pakistan’s agriculture. We are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because of our geography. According to a recently published index, Pakistan was ranked number 12 on the list of countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Punjab is experiencing high and low temperatures, high and low rainfall with clear symptoms of climate shift.  Consequently, sowing and harvesting season of many important crops has been disturbed, harvesting and post harvesting losses have been increased and there has been a delay in sowing of crops. Last year, sudden fall in cotton production is a peculiar example of impact of climate change wherein, high temperatures at early stage of the crop lured sucking pest attack and afterwards, intermittent and heavy rainfalls impacted the overall production. We are working to build evasion, tolerance and resistance to the impact of climate change through various interventions like breeding for inoculation of desired characteristics through indigenous and imported means and changes in agro management techniques to adopt and move towards the climate smart agriculture.


Are we preserving and using native seeds. Do we have good quality indigenous variety of seeds? How technology can help improve local seeds?

We have a huge pool of plant genetic resources at National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC) on the pattern of international centers of genetic resources to protect our native seed and biodiversity. We are signatory of Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and are bound to protect our indigenous flora and fauna. Likewise, each of the breeding centers for evolution of varieties have huge genetic resources for utilization as genetic material in crossing and thus thousands of varieties from local and exotic origin are present at our research centers.


The scientists working in our institutes are delivering the best within our available resources.  Punjab is interested in procuring modern technologies and attracting investments in agriculture especially in seed sector. Following the international obligations, The Seed Act 2015 has been amended accordingly, Plant Breeders Rights Bill has also been cleared by the standing committee on Ministry of National Food Security and Research Islamabad. The Punjab government has also allocated sufficient funds to speed up research and development (R&D) activities in the province.


Is the rapid urbanization a threat to sowing areas? Are we planning to address issues related to urban migration?

The rapid urbanization is undoubtedly engulfing fertile lands around big cities especially encroaching into vegetable farm areas. However, our response in Punjab was to counter the reduction in vegetable farm areas through training of farmers in semi urban and other compatible areas for vegetable planting zones. Under this program, the Punjab government has arranged Farmers Field Schools (FFS) for fruits and vegetable production by using less pesticides, correct agronomy and seeds with no use of sewage water. Therefore, with these efforts, many vegetable clusters in many districts have been developed and the vegetable production despite the drop in fertile areas has not been reduced significantly. Besides, this has also resulted in an increase of fruit and vegetable exports to the tune of more than $ 600 million.

However, despite all such efforts, it is also a fact that rural youth is least interested in agriculture and are reluctant farmers at best. Therefore all-out efforts are needed to inculcate love for the soil in our next generation and to convert agriculture into a profitable venture through intensification, diversification and value addition without harming soil, water and environment.


Does ICT play a role in our farming practices? What measures has the government taken to facilitate farmers in this regard so that they benefit from the technology?

Punjab is a large province and 67 percent of the over 100 million population is living in rural areas. The cultivated and cropped area in Punjab is also more than 31 million and 43 million acres, respectively. This huge number (of farmers) has an appetite for agriculture information while present field force is not able to satisfy the needs of the farmers, therefore, modern communication tools will be aggressively explored to increase the reach of the extension service delivery. A call center will be established to cater to the farmers’ requirements and their connectivity with the experts through the local extension agents. Soil sampling will also be a main component of this project for soil health diagnostics.  The presence of the extension service will be increased through newspapers, primetime on television and social media including Facebook and Twitter while we are also reaching farmers through SMS, robocall, and call centers. In fact, 5 million farmers will soon have access to the latest technology techniques, farm experts and easy financing through smartphones. The program has already been rolled out.


Are we using drone-based aerial photography for crop and pest scouting? Are there any examples of such technology use in Pakistan (by the government or individual influential landlords)?

Today, drone technology is becoming an essential piece of farm equipment. Farmers around the world have actually started using drones to get a bird’s-eye view of their fields and to monitor the condition of their crops. Pakistanis are already familiar with drones and their uses, but now with this technology, it will be used for helping farming community and policy makers to estimate crop size and pest warning activities. Scientists in University of Agriculture Faisalabad are working on it to economize the use of fertilizer and pesticides throughout the fields.

Read more: The State of Seed in Pakistan


Where do we stand as far as tunnel climate-controlled farming is concerned? Is this generally practiced, if yes where and who is practicing the same in Pakistan?

Tunnel farming has been introduced in Punjab in 2003 through establishment of high tunnel structures at Adaptive Research Farms of Sargodha, Sheikhupura, Vehari and Chakwal, wherein, tunnel technologies were fine-tuned and promoted to the fellow farmers through dedicated training. A subsequent project was launched to promote tunnel farming through farmers training programs wherein, a group of farmers were trained on a subsidized tunnel structures. Afterwards, a massive subsidy of PKR 520 million was announced to provide 50 percent subsidy to the farmers on walk-in and shallow tunnels and due to this 10 year struggle, area under tunnels was significantly increased in Punjab. Even now, Government of the Punjab is supporting farmers with the provision of inputs to the tunnel growers to display the best production technologies. Moreover, going beyond that work on hydroponics has been started with lead role from University of Arid Agriculture Rawalpindi and farmers are taking interest in this innovative technology as well.


Are we doing soil fertility testing on a large scale? Is there any public institute and organization for soil testing? Are small farmers getting benefits from the same?

Government of the Punjab has approved a dedicated project for 2.8 million soil samples in Punjab, wherein, 28 million acres’ area of irrigated Punjab will be divided in 10 acres grid to collect soil samples from all the partners of this square. Coordinates of each site will be recorded to place in a dedicated database. This soil sampling record will be used for farmer’s advice on soil health, compatible cropping patterns and other agro management suggestions to improve productivity and profitability of farmers. This project (PKR 4.25 billion) will improve service delivery of extension agents and enable the farmers to approach agriculture experts through the use of ICT technologies and soil sampling will be made free of cost.

Jawad Ali is the chief correspondent and research editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan.


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One Comment;

  1. Faisal Ali said:

    “Around 63 percent of total farmlands consist of subsistence farmers, with 65 percent farm landholding area of less than 5 acres, which is further multiplying rapidly,” says Dr. Anjum Ali. My question for the policy makers in that case – Can the subsistence farmers afford the latest technology if they can’t afford basic inputs??? How can technology play any role? Is there affordable technology available for poor farmers???