THE WAY IT WAS: How should I know? —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Pakistan has a larger agricultural land and water base than India. Then how is it that India is self-sufficient and we cannot even provide bread to our people? It is an irony that we should be importing wheat from countries like Saudi Arabia

It was at the Agricultural University and the Ayub Research Institute; situated in common vicinity at Lyallpur (later Faisalabad) that Mr Khuda Buksh Bucha was holding forth with eloquent flourish, rarely excelled by any one. General Musa, the governor, and Dr Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate and father of the Green Revolution, were also present. Mr Bucha, then agriculture minister of West Pakistan, was venerated by the dehatees (rurals) on account of his amiable fatherly manner in which he spoke to the farmers every week on Radio Pakistan.

I remember how Bucha Sahib would patiently explain to the listeners how they could improve their yield by better farming techniques and methods. He would speak at a leisurely pace. With his fluent command of Punjabi and his graphic pauses and stresses he would make certain what he said was safely stored in the listeners’ heads. He savoured each word like a delectable morsel of food before allowing it to roll off his tongue. He obviously enjoyed doing it. I never had the occasion to be in his company but he was universally regarded as a rare conversationalist.

Bucha Sahib, impeccably dressed in his usual sherwani, was on this occasion addressing in Urdu that he spoke with equal ease with a mofussil accent. He praised General Musa, the chief guest, for his buland sitara on two counts: “Aap kaa 1965 ki jang mein bhi sitara buland tha or aaj zaraat kay mahaz par bhi sitara buland hai.” Dr Borlaug sat through Mr Bucha’s ornate speech of welcome with some impatience. He did not know Urdu but was wise enough to gather the gist of it. It looked like a rendering of classical Chinese calligraphy. It demonstrates skill and aesthetic flourish but expresses no urgency of intention.

When Dr Borlaug (a very tall man of Sufi disposition) was called to address the learned gathering he eschewed preliminary pleasantry, coming at once to the point he wished to make. “Look here! Don’t be too happy! You have to lay down a programme to produce new hybrid seed variety every year, failing which this Green Revolution in wheat production will be over in two years”, he said — or something to that effect.

It was as a result of the hybrid variety of seed introduced in those days that for three years Pakistan was self-sufficient in food — what some have called food autarchy. The Food Department officials have claimed 22 million tonnes of wheat harvest this year. The department is seeking credit for what it does not deserve. The high yield is primarily due to good weather. In the irrigated and semi-irrigated areas like Mianwali or Shahpur the yields have remained almost the same. It is the wheat in the barani (rain-fed) regions that has made the difference.

The crux of the issue in wheat production — besides ensuring better prices for the farmer and a sound infrastructure — is the availability of quality seed. Improved seed is the single most important factor in higher yields. Hybrid seeds cannot be designed for perpetuity, because they start regressing within no time and in a few years revert to their original low-yield stock. The urban gardeners know how the imported hybrid gladiola and amaryllis bulbs that flower so gloriously the first year refuse to produce half the number of blossoms the following season. The size of the flowers is also inexplicably down to half the original.

I believe in India no farmer uses hybrid seed that is more than three to four years old. That is the single most important factor in their self-sufficiency in grain. The infrastructure, i.e. electricity and roads etc, is important for overall social, farm development and agro-based industrial growth but good seed is the key factor in production.

Talking of infrastructure let me mention in passing that our village, which cannot be more than 25 miles from Lahore as the crow flies and a mile off the Sheikhupura-Gujranwala road, got electricity 52 years after independence. Since last year we are also the beneficiaries of a pucca road. To get an electric connection for a tube well a farmer is required to pay for the poles leading to his field at about Rs 30,000 per pole, the cost of the transformer, the meter and other accessories.

Across our eastern border, I believe, all villages have had metalled roads and electricity for decades. It seems unbelievable but it is true that farmers in the Indian Punjab were provided free electricity till recently. It is only now that a small surcharge has been imposed.

Coming back to the seed, it is tragic that our departments and institutions have paid no heed to Dr Norman Borlaug’s timely warning, loudly and clearly declaimed at Lyallpur almost four decades ago. Presently things are so bad that a state of emergency needs to be declared. There are no young hybrid seeds available. The youngest seed, I believe, is four years old. That, too, is in short supply.

Most farmers are now using seed that is more than eight years old. Using seed that has regressed to impotence and then praying for God’s mercy is behaving like the proverbial ostrich that hides its head in sand at the sight of danger. Let us at least face up to the facts.

What are the facts? It is a fact that most of our scientists and seed breeders have left the country and are now working for multinational seed companies. The officials of the Agriculture Department and the professors at the Faisalabad Agriculture University behave as though they were rival saukans. No one seems to be coordinating. Individually on the lookout for promotions and medals, they hate sharing information. If the state of affairs is not immediately rectified we will soon be entirely dependent for seed on multinational companies. We must not let that happen at any cost.

We must, as Dr Borlaug recommended 25 years ago, have an ongoing programme for indigenous improved seed. We should try to emulate what the Indians have done at Ludhiana. Leave alone major crops like wheat and maize, they have produced at least two dozen varieties of bair while we have not even bothered to look at the back of one. The immense development in our fruit sector is the result entirely of the efforts of private nurseries and growers and not the outcome of any state-run horticulture establishment. I wonder even if there is one.

Pakistan has a larger agricultural land and water base than India. Then how is it that India is self-sufficient and we cannot provide bread to our people? It is an irony that we should be importing wheat from countries like Saudi Arabia.

But let me not end this on a morose note. There was a Sardar who in a drunken state fell off a six-storey building. People rushed to help him. When he regained his senses they asked him, “Sardar jee what happened?” In great pain, he replied: “How should I know, I have just arrived.” I wonder when we will arrive.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist. He can be reached at