THE WAY IT WAS : Where things belong —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The nation can go ride a camel and have ‘sattoo’ — a more nutritious way of travelling. The farmer can eat their ‘gurh’ if they can afford it. All is essentially well

The patter of rain against the tin roof has stopped rather abruptly. I can hear a faint growl of the clouds somewhere in the far distance valley below. It has started raining again. Everything is quiet and at a standstill — even the night buzz of the insects has stopped. But the silence is deceptive. The clouds are recharging their batteries for another assault of lightening, thunder and more rain. Monsoon rains are generous and unpredictable.

I wish some of these clouds would find their way to the rice fields in the parched plains. With the cost of diesel what it is, only farmers can have the courage to afford drums and drums of diesel to sate the rice saplings. I have often wondered, considering the high cost of inputs, why farmers farm. The only answer I have is that it is their way of life. They must necessarily persist, even when they cannot make ends meet. A reason good enough for callous pragmatic governments to disregard them.

The way our industry has been protected and pampered at the expense of the farmers by our economic planners is a shameful chapter of deception. They argued that investment in industry would create jobs and capital which in turn would establish more industry, employment, exports and wealth and so on. But if from the outset we had regarded agriculture as the foundation of industrial planning, things would not have gone awry and more than one-third of the population would not have been below the poverty line. The vast majority of our citizens would have been economically better off, with buying power that could have provided a vigorous impetus to industry. Simultaneously a farmer would have secured enough private means to invest in his children’s education, health, better agricultural appliances and improved farming methods.

Presently the former has to deal with the rapacious fertilizer and pesticide industry, the high cost and uncertain supply of electricity, expensive diesel, old seeds, the exploitative middle-man and, at the end of day, the paltry prices paid to him for his agricultural produce. In short he has to deal with the costs rising every day while the prices remain almost static.

If the government is unable to tackle all the problems facing the agricultural sector, why not start fixing the prices of some of the essential commodities in advance. What is the point of increasing the purchase price when a commodity, say wheat, has already been acquired from the farmer? He is neither a beneficiary of the increase nor can take it into account while sowing his crops. And if agriculture is not to be subsidised, then why not pay the farmer competitive international prices? This would not only discourage smuggling but enable us to earn foreign exchange by exporting the surplus. With better price incentives the farmer will put in extra effort to increase production. In depressive and discouraging circumstances, he is naturally not motivated and resigns to the misery of whatever he can get.

It is painfully ironic that a region once termed as the ‘breadbasket’ of South Asia is today unable to provide for its neighbouring provinces. At the same time, I was told that there are scores of flourmills along the GT Road all the way to Peshawar — a cover for buying wheat and smuggling it to Afghanistan at double the price. I wonder if this is true — I wish we could send it to them free if we had the surplus. However, if wheat costs more in Afghanistan then rest assured the wheat from Pakistan will find its way there. Just as no one can stop water keeping its level, the same is also true of trade. One is propelled by gravity, the other by what some economists term as ‘enlightened self-interest’.

A few days back I was amazed by a newspaper advertisement in which the motor industry barons had the temerity to criticise the national budget for reducing the duty on imported cars. The simplest and permanent solution to their problems is to roll back the local car-assembling industry and help them invest in a more legitimate business. Why should a mafia that has made billions by controlling and manipulating the market be sponsored? Why should Pakistani citizens be denied access to imported re-conditioned and cheaper new cars, unless we wish to protect the interest of car assemblers?

A person driving an old car would want the import duty on cars even further lowered and the import of re-conditioned cars to be instantly allowed. The sponsors of the advertisement have appealed to the president asking him, “Let’s put Pakistan first”. Indeed by putting the needs of Pakistani citizens first we would be doing exactly that. Pakistan is synonymous with its people and not, as some individuals try to interpret it in context of their personal self interest, at the expense of the people.

Protection of vested interests reminds me of the occasion I came across a few mud houses with some friends while on a shoot. A rich aroma of caramel invaded my nostrils — some peasants were crushing sugarcane while the cane juice was on the boil in a cauldron and thickening into rich brown syrup. The elders presided over the cauldron, or as it is called, the ‘kara’, with a ladle ready to pour the thick brownish liquid onto ‘parats’ and flat wooden boards where it would cool and solidify into round chunks of ‘gurh’, which was in turn eagerly awaited by more than half a dozen children of the household. To have ‘gurh’ to one’s heart full was the ultimate gratification for the poor peasants residing on the distant shore of the Ravi.

“This is illicit and unlawful. They cannot crush sugarcane and make ‘gurh’,” said one of our learned companions, “sugarcane is for the sugar industry.” I found it hard to believe that the farmers were being denied the right to crush the cane they had planted. Strictly speaking they were not allowed to break one from their fields and chew it. This is how the industry was protected in the past and how it is being protected today.

Why couldn’t sugar have been imported and the money more productively invested? Everyone knows that the sugar industry emerged not as part of national economic planning but as a result of the need for granting political favours. Why are the cars being assembled in Pakistan when they can be imported to satisfy the citizens? We are patronising entrepreneurs who cannot assemble a bicycle from a children’s mechano set, let alone assemble cars. Why can’t we invest in areas of our strength and expertise in which we are likely to excel?

New ways of political and economic deception have been evolved to protect the interest of the corrupt state functionaries and card-sharpers. The nation can go ride a camel and have ‘sattoo’ — a more nutritious way of travelling. The farmer can eat their ‘gurh’ if they can afford it. All is essentially well.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist