The South Asian paradox

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

THE `Human Development in South Asia 2002: Agriculture & Rural Development' report reveals that the real challenge before the region is to build a system of agriculture and rural development that is both growth-oriented and human-centred. According to the compilers of the report, the Mahbub-ul-Haq Human Development Centre in Pakistan, human development and economy are linked with each other intrinsically. Education, healthcare, water supply, sanitation and other social services require resources. Human development can only be achieved through the equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth among the people. This requires pro-people policies, especially in a country like Pakistan where a minuscule minority has usurped all the resources. Without implementing land reforms in its true spirit, Pakistan cannot move in the direction of human development.

Policy-makers should realise that agriculture has an immense future in South Asia, considering the geographical conditions. This sector must be explored and expanded, or else the urban labour force will not be able to buy food at reasonable prices. There will not be enough raw materials for many industries. The bulk of the population living in rural areas will not have the purchasing power to buy goods produced by the industrial sector. Only a rapid agricultural growth can sustain the pace of industrial growth. However, factors such as subsidised agricultural exports for international markets from developed countries, low-availability of land and water, land-holding patterns, and inevitable variations in climate and rainfall can hamper agricultural growth despite investment in irrigation, rural infrastructure and research.

Predicating its argument on statistical analysis based on a huge amount of quantitative data on production and productivity of agricultural outputs, employment, wages and women's role in agriculture, the report draws a few logical conclusions:

1. High levels of human development cannot be achieved if development priorities do not focus on the occupation of the majority of the people, that is, farm and non-farm employment, and where they live, that is, rural areas.

2. The focus of the policies for food security is on the "welfare" of the people instead of their "empowerment". The availability of and access to food must have close association with the people's purchasing power.

3. The region's agriculture is facing cultivable land constraints and the negative consequences of over-dependence on chemical inputs; future agricultural productivity increases must come from an advancement of agricultural research, technology and extension services.

4. Small farms should be the centre of the revival of agriculture and rural development. The incentive system that is being offered to corporate farming in South Asia should not be at the expense of the vast majority of the rural populace.

5. South Asian agricultural marketing and trading systems have not been effective and efficient owing to both internal constraints and an inequitable external trading environment.

Agriculture has always been the mainstay of South Asian economies. Although the region has undergone a major structural change during the past three decades, the agricultural sector contributes around 25 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) against 45 per cent in 1960. In general, agricultural growth contributed positively towards an overall economic development in the region. Periods of high agricultural growth were more or less associated with high levels of overall economic growth. However, agricultural growth in South Asia has fuelled a slower growth rate in the overall economy compared to other regions. For instance, a 3 per cent growth in the agricultural sector between 1980 and 2000 led to a 5 per cent growth in the overall economy in South Asia, whereas a 3 per cent agricultural growth led to a 7 per cent GDP growth in East Asia and the Pacific region.

During the 1990s, South Asia achieved much progress in human and agricultural development. But this progress has neither been equitable nor adequate to lift the region's half a billion people out of poverty. The region has made encouraging progress in many areas. Sri Lanka and India are already in the medium category of human development. Pakistan and Bangladesh are poised to graduate to this category. The overall Human Development Index (HDI) of South Asia improved substantially during the 1990s. Despite all this, the region still faces major challenges. High agricultural productivity achieved during the Green Revolution period could not be sustained during the 1980s and 1990s owing to rising population, declining resource bases, increasing environmental costs, and inadequate policy attention to these issues.

The paradox in South Asia lies in the fact that despite achieving a higher rate of agricultural growth than population growth, the region has failed to translate this achievement into reduced poverty. The 1990s was characterised by rising poverty. The number of people living on less than $1 a day increased from 495 million in 1990 to over 530 million at the end of the decade. Expansion of agricultural land contributed very little to output growth. Growth during 1990-99 in agricultural land was negative in India and Bangladesh. Rising population exerted tremendous pressure on cultivable land. The decline in cultivable land has led most countries in South Asia to increase their cropping intensity. Most of the countries have only less than half of their cultivated land covered by irrigation. Pakistan is the only exception to this: by 1999, it had a remarkable 82 per cent of its agricultural area under irrigation. The cost of new irrigation methods is high in many countries, including India and Sri Lanka, giving rise to a negative growth in irrigated areas.

The objective and designs of rural development have varied with changing political interests rather than a genuine desire to uplift the poor and create an enriching rural life. A related problem is the outflow of a large part of funds allocated for these programmes to elite groups who manage to corner most of the benefits intended for the poor and the rural population at large. Currently, over 500 million South Asians live in absolute poverty - they include 40 per cent of the world's poor - and over 300 million are chronically malnourished. This, despite the fact that the largest South Asian countries have got food stocks that are way above their requirements. Over the years, one of the major concerns of South Asian governments has been to ensure food security to their huge numbers of low-income and no-income people.

Poverty in South Asia is mostly a rural phenomenon. In India, three out of every four poor persons live in rural areas. Most governments have been addressing the problem of food security through various welfare programmes, including food stamps. These programmes are not only inefficient, but are costly as they tend to encourage corrupt practices. They are also not a long-term solution in the matter of food security or poverty alleviation.

The majority of the 70 per cent of South Asians who live in rural areas are women. They are responsible for producing food, yet they have the least access to the means of production, and they receive the lowest wages, if at all. Cases of discrimination and violence against women in South Asia's rural areas, dominated by a feudal mindset, continue despite the work of thousands of committed women's groups throughout the region. .

Calling upon the policy-makers and development professionals of South Asia to frame effective policies and ensure their across-the-board implementation in order to harness agriculture's potential for rural development and poverty alleviation, the report identifies the following problems in the sector:

1. The investment in agriculture by both public and private sectors is inadequate and is not helping agriculture to play an important role in economic growth.

2. Despite the critical importance of research and extension in raising agricultural productivity, the resources allocated for this purpose are inadequate and are being used inefficiently. The broken link between research and the extension system is one of the major problems in raising productivity.

3. The lack of a legal framework to define property rights and delay in land reforms have adversely affected the access of small farmers to credit.

4. Agricultural prices, indirect and implicit taxation and subsidy policies have led to inefficient resource allocation.

5. The small farmer and the landless poor have suffered because of either wrong policies or the inequitable application of good policies.

6. The irrigation practices are old and lack efficient use and maintenance.

7. The Green Revolution created second-generation problems owing to the excessive use of farm machinery and pesticides. Substantial stretches of arable land was lost owing to increasing environmental degradation, including soil erosion, water logging and salinity.

8. The macro-economic framework in many South Asian countries is not favourable to agriculture and has not therefore led to rapid socio-economic development.

Mohammad Shehzad is an independent journalist based in Islamabad.

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