Points to Ponder July 2023!

There have been major developments in Pakistan’s food and agriculture system in a matter of weeks, where after the finalization of the deeply inhumane-IMF stand-by agreement, the government of Pakistan has adopted a new strategy for trade liberalization in food and agriculture. This will end in bringing fresh onslaught of misery and hunger for the people, especially women, children and elderly in the country. The IMF conditionalities result in a massive debt burden, which is not felt only by the Pakistani people but across the neocolonial world. According to the United Nations, global public debt has surged to a record $92 trillion in 2022. Domestic and external debt worldwide has climbed up more than five times in the past two decades, and third world countries owe almost 30 per cent of the global public debt, of which 70pc is represented by China, India and Brazil.

Based on various surveys, in the period 2017-22, 21.5 percent population in Pakistan suffered severe multidimensional poverty, while 12.9 percent is vulnerable to multidimensional poverty. Globally, in 2023, 1.1 billion out of 6.1billion people (just over 18percent) live in acute multidimensional poverty across 110 countries. The United Nations has called for a pause in debt repayments for countries like Pakistan. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the global situation of economic crisis, the pandemic and other shocks, 75 million people have fallen into extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2.15 a day, between 2020 and the end of 2023 — and 90 million more will fall below the poverty line of $3.65 a day. The new head of the World Bank has said that growing divide between rich and poor nations risked deepening poverty in the developing world, at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in India- a context which coming from the World Bank is almost laughable. Such statements do not stop the international financial institutions from imposing crippling conditionalities on debt-stricken countries, as is very clear from the stark economic crisis in Pakistan.

The result of thrusting neoliberal policies can be clearly seen in our domestic policy. The outgoing Prime Minister just before leaving office along with the Chief of Army Staff General Asim launched the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). The primary focus of the SIFC will be on investment and privatization, initially targeting five areas: Defense, Agriculture, Minerals, Information Technology and Telecommunication, and Energy. The Pakistan Military has been given key prominence in SIFC, which is represented by both civilian and army personnel. The SIFC will serve as a ‘single window’ for multi-domain cooperation with Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates  as well as China, aiming to facilitate investment and create an enabling policy environment. According to the outgoing Prime Minister, Pakistan needs political stability to attract investment as an unstable environment discourages investment. Pakistan could attract investment of $40 to $50 billion in the coming years and it could make food exports to the gulf countries presently importing food products worth $40 billion from else where; in addition, the government hopes that through these investments in agriculture there would also add to four million more jobs.

The Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir assured Pakistan Army’s full cooperation in overseeing the new SIFC as well as other investment ventures. Hence, the major political upheaval in the country in the past few months has culminated in a soft coup in the country, where all facilities facilitating trade and investment will be overseen by the military, to ensure political stability in the country.

According to the Minister of State for Petroleum Dr Musadiq Malik, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are taking keen interest in Pakistani information technology, agriculture and mining sectors. The Saudi government plans to provide 24 billion dollars for investment purposes, while UAE has reportedly allocated 22 billion dollars funds for exploring opportunities in three sectors of Pakistan. Similar information was shared by the Secretary, Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) Jameel Ahmed Qureshi while briefing the National Assembly Standing Committee on Board of Investment (BoI). According to him, Saudi Arabia would like to invest in the mineral sector, while Qatar and UAE are interested in investing in agriculture. Chinese corporations are interested in investing in seed and other sectors.

In addition, a Green Initiative has been launched based on a Land Information and Management System, Center of Excellence ((LIMS-CoE) with joint ventures with multinational companies, to enhance modern agro-farming utilizing over nine million hectares of uncultivated state land. Saudi Arabia has provided an initial $500 million investment to set up a high efficiency irrigation system. There is a belief that there will be an influx of investments from the Gulf countries.

It’s also expected that a high-level Iranian delegation will be visiting shortly to discuss the possibility of exploring investment projects under a trilateral arrangement between Pakistan, China and Iran. Earlier this month, the Army Chief General Syed Asim Munir had also visited Iran.

It is clear that investment in Pakistan has come at a cost. Saudi Arabia, UAE and China have provided Pakistan with much needed dollars to meet IMF conditionalities. According to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Pakistan received $2 billion in financial support from Saudi Arabia, and $1 billion from UAE, shortly before the IMF’s board was expected to give final approval for a much needed $3 billion bailout to the Pakistani economy. Saudi Arabia has deposited the funds with the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) boosting foreign exchange reserves, which stood at around $9.7 billion. Similarly, China has rolled over $2.4 billion in loans to Pakistan for two years that were up for repayment in FY24 and FY25. Under the nine-month arrangement, Pakistan will receive about $1.1billion upfront and the IMF will stagger disbursements of the rest.

The government has announced that the annual inflation surpassed its budgetary target and remained at 29.18 per cent for 2022-23 owing to the unprecedented rupee depreciation, increase in domestic taxes and rising global commodity prices. There is no doubt that the resounding inflation is based on the escalating debt due to neo-colonial, neo liberal policies. At the same time, the elite culture of impunity has led to extreme malfunction of all productive systems in the country. Lack of accountability to the people is the base for the current diabolical situation. The impact on the people, especially the working class, the small and landless farmers, workers of all categories including the urban poor is tragic. People are forced to pay utility bills, as if they are not paid supply is cut-off. Ultimately, it is only food and health needs that are neglected as there is no other recourse.

The active role of foreign donors in food and agriculture is quite apparent. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has announced launching of new projects with the technological assistance of Korea Programme on International Agriculture (KOPIA), South Korea to enhance production of various crops.  It should be noted that the venture is not only for seeds but also include breed improvement through the implementation of efficient artificial insemination services, and dissemination of improved technology for fodder production.  The attention on seed and livestock breeding are of major concern, as work on genetically modified organisms continues globally. Recently scientists have genetically engineered female fruit flies that can have offspring without needing a male, marking first time “virgin birth” induced in an animal. The offspring of the flies were also able to give birth without mating, showing that the trait could be passed down generations. Such irreversible biological intervention in biodiversity can end in extreme catastrophe not to mention exacerbating environmental pollution. Pakistan, with its high dependency on foreign donors will find itself being pressurized to accept investment measures that could result in environmental and food security disasters, that is already highly at risk through the country’s vulnerability to climate crisis.

Research on wheat seeds has resulted in the release of bio-fortified wheat varieties with higher zinc context. The expectation is that the wide-scale cultivation of these seeds on nearly 3.25 million hectares of land will help to mitigate malnutrition. The research has been assisted by funding support from various donors including USAID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom and the Pakistan government. The stated context of these new trade liberalization ventures is to increase food and agriculture input for domestic markets, and creating exportable surplus for the Gulf states and China However, there is no guarantee that the food security of the masses will be looked after first. Currently, according to the World Food Programme, 37 percent of Pakistanis are food-insecure and one-fifth of them are facing a severe food crisis. The remedy proposed by the government is to launch the “National Multisectoral Nutrition to Reduce Stunting and other forms of Malnutrition” worth PKR 8.5 billion under the Pakistan Nutrition Initiatives (PANI). This multisectoral programme is for highly-burdened stunted, calamity-hit and less privileged districts, including 12 districts in Balochistan, 10 in Sindh, five in Gilgit-Baltistan, and two each in Punjab and Azad Kashmir. The context is to reduce stunting and other forms of malnutrition with a multisectoral approach. As part of the project, micronutrients and nutritional supplements, Ready-to-Use Therapeutic foods are to be provided to treat stunting and wasting.

Food fortification projects are pushed by mostly G-7 countries such as the US, UK, Germany whose multinational corporations such as Nestle, Keloggs, and others hold a monopoly over food fortified products, globally. This is indeed capitalist plunder using people’s misery, hunger and poverty to extract money. All this in face of an ever-increasing mountain of debt in the country.

The result of allowing the corporate world to dominate over food and agriculture is more than visible. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report of the UN, world hunger stopped rising in 2022 after growing for seven years but remains above pre-pandemic levels and far off track to be eradicated by 2030, Between 691 million and 783 million people faced hunger last year, and the proportion of people facing chronic hunger rose from 7.9 percent of the world population in 2019 — before the pandemic — to 9.2 percent in 2022. The report also states that about 2.4 billion people — three out of 10 people on the planet — suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2022.

One of course one is left to ponder that if indeed malnutrition is a major concern of the governments, then why is equitable land distribution not being considered which would go a long way in eliminating structural causes of inequality in society. At the same time, land is being freely allocated to the military for trade and investment measures. The government is fully prepared to advance modern corporate farming initiatives and facilitate the army’s role in agriculture is clear from a judgement of a Lahore High Court division two-judge bench. It had been reported last month that a single judge bench had ruled against handing over 45,000 acres of land in three districts of Punjab to the army on a 20-year lease for Corporate Agriculture Farming (CAF) under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This judgement has been struck down, with a statement that the decision by the interim government of Punjab was beyond the mandate of both the caretaker and the military. A two-judge bench has suspended the single bench’s decision and has issued notices to the respondents for a date to be fixed later by the office. So, though no steps are being taken by the state to initiate any form of land distribution among small and landless farmers in the country, corporate farming as well as induction of other actors in food and agriculture production is being promoted.

Stark anti-people, anti-farmer measures have been the base for overriding people’s rights, and pushing them into an abyss of hunger and poverty. To make matters worse, there is acute state negligence in safeguarding public resources. It has been reported that over 7,000 wheat bags were found filled only with straws and loose earth at a government warehouse in Khairpur, Sindh.

Corporate sector has expressed interest in agriculture related industrial raw material of textile industry and agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sindh Agriculture University (SAU) on different projects especially on quality production of cotton, banana fiber and banana powder. A delegation of the country’s popular Al-Karam Textiles and other industrial enterprises visited Sindh Agriculture University and discussed issues of mutual interest. The SAU university is researching the quality seed of various cotton commodities, as well as on liquid and composite fertilizer technology from banana fiber and banana residues.

At the same time, the condition of agriculture land is also deteriorating – according to the Punjab State of Environment Report 2022, released by the Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab, about 6.3 million hectares of land in Pakistan is salt affected and over half of this lies in the Canal Command Area, with approximate annual loss of over $2,326 million in the cotton-wheat, rice-wheat, and mixed cropping regions of Punjab. These statistics point to not only economic and health cost to society as a whole but also to the environmental impact on biodiversity and ecological systems. Further, industrial wastewater treatment plants in Punjab are not performing up to mark, resulting in pollution of aquatic ecosystems.

On one hand there is high level of water logging and salinity being reported, and on the other there is also acute water shortages being reported in Shahdadkot, Warah, Nasirabad, Sujawal Junejo and in other parts across upper Sindh, with protests being held to demand release of allocated water share in these areas where the paddy crop is being impacted by not only water shortage but escalating inflation impacting seed and fuel prices.

While there seems to be no dearth of policies and strategies to modernize agriculture, there is also a commitment by the state not to impose new taxes on agriculture, construction and real estate sectors. This is indeed highly discriminatory as the common man, the salaried class have been lashed again and again by high prices, especially the constant increase in fuel prices which accelerates prices for essential commodities. A joint venture of Chinese and Pakistani engineering companies constructing Mohmand Dam has challenged imposition of advance taxes on them; while corporations are capable of challenging imposition of income tax on them, the masses are faced with high energy bills which they have no recourse but to pay or lose access to electricity and gas, increasing transport and housing cost and inadequate food intake.

The corporate world continues to fleece small farmers. An inquiry committee of the Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) has found urea manufacturers guilty of price fixing and recommended proceedings against urea manufacturers and Fertiliser Manufacturers of Pakistan Advisory Council (FMPAC). Similarly, ginners are refusing to buy cotton from farmers based on prices mandated by the government.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) Pakistan’s exports and imports have declined by 12.71 percent, and 31 percent, respectively from last year. There has been a decline in mango exports. According to the All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters, Importers and Merchants Association (PFVA), the decrease in mango exports was a new SOP (standard operating procedure) requiring mandatory hot water treatment (HWT) of mangoes from approved plants only. This has resulted in closure of a vast majority of such plants, leading to further job loss among the plant workers.

With respect to seafood exports, Pakistan has achieved its highest mark of $496 million – however, the gains are also a manifestation of the devaluation of Pakistan rupee. The US continues to ban shrimp export because of non-compliance with Turtle Excluder Device (TED) regulations. The ban has lasted six years and has negatively impacted on the seafood industry. Similarly, the EU also has a partial ban on seafood exports from Pakistan. It is interesting that with so much emphasis on trade liberalization, the country continues to face restrictions on its trading commodities by first world nations using technical barriers to trade for protecting their markets, and the local produce of their own producers.

The government has decided to hand over the bulk and general cargo terminal at Karachi Port’s East Wharf to Abu Dhabi Ports through a government-to-government deal under the Inter-Governmental Commercial Transaction Act, 2022. It has been reported that the Karachi Port Trust has already handed over the control of container terminal to AD Ports of UAE for 50 years after negotiations for an upfront $50 million price for existing fixed infrastructure and a $102 million investment in five years for infrastructure development, $18 million royalty and an annual rent of PKR1, 100 per square metre ­— just PKR7 higher than for previous operators of container terminal. According to news reports, these prices were fixed without any independent assessment.

Not only Karachi port, but the operations of Islamabad International Airport have also been outsourced.  The Minister for Aviation Khawaja Saad Rafique has informed the National Assembly that Islamabad International Airport would be outsourced for 15 years within three to four months. According to Mr Rafique outsourcing will have no impact on employees, and the navigational services and runway operations will not be outsourced, with Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) continue providing its services. Islamabad outsourcing is said to be first, and Lahore and Karachi airports will be contracted, later. Further, the privatization of the national flag carrier – Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is also on the books. It has been reported that the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) is acting as the Financial Advisor for airports outsourcing.

According to reports, UAE, Qatar, Turkey, China and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have expressed special interest in outsourcing of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore airports. Sources claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Bin Laden group is making efforts to take on airports outsourcing while Qatar government has shown more interest in taking over the cargo sector of the airports.

At the same time, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal has stated that Pakistan has great advantage in low cost of labor, an element which attracted investment in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. These statements were in context to the construction of Special Economic Zones under CPEC. According to the minister, Chinese companies intend to start business in Pakistan and had invested in the Gwadar Free Zone.

The government narrative on privatization schemes is that state-owned enterprises are ‘bleeding the economy’. The remedy is that since the Gulf countries are willing to invest in agriculture and modern machinery, public assets should handed over to investors. The government officials of a government which are to leave office in just a matter of weeks have basically put our ports, airports and food security in bondage, while selling ‘cheap labor’ as an advantage. Government officials enjoy free housing, electricity, transport, vehicle but have forced not only intense poverty, joblessness and hunger on the masses, but have also leasing country’s assets to meet a debt which was based on one hand, neo-colonial principals and reforms, and  on the other hand maintaining a corrupt elite power in the country. No doubt, these new developments do not speak well for the people’s rights especially farmers rights as a number of draconian laws were passed in quick succession just before Interim government took over the running of the country.

The situation of the people, whether in urban or rural settings is deplorable. A marker could also be the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Livability Index 2023. EIU has ranked Karachi 169th out of a total of 173 cities, among the top five ‘least livable’ urban centers in the world. The index focuses on the post-Covid recovery of cities across the world, and rates living conditions based on five categories — stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Similar issues are reported for Lahore. According to a WHO report, air pollution much above stated limits have resulted in the loss of 5.3 and 4.8 years of life expectancy from 1998-2016 among populations of Lahore and Faisalabad cities, respectively.

Pakistan is ranked third among the top 10 countries with the largest number of maternal deaths, neonatal mortality and stillbirths in 2020. The remedies provided by our government are quite abysmal; for instance, the government of Sindh has announced the issuance of free-of-cost health cards up to PKR 0.5 million for low-income people. It should be noted that the health and environment conditions of the Sindh, especially Karachi leads to oft-happening mishaps – the latest has been outbreak of gastroenteritis in Malir, Karachi. Water shortage, polluted water supply, as well as rising temperatures due to climate change exacerbate environmental and health issues.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) has announced $66 million in funding to support the government of Pakistan’s efforts to reduce the twin climate impacts of flooding and drought. The seven-year project titled Recharge Pakistan: Building Pakistan’s Resilience to Climate Change through Ecosystem-Based Adaptation for Integrated Flood Risk Management is the largest investment at the national level to date in an ecosystem-based approach to flood and water resources management. The investment is meant to improve the ‘resilience’ of some of the country’s most vulnerable communities affected by climate change, including catastrophic flooding.

Quite interestingly, in addition to the GCF funding, the project is supported through a collective $12 million investment and technical support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Coca-Cola Foundation and WWF-Pakistan.

Given that the partners include a notorious multinational corporation that is responsible for spreading plastic pollution, supported by the most imperialist G-7 state, the project can hardly be considered promising; the greed for profits and markets remain the ultimate aim of the corporate sector and cannot be trusted to yield any benefit to the people.

One needs to also look at the intense carbon footprint left by one of the biggest corporate sectors, the global shipping network. Both the maritime and aviation sector have remained out of the Paris Agreement in terms of cutting down carbon emissions. To make matters worse, militaries account for 5.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and they are not bound by international climate agreements.

So, while the UN chief Antonio Guterres has stated “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived,” the corporate sector and military might of imperialist countries continue to inflict havoc on the planet. This is much in evidence not only in Pakistan but across Asia, as well as Europe and other parts of the globe.

The people across the country have been protesting against the various atrocities faced by them through embedded structures of injustice and inequality, imposed by the dual character of a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society.

The high prices of energy, as well as inadequate services supplied through a very hard summer, made unbearable through the climate crisis, resulted in many protests across the nation, from Peshawar to Karachi. In Lyari, Karachi people’s protest was met with police using tear gas and baton charge. The high inflation, rising prices and further infliction of taxes was another reason for people to take to the streets, including salaried working class who came with a banner “Save the Salaried Class.” Protests were also held by cotton farmers who were not being paid their due as set by the government.

In Balochistan, the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal) carried out a province-wide strike against the worsening law and order situation in particular areas of Khuzdar district. Another protest in Balochistan was organized by relatives of missing persons, and traffic remained suspended on N-25 highway between two cities Quetta and Karachi

A rally was organized by the Karachi Bachao Tehreek comprised thousands of demolition affectees (including women, children, the elderly and the disabled,) who had been forcibly evicted from their quarters next to various sewage lines. Their demands included immediate resettlement and rehabilitation.

Various group of government employees also protested in various parts of the country for either non-payment of their salaries or demanding increase in salaries.

It is clear that the impact of neoliberalism is being felt deeply by the people from various walks of life, of course the working class and peasantry bearing the deepest impact. As the abject neglect of the people rises, the flaunting of elite culture is playing out in mass riots and protests. The ultimate result of vastly exploitative and oppressive policies does not bode well for the people or the planet.

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