Rapid urbanisation threatens country’s agriculture heartland

MULTAN-Agriculture, the backbone of Pakistan’s economy, is facing a multitude of challenges, and one of the most pressing issues is the unchecked development of residential societies on fertile land.
This ominous trend not only jeopardizes food security but also diminishes agricultural productivity, casting a shadow over the livelihoods of millions. Roughly 68% of Pakistan’s population residing in rural areas is directly or indirectly dependent on the agriculture sector. This sector contributes nearly 20% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with more than 60% of its produce being exported.
However, Pakistan grapples with a crisis of low agricultural productivity. Despite sharing similar climatic conditions with neighboring countries, our average crop yields fall significantly short. For instance, in Punjab, Pakistan’s breadbasket, the average wheat yield per acre is approximately 31 maunds, while just across the border neighourly Punjab, it soars to about 45 maunds. Even within our own borders, disparities are stark. Progressive farmers are achieving 50-70 percent higher yields compared to their peers. According to the South Punjab Agriculture Sub-Secretariat, a forward-thinking mango grower can harvest 250 maunds of mangoes per acre, whereas others manage only 162 maunds per acre.
Pakistan’s agriculture sector grapples with a myriad of challenges, including poor seed quality, expensive inputs, imbalanced fertilizer use, excessive pesticide application, soil degradation, erosion, rapid urbanization with the establishment of housing societies on fertile land near cities, inadequate canal water distribution, limited access to credit, lack of inter-cropping, deficiencies in agricultural advisory services, ineffective regulatory oversight, insufficient focus on high-value crops, lack of support pricing for various crops, low mechanization levels, convoluted subsidy systems, the absence of cluster or corporate farming initiatives, outdated research methodologies, and inefficiencies in various agricultural departments. Among these pressing issues, the encroachment of housing societies on arable land stands out as a grave concern. Dr Asif Ali, Vice Chancellor (VC) of Muhammad Nawaz Sharif University of Agriculture, warned, “Fertile land is being converted into housing units, requiring extensive efforts and investments to restore soil fertility.” He suggested that the government should reconsider its policies, focusing on the development of new cities rather than residential societies on valuable farmland. “Such a move aligns with both sustainable development principles and Islamic teachings, which advocate the establishment of new cities,” he argued. Dr Asif also pointed out, “The encroachment of housing societies on fertile land not only compromises biodiversity and the existing landscape but also poses a significant threat to food security.” He called for thorough site assessments, ecological balance preservation, and the promotion of fruit tree planting in newly planned cities. Vertical construction trends should also be encouraged to optimize land use. “Progressive farmer Laique Shiekhana echoes these concerns, emphasizing that mango orchards, once a natural beauty of the Multan district, have been erased from thousands of acres in South Punjab due to urban expansion.” He advocated strict bans on housing societies on fertile land, given the formidable challenges involved in preparing and maintaining such land for agriculture. Mian Ishnaaq Watto, another progressive farmer, calls for immediate action to curb the conversion of fertile land into residential areas. He pointed out, “Many housing societies are encroaching upon areas traditionally used for vegetable cultivation, further threatening the agricultural sector’s productivity.”

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