Agriculture and livestock: a way towards economic independence?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statements asking people to invest in livestock farming and raise heifers and chickens have been mocked by the extremely hostile and bitter opposition. This has been a running joke in intellectual and journalistic circles without anyone actually commenting on the merits and demerits of the idea itself. This was expected since culturally, the idea that certain ways of making money, including agricultural and livestock farming, are less respectable than others, i.e. finding a corporate job or just about any job has been ingrained in our minds. Bus naukri chahiye. (We just need a job). 


The ghost of our colonial past is still haunting us and one can’t help but wonder how long we will be the victims of it. Getting a university degree and sending out thousands of resumes is considered the ideal pathway for the youth. They end up getting stuck in the nine-to-five grind of entry-level jobs where their days typically start with packing their lunch, riding their motor-bike to the back alleys of II Chundrigardh Road, park near a dumpster, where they pull out a tight misaligned noose for their neck, also called a tie. They then spend the rest of their day in a cramped office on the 11th floor of a building located on a noisy street with a bleak outlook on life and hardly any motivation to get out of the rut. This is all they aspire to be, especially because of the promise of corporate jobs and steady income that comes with them. The fact is working for someone else can never be as rewarding as working for your own self.


Due to the stigma associated with agriculture and livestock farming and the alluring dreams of a steady income and being a “babu”, educated children of farmers prefer to move to cities and find other jobs rather than focusing on agriculture. This is one of the reasons why agriculture always lags. Examples of educated and driven individuals entering agriculture are very few. While I understand that not everyone has the capacity or acuity for being an entrepreneur, encouraging livestock farming amongst the masses and introducing proper policy has the potential to help alleviate poverty and lead to economic growth in Pakistan. 


The percentage of people living under poverty in Pakistan is predicted to jump over 40% in the near future. In a densely populated country, that is poorly governed and ruled by incompetence, people are on their own to fix their wretched lives. Yet, they pay too much heed to empty slogans made at every regime change, such as the promise of creating millions of jobs. The whole nation wants to work for someone else, and when they are told they can turn their lives around by setting up businesses, not only does it disappoint the populace; it also triggers the already vitriolic intelligentsia. 


As our population explodes, our absolute number of those living in extreme poverty also grows significantly. The diet in our country is severely deficient in both quality and quantity. Over the past couple of decades, poultry has been a great source of protein in the diet of Pakistanis at a reasonable and affordable rate. Yet, people come up with unique ways of discrediting and even labelling poultry as dangerous to health and spread fear on social media. The poultry sector did try to counter those suspicions, which were based on ignorance to some extent. It is vital to educate the masses that livestock provides food security and transforms vegetation, crop residues, by-products of food processing and organic waste into human food of high nutritional value. 


Small and household farms are where the state needs to focus as generally they produce more than half to three-quarters of total livestock production. In contrast, state-level policies have been mostly directed towards corporate or enterprise-level livestock farming. Livestock ownership is usually more prevalent and equitable than landholding. Household-level flock/herd size is also smaller, however, it provides more income to rural households, either by ownership or through provision of employment as labour. Erratic weather in Pakistan causes mainstream agriculture to depend on weather conditions, and crop sizes vary drastically based of the same. Such vulnerability is not observed in livestock, which is not dependent on weather conditions nor does it have a set harvest season. It also enhances the productivity and income of regular farming households, adding stability and predictability in income.  


If the current regime is serious in its efforts, one major step they can take is to engage women in household-level livestock farming. Women are traditionally more involved in livestock, from feeding, watering and milking the animals. Last year, under the EhsaasAmdan programme, the government announced that women will be given some animals to help them generate income for the poorest sectors of society.  The state also needs to ensure that women are trained and gain valuable experience in livestock farming to support their families better and be less reliant on male members of the family. In the absence of a male head, a family often faces significant poverty with no recourse when women are not empowered and trained to take the lead or have no expertise in the management of farming or livestock. Involving women actively in this sector will prove to be beneficial in the long run. 


The promise of aikcrorenaukriyan (one million jobs) is just a pipe dream, and the nation just jumped blindly on the bandwagon which says a lot about our mindset. However, the prime minister’s request of small-scale livestock ownership should be looked into. Economic growth at a rapid rate is only possible when the poor participate in economic activities instead of only relying on handouts from the state. The livestock sector must be stimulated and helped; household-level small-scale farmers should be given prime importance, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. As our population is shifting from rural to urban settings, this demographic change is creating a lot of demand for livestock products, which can be met by the semi-urban population. The rural population living in proximity to big cities can benefit immensely from this increasing demand. The state needs to get out of conventional models and past approaches that almost always fail and factor in our population’s leanings and specific quirks and how local markets behave and make policies that adapt to local conditions. Livestock farming is an excellent way of poverty reduction if done right, leading to sustainable economic growth.