The project is a welcome initiative, but it lacks in practical details and is mostly couched in phrases and language that reflects the ambition of the initiators, without presenting any precise detail on its implementation. Some of the areas that need clarification include financing, water management, farm labor, land utilization and its ownership.
The project has been established in the auspices of the Director General Strategic Projects, by the Adjutant General Branch GHQ and aims at ensuring food security for the country and enhancing agricultural export using “state-of-the-art innovative technologies.” The project promises to digitize the agriculture sector, providing real-time information about soil, crops, weather, water resources and pest monitoring through remote sensing and geospatial technologies.
Egypt launched a similar project in 1997 to turn its Western desert into agricultural fields, to enhance its food security, export its surplus to the Gulf Countries, and settle a quarter of its population from the delta to upper Egypt. After twenty-five years, the project has failed to achieve any of its lofty objectives. There is reason to be apprehensive about Pakistan’s new bold initiative because of the similarities in the two projects.
Pakistan’s LIMS and Egypt’s Toshka both are similar in the following aspects: investment coming from oil rich and food insecure Gulf countries, ability to tap enough water to turn wasteland into green fields, creating big job opportunities, self-sufficiency in food, and producing enough cash crops to export and earn foreign exchange. In both countries, the project was initiated and implemented by the military; an organization not best equipped to run for-profit businesses or to plough fields.
Egypt failed to achieve its main objectives. The country remains food insecure and the biggest importer of wheat. Water availability was overestimated, even under the best circumstances; it was severely undermined with the construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the upstream White Nile in Ethiopia. The two-hundred-meter-wide Sheikh Zayed Canal was supposed to be 850km long; it was only 60km in 2022. High technology agriculture depends on electricity production and supply to be efficient, and Egypt could not provide enough of it. The only major achievement so far has been the Mubarak Pumping Station that lifts water from Lake Nasser to the canal. The project envisioned to cultivate 600,000 acres in the first phase, had only 30,000 acres under cultivation by 2022. The Saudi and the Emirati investors withdrew once the project failed to take off. The Sisi regime restarted the project last year and its outcome is still awaited.
The international market is highly competitive in the agriculture business. Indian agricultural exports touched $50 billion in 2022, with the private sector playing an important role.
Can an Army general trained in the art of warfare manage a vast agricultural empire? And that too in addition to his full-time professional duties?
The Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic disrupted supply chains and created opportunities for new suppliers of agricultural produce. China and the Gulf countries are looking for dependable supply chain alternatives, but there is no quick fix to the problem of finding substitutes. Will Pakistan be able to compete in price and quality in the world market under the LIMS as a dependable producer and supplier of fruit, vegetables, meat, and wheat? That is the biggest question to which there is no answer in the material made available in the public domain.
LIMS will encourage a form of corporate farming where small landowners, if they exist at all, have little freedom of choice but to produce the specified commodities of a given standard, to be sold at a pre-determined price. This method of farming is capital and energy intensive, and heavily dependent on research and development. It is spread over a vast area, heavily mechanized, uses best available high yielding crops, chemical fertilizers. LIMS appears to be fully owned and managed by the Pakistan Army under the Adjutant-General Branch, in the GHQ. Can an Army general trained in the art of warfare manage a vast agricultural empire? And that too in addition to his full-time professional duties?
At what stage will foreign investors come in? Will they provide funding for the construction of dams, canals, and other infrastructure? If yes, it would prolong the project’s gestation period and delay return on their investments, leading to higher interest rates or demand for lower commodity prices when the produce becomes available. The Gulf countries didn’t have a good experience with Egypt’s Toshka project. They would probably demand tougher compliance standards to make a multi-million dollars investment.
The project claims to ensure irrigation water supply through the construction of check dams to tap flash floods and then pump it to the wastelands through a network of canals. Flash floods are not a reliable source of water supply; especially with climate change that makes weather patterns unpredictable. There is hardly any subsoil water in those areas. India is building dams upstream, reducing water supply to Pakistan. India is determined to violate the Indus Treaty obligations and deprive Pakistan of its due water share.
High technology farming is inevitably energy intensive. Does the project visualize the supply of electricity to run the project at a competitive rate? The current level of electricity price or imported oil is not cost efficient.
There is nothing in the available material to indicate how the LIMS is going to do the research and development part.
Corporate farming also needs steady and competitive research and development (R&D) to develop high yield varieties of crops and to modify imported seeds to acclimatize to the new soil. We saw this during the 1960s in the development of wheat seed from 591 to Maxi to Maxi-Paki; each giving a higher yield than the preceding one, and at the same time catering to the taste of the consumer.
Will LIMS establish its own R&D? It is an expensive undertaking, to say the least. Or will they make use of research facilities at the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) Islamabad, and Agricultural University Faisalabad? Both these organizations are underfunded and have suffered horrifying brain drain over the years. In any case, the project needs long-term financial investments, a scientific base and managerial skills. There is nothing in the available material to indicate how the LIMS is going to do the research and development part.
Mechanized farming cannot work without an efficient human workforce to operate machinery, and to pluck, store, and transport fruits, vegetables, wheat etc. Under the Canal Colony Project in the early 20th century, farmers were given land ownership and perennial water supply through Upper Bari and Lower Bari Doab canals. What incentives will farm workers have to work on the LIMS farms? There will be a need for a large number of workers to run the farms efficiently. Will they be daily wage earners? Will they be paid enough to support their families? Will these workers be allowed to live on the farmland? Will they own their homes? What incentives will these workers have to move from the settled areas to the newly cultivated wasteland?
These are some of the questions that need to be looked into carefully before embarking upon such an ambitious project.