An old dream of Punjab’s agriculture bureaucracy came true last week when Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Kissan Card Scheme. For the last decade, the department had been pleading for such an all-encompassing scheme and with justification.

In the last decade, realising agriculture’s potential the provincial government started several development schemes and launched many subsidy plans. The department registered farmers for mechanisation schemes, developing data for interest-free loan disbursement and for transferring fertiliser subsidy. In all, 3.5 million farmers had to be under one system — banks registered cards for transferring loans, subsidies and tracking the entire farming activity of those farmers.

The department says that the card — with the entire land record, biometrics as per the National Database & Registration Authority’s (Nadra) data, the official transfer of loans and subsidy linked to it and, most importantly, credit history — would establish a farmer as an independent and credible banking customer; something which has not happened in the last seven decades.

The officials also insist that the card would bring transparency to the system. After all, interest-free loans (Rs5 billion during this Kharif alone) would be channelled through it. Subsidy on all seeds — cotton, wheat, rice, sunflower and canola — would run through it and so would fertiliser funds. The card is going to link the farmer directly to the banking channels, taking the department out and reducing at least the allegations of corruption in the system.

The Kissan Card would establish farmers as credible banking customer
— something which has not happened in the last seven decades

To top it all, the card would also be a conduit for the recently launched crop insurance — linking insurance companies directly to farmers. Last, but not least, payments for procurement (wheat or any other commodity) can also be linked to this card by taking human interaction out of it.

The card could also ensure traceability in the system. After all, subsidy on seeds and fertiliser would be disbursed through this card — recording crops and inputs data. It also means that the department would be able to track the kind of inputs a farmer required and used — strengthening its advisory service through a mobile application that the farmer would hold by default. It would also ensure the quality of seed and fertiliser because both would be coming from a registered agent, who could subsequently be held responsible for any mishap because his sale would be on the card record.

The department is also excited about other benefits that the farmers can accrue. The department will potentially be throwing 3.5m new customers in the banking sector with recorded and verified data. It will enable the banking sector to offer targeted benefits to farmers, as it does to its urban customers. It is a win-win for everyone — farmers, department, government and the banking sector.

However, detractors expressed apprehensions. They believe that the unaddressed areas are too many to create the kind of zest being generated around the effort. The whole initiative is information technology-based but no one seems to realise the gigantic effort needed for syncing the departmental data with those of provincial Land Record and Management and Information System, Nadra, over 30,000 branchless banking outlets in low-tech rural areas and the banking agent.

The whole initiative is IT-based but no one seems to realise the gigantic effort needed for syncing departmental data with provincial land records, Nadra and over 30,000 branchless banking outlets in low-tech rural areas

The task is too big to be left to a severely under-resourced (by both personnel and money) Punjab Information Technology Board. Besides, it is not a one-time activity; it has to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has to include a complaint addressing system as well. Imagine if five per cent of 3.5m farmers have a problem with the system during stress hours, where would the system, its credibility and utility end up?

It is not basic data entry, but the Punjab government has to develop different dashboards for different schemes as well. The province is currently running 12 subsidy schemes, e-credit schemes and crop insurance. They all need parallel, working, healthy systems because money has to flow through them all the time to the entire customer base.

Assessing banking base in rural areas and utility of branchless banking outlets (established in small stores) is an entirely different subject.

The entire system is being built on shaky technological grounds, critics say.

For them, the current official zeal generates a sense of déjà vu — “at the beginning of every such scheme, that is how the officials concerned behave,” experts insist. Within a year the scheme is forgotten, criticised and then investigated for failure or corruption. One wishes hopes and prays that this one does not take the same route.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 17th, 2021

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