PUNJAB may reap a better gram harvest this year as early clues suggest. It should be good news for farmers because last year, they suffered an estimated cumulative loss of Rs28 billion in five districts owing to exceptional fall in per acre yield.
Things look better this year as Punjab has been able to sow the crop on 2.26 million acres to achieve a target of 500,000 tonnes for the year. It is almost the same acreage that the province had been achieving for the last many years, but it has been yield that not been as constant as acreage.
The yield had varied from 823,000 tonnes to a meagre 250,000 during the last six years. Last year, the crop had a disastrous season, when production fell to a paltry 250,000 tonnes — less than one-third of what the province had harvested in 2006-07 when total output touched a substantial 823,000 tonnes.
The weather fluctuations determine the yield per acre, and relatively favourable weather has generated optimism among farmers. Apart from good acreage, the October rains have helped crop germinate at normal pace. By the time frost hit the area in late December, the plants had good moisture content and strength to withstand the impact of low temperatures.
A journey through the gram area — Bhakkar, Jhang, Mianwali, Khushab and Layyah — shows that frost has not burnt the plant like last year, even on the dunes where it is always more vulnerable. It is still green. Water quickly runs away from dune tops when it rains and gathers on the flat soil below; the crop is relatively weaker on that top soil. This year, it is relatively better even on those dunes.
Two factors play a decisive role in final yield: crop on the dunes, commonly known as tiba in local vernacular, and weather. The crop on dunes becomes a key factor as they host almost 40 per cent of plants. Punjab produces 87 per cent crop, and 96 of it is sown in the rain-fed (barani) areas. It’s entirely dependent on the atmospheric moisture. What makes moisture even more important is the type of soil, which is grossly un-even in all five gram districts.
Almost 40 per cent of soil comprises raised dunes and 60 per cent flat soil. If crop on the dunes performs better, the province normally has good crop, as it had in 2008-09. Things seem better there so far.
If the province receives some rains during January, as the metrological officials forecast and the cycle has already started in some parts of Punjab, the chances of crop would brighten up further. If it has normal rains in February as well, the crop should improve substantially for April harvest. Since the gram crop is 100 per cent moisture driven, it needs frequent rains even if intensity is low. So, January and February rains would remain crucial.
The gram is important for the country, especially for the poor, for many reasons. Known as the poor man’s protein, it contains 22 per cent protein, 63 per cent carbohydrates, 46 per cent starch, five per cent fats, seven per cent fibre and six per cent sugar — making it the only source of wholesome diet for the poor, especially urban.
That is precisely why, it is the second largest Rabi crop after wheat. Even otherwise, gram falls fifth on the national list after wheat (22 million acres), cotton (eight million acres), rice (six million acres) and maize (three million acres). On average, it is sown on 2.7 million acres, which is more than the much celebrated and even more politicised cane crop, which covers only 2.2 million acres.
All these factors should make gram a priority crop for Punjab planners. But in the absence of any planning and investment on it, the only thing they can do is explain failure — list all weather vagaries and their impact on the final production figures. In case of success, they are, however, quick to claim credit. This kind of attitude leaves the crop entirely dependent on the behaviour of Mother Nature.
Punjab needs to plan and invest in the crop as the failure of the crop adds heavily to the poverty in the area. Incidentally, the five gram districts are the poorest and the most under-developed areas of the province.
The subsoil water is brackish and there is no irrigation system. This is despite the fact that the area has countless potential sites for small dams that, if built and properly used, can easily provide at least one crucial watering to the crop. The Chinese model of mobile irrigation units can also serve the area.
What makes investment in crop doubly important is the fact that its per acre yield has actually gone down in the last six decades. At the time of independence, per acre yield was over six maunds per acre, which has now dipped down to less than five. It is because the crop seed is old and has lost vigour. The crop is now vulnerable to almost all kinds of pest attacks, taxing the yield heavily. If production improves because of weather, prices dip, and because there is no support from the government, farmers suffer. If production goes down, the farmers are left alone to take the hit. According to farmers’ estimates, they suffered a cumulative loss of Rs28 billion last year because of fall in production, which makes more than Rs5.5 billion per district.
The Punjab government needs to move, plan the crop on long-term basis and also commit resources for it. It should help farmers remove operational problems. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming an importer of gram, which it has so far escaped for more than 60 years.