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Cotton belt under distress

November 02, 2015


THOUSANDS of cotton producers in south Punjab are battling for survival as their crop has shrivelled this season to a fraction of their average harvest in recent years because of “changing climate conditions, poor quality seed, depressed global commodity prices and a severe pest attack” in some districts.

“The per-acre production of cotton in our district has fallen from 35-45 maunds to 3-4 maunds,” says Ansar R. Khan, a grower from Shuja Abad. “The crop’s size had been shrinking for the past couple of years. It has bottomed this year because of a combination of (the above-mentioned) factors.”

Some fear that a majority of cotton producers, especially smallholders, from some districts of Punjab’s cotton belt — Khanewal, Lodhran, Bahawalpur, Multan, Muzaffargarh etc — will be compelled to borrow more money from middlemen at heavy interest rates to put food on their tables and sow wheat this year.

“After rice growers from central Punjab, it is now the cotton farmers’ turn to suffer huge losses and run up colossal debts, or sell their cattle herd to survive the losses and pay back their loans,” says Ijaz Ahmed Rao, a cotton grower from Karor Paka, near Lodhran.

“The crop losses are widespread but patchy,” says Ijaz Ahmed Rao, a cotton grower from Karor Paka, near Lodhran

Cotton accounts for 8.2pc value-addition in agriculture and contributes about 3.2pc to GDP, with over 55pc of the country’s export earnings and millions of rural and urban livelihoods and jobs dependent upon the crop.

“Many may abandon cotton farming in the future because they are no longer able to recover their expense on production as they face a double whammy of surging costs of inputs and plummeting global cotton prices,” Ijaz went on.

The average per-acre production cost fluctuates between Rs35,000 and Rs50,000, depending on soil and weather conditions, use of chemicals, severity of pest attacks etc.

The decline of 400,000-450,000 acres in the area under cotton cultivation in Punjab this year has already obliged the government to revise its original production estimates by 0.7m bales to 9.3m bales.

The exact losses in the large part

of the cotton belt in Punjab are not easy to estimate. But growers and a

research-based commodity service provider in Karachi insist that “the crop’s actual size will remain 25pc less than the (original) target for the province of 10m bales”.

By the middle of October, the arrival of cotton from Punjab had declined by over a fifth to 2.1m bales from 2.7m bales a year earlier, against a paltry 3.4pc plunge in arrivals from Sindh.

“The crop losses are widespread but patchy. There are districts that have

suffered severe attacks by both sucking and chewing pests and there are fields where plant growth has been stunted mainly by unfavourable weather conditions or deteriorating quality of Bt seeds,” says Ijaz.

“As a result, some farmers have harvested 8-12 maunds of cotton per acre and others even less than that. In my opinion, we are not going to harvest more than 6-7m bales this year in Punjab.”

Punjab Extension Services officials admit ‘heavy’ crop losses, but refuse to quantify them. “The arrivals are slower this year. But you know the harvest continues well into January, so I am hopeful that the losses will not be as large or widespread as some are making them out to be,” a senior official argues.

He added that depressed cotton prices and excessive rainfall during August and September were the main factors responsible for the poor harvest this year.

“I do not deny that the crop came under a pest attack, but its damage was restricted both in terms of area and its impact. The farmers didn’t take care of their fields when they saw the market plummet on the back of falling global commodity prices. They didn’t use enough fertiliser — urea and DAP — and pesticides when required,” he insists.

“Unexpected rainfall exacerbated the losses in districts like Lodhran with hard soil resisting a quicker seepage of water.”

Growers and officials both are of the view that the province could have had a better harvest if the government had cut the input prices and announced cash handouts for cotton cultivators well before sowing had started.

“The government has given the relief package but it was announced when the damage to the crop had already been done,” Afzal Khan, a cotton producer from Lodhran, says of the Rs341bn kissan package announced by the prime minister in September.

As the production losses have left thousands of smallholders destitute, they may soon be looking for greater support and larger subsidies from the cash-strapped government for the next wheat harvest.

“It is the job of the government to protect the people and their livelihoods in bad times. If these farmers are not helped now, we may also see a significant reduction in the wheat output from south Punjab,” says Afzal.

Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, November 2nd , 2015

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