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COTTON and its products play a key role in Pakistan’s economy as they account for around 60 per cent of the overall exports. But the textile sector has been plagued with the issue of contamination for decades which is one of the major reasons for falling exports.

Contamination is any impurity in cotton which affects crop appearance, value addition, ginning, spinning, dyeing, etc.

Some experts believe that contamination — which may take place at farm level during picking and storage, during transportation, marketing or at ginning level — causes a loss of at least Rs12 billion to growers as it is sold cheap in the market.

In Punjab, which produces around 80pc of the country’s cotton, the picking is done manually by women. The best thing about the tradition is that a large number of rural women get jobs. More than Rs5bn is paid to the pickers at the rate of Rs8 per kilogram of picked, clean cotton.

The flip side of the practice is that these women are untrained and the biggest source of contamination. To collect the produce, they use plastic bags or their silk dupattas, whose threads mix with cotton to become an impurity during spinning and dyeing. Their hair fall causes another impurity during all these subsequent processes. A number of other things like pieces of leaves, immature and empty balls, stems, flowers, sticks and weeds, trash and dust also get mixed with cotton.

Experts believe that impurity in cotton causes a loss of at least Rs12 billion just to growers as the produce is sold cheap in the market

Punjab is now considering a plan to train growers and provide them with grey cloth for picking and transporting the produce. Under the plan, the agriculture department will train at least 416,000 women cotton-pickers well before the start of the picking season.

“We’re selecting 20 women master trainers for each of the 11 districts in the main cotton belt (south Punjab),” a senior official of the department says. “These women, all from the department, will try to train at least 416,000 pickers by Aug 15.”

It will be one-day training on precautions a picker should take before entering a cotton field. The trainees will also be offered special cotton cloths for free to collect the picked produce instead of using dupattas or plastic bags.

However, a similar programme in 2002 failed because of a lack of interest by the government and inadequate funding.

The Central Cotton Research Institute of Multan has also printed a manual and prepared a video film for the trainers, says Institute Director Dr Sagheer Ahmad, the architect of the training programme.

Cotton also gets contaminated with dust, bird feathers, toffee wrappers and plastic bags during storage at home and while being transported to markets. To prevent impurities at this stage, the department will provide special pieces of cloth for 3,794 donkey-carts and 2,274 tractor trolleys during the upcoming picking season, the official says. More vehicles will be added to the list in the next phase.

Dr Ahmad says cotton growers are also being urged to pay extra to the pickers as an encouragement. He argues that pickers bringing neat and clean cotton deserve to be paid Rs10 instead of the general rate of Rs8 per kg. He also plans a competition among growers to encourage production of quality lint.

However, Hamad Khan Daha, a progressive grower from the Khanewal district, has asked the government to come up with solutions to more critical issues. “The real issue facing cotton growers and the textile industry is the cost of production, which is double in Pakistan as compared to India,” he says. “We can’t compete in the international markets as other countries have fully subsidised their agriculture sectors.”

On the government claims of providing subsidised fertiliser, Javed Iqbal of the Vehari district says this measure is not specific to cotton as the crop uses only 25pc of the fertiliser. “The government needs to take steps to boost the cotton crop as it contributes around 10pc to the gross domestic product and 55pc to the foreign exchange earnings.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 17th, 2017