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Trashing cotton in a quality-conscious world

October 08, 2018

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Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

Bringing down the trash content in local cotton to the globally acceptable level remains a distant dream. Stakeholders are indecisive about how to overcome the menace that is creating a negative image of Pakistan’s silver crop in the quality-conscious world.

Thus, the largest cotton producer after China, United States and India is ranked second in terms of contamination.

Punjab Cotton Research Institute Director Dr Sagheer Ahmed claims that cotton supplies are comparatively cleaner so far this season. Trash content is four per cent on average, he said. But he expressed fear that the rate is likely to go up as cotton picking comes to an end.

Stakeholders blame each other for high trash content while the government mulls changing the law to hold ginners responsible for impurities in cotton

Cotton contaminants include common shopping bags, hair of women who pick cotton manually, threads of nylon bags used for storing cotton, sand, dust and stalks and leaves of the cotton plant itself.

These contaminants not only affect the quality of cotton, but also make it expensive for textile mills. A survey by the International Textile Manufacturers Federation puts the global figure for contamination-related losses to $200 million a year.

Instead of devising a strategy, half-hearted efforts are being made to overcome the problem in Punjab, which accounts for almost 80pc of the yield.

Last year, provincial agriculture authorities tried to make cotton contamination-free by offering growers proper training and providing them with grey cloth for transporting the produce.

At least 416,000 female cotton pickers were to be trained before the start of the picking season along the lines of a similar (unsuccessful) attempt in 2002. They were also to be provided with grey cloth without any charge because they usually use plastic bags or dupattas to collect cotton. The project halted midway for the want of funds that the department concerned did not release.

With no alternative plan at hand to ensure clean cotton, the authorities are mulling an amendment to the Cotton Control Act to hold the ginners responsible for impurities.

“We’re thinking about amending the law to take action against those ginning units that have cotton containing trash over and above the permissible level,” a senior official says. “They have been asked not to accept phutti or raw cotton (which is) contaminated more than the set standards.”

He says textile mills and the ginners are being asked to fund the campaign for creating awareness about the importance of contamination-free cotton and the training of pickers.

Punjab Cotton Ginners Association representative Chaudhry Akram says the agriculture authorities are ‘threatening’ the ginners with fines and the sealing of premises in case foreign matter totalling more than 3pc is found in cotton bales. He lamented the fact that the ginners were being held responsible for the fault of growers.

He says the ginners as well as the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association have assured the authorities that they will fund the awareness drive and the training of pickers. He added that they were not ready to directly shoulder the responsibility for the training as that job should best be left to the officials of the agriculture department.

Some observers, however, believe that low prices, and not a lack of training, are the reason behind the high level of contamination.

Dr Zahid Mahmood of the Central Cotton Research Institute, Multan, asserts that the growers resort to the mixing of trash in phutti when the ginners deny them a fair rate for their produce. “If you give them the right price, you’ll get the quality you desire.”

Refuting the impression that the farming community resorts to contamination, the growers blame middlemen for the high trash content.

“Arhtis (middlemen) and ginners mix water and other contaminants with cotton to increase its weight. Growers are paid less and their produce is subjected to a weight cut of 2kg per maund by arhtis if they ever indulge in it,” says Pakistan Kisan Ittehad General Secretary Mian Umair who is also a cotton grower.

“This leaves no incentive for the growers to mix contaminants with cotton,” he said, adding that the officials of the agriculture department seldom visit the growers.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 8th, 2018