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Sindh’s paddy sector has lately seen some interventions aimed at mechanising cultivation, increasing per-acre yields and improving the milling process. The provincial government’s Sindh Enterprise Development Fund (SEDF) has supported several rice mills by absorbing most of the mark-up component of the loan subsidy.

In the forthcoming Kharif season starting in April-May, the SEDF plans to establish companies for the provision of laser land levellers, crop transplanters and harvesters on a rental basis. SEDF Managing Director Mahboob Kazi said the Sindh government was being approached in this regard keeping in view the encouraging trend among millers who availed the subsidy in the last two years.

A rice miller could avail a loan of Rs10m for an upgrade of their mill. The SEDF has tried to prevail upon the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) to make sure that commercial bank liberalise their loan regimes for rice millers as well as farmers.

‘The hybrid seed variety has increased paddy production, but the related infrastructure is still missing’

The SEDF absorbs six per cent of the mark-up while 2pc is borne by the borrower. Eight rice mill owners availed this facility between 2012 and 2016. However, 22 mills underwent the much-needed upgrade in the last two years, according to Mr Kazi. “New machinery has reduced the level of electricity consumption by the miller. It has also decreased the ratio of broken rice during milling,” he said.

This trend is encouraging from the SEDF’s point of view. Therefore, it aims to ensure the provision of laser land levellers, transplanters and harvesters for paddy growers through rental service-providers. Laser land levellers ensure uniformity in water distribution at the cultivation and post-cultivation stages as paddy remains a high-delta crop.

It helps save 30-40pc of water that is otherwise lost in any piece of uneven farmland. Similarly, transplanters and harvesters contribute to the overall increased farm productivity.

Manual transplantation of seedlings is labour-intensive, tedious and time-consuming. In contrast, mechanised transplantation substantially increases the plant population up to 100,000 per acre which, according to paddy grower Nabi Bux Sathio, varies around 50,000-70,000 plants per acre in the manual process. Mechanised transplantation increases productivity by 20 maunds an acre which is usually assessed at 50-60 maunds.

Harvesters substantially save grain losses at the harvesting stage. Keeping such losses within 15pc translates into revenue of half a billion dollars, according to Rice Exporters Association Pakistan (Reap) Chairman Safdar Mehkri. He said paddy growers in Pakistan produce 2.7 million tonnes of rice per hectare against 9.2m tonnes in the United States.

“We have a net potential of $5bn rice exports. But we are currently fetching $2bn because of gaps at the cultivation, harvesting, storage and milling stages,” he remarked. He said Pakistan can increase its rice production to 12.5m tonnes from 7.4m tonnes by adopting mechanisation.

In 2018-19, paddy production in Sindh dropped to 2.5m tonnes against the target of 2.7m tonnes (the 2017-18 production estimate is 2.85m tonnes). The cropped area declined to 690,000 acres against the target of 770,000 acres.

The drop in the area and production was attributed to a water shortage at the peak of sowing in Kharif 2018 (April-June). Water flows, as per figures by the irrigation department, stood at 6.453MAF in April-June in 2018 against 11.22MAF in the corresponding period of 2017, showing an overall shortfall of 42.5pc in the last crop season.

Paddy is grown mainly in the right-bank areas of upper Sindh. In lower Sindh, it was cultivated in Badin, Thatta, Tando Mohammad Khan and Sujawal districts.

The quality of seeds also hampered overall growth in the paddy sector. Farmers prefer the imported hybrid variety that paddy growers like Nadeem Shah believe was hit by germination and fruit-setting issues. “It is basically weather conditions that vary between Sindh and countries like Australia, United States and China that produce these seeds,” he observed.

The higher yield potential of hybrid seeds attracts growers. At the same time, this variety also demands vital inputs like zinc, magnesium, pesticides and fertiliser besides timely water flows for better productivity. This increases the overall cost of production.

According to Mr Shah, local varieties like DR-82, Shandar, Irri-6 and Irri-9 also give higher yields with better inputs. He levelled his land in the Sujawal district by laser levellers to overcome water losses and have uniform irrigation water distribution.

Post-harvest losses during milling reduce the overall production of refined rice. With outdated machinery, rice millers have to make do with losses in production. As a result, the ratio of broken rice increases. The SEDF’s assessment showed upgraded machinery in a rice mill improves the production capacity, making a difference of four to five tonnes on average.

Mr Mehkri noted that the hybrid variety has indeed increased paddy production, but the related infrastructure is still missing. The crop was not dried, although driers are available. The tendency to use these driers is too little.

He added that equipment rental companies exist in Punjab, but the idea has not gained popularity here. “Commercial banks avoid offering loans to millers and farmers,” he said.

He referred to rice production in Vietnam which attracted a price over and above the going rate of $110-$150 per tonne in the international market. “With upgraded mills and increased rice production, we can capture markets in the Middle East and other regions. Mechanised farming can offset the impact of the water shortage at the field level,” he asserted.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 18th, 2019