At cotton’s expense

Published September 1, 2020
Even ministers with large landholdings oppose crop zoning because cotton, they believe, incurs heavy expenses and gives a lower yield.—File photo
Even ministers with large landholdings oppose crop zoning because cotton, they believe, incurs heavy expenses and gives a lower yield.—File photo

Early this year the Punjab government, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has come up with a scientific study on 14 agro-ecological zones. Massive scientific data was gathered in the report in 2019 to reveal the enormous potential for crop diversification to enhance its productivity. AEZs help the government frame policies for sustainable agriculture and the use of land resources.

A similar exercise is said to be underway in Sindh by FAO in consultation with the provincial government. According to the former vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Professor Iqrar Ahmed Khan, chairman AEZs committee of Punjab government, their FAO’s study is to be replicated in Sindh.

AEZs are defined considering climatic characteristics, soil moisture and temperature, which according to experts like Mr Iqrar, are directly linked with crops. Crops’ adaptability is directly linked with soil profile and climate, he says. He emphasises the need for AEZs to enhance agricultural efficiency.

Sindh is the lower riparian in the Indus Basin Irrigation System facing many challenges. These include climate-change driven erratic weather patterns, reduced water availability, interprovincial rows over water distribution, the unchecked excessive abstraction of groundwater and farmers’ obsession for high delta crops like sugarcane and rice at the cost of cotton.

Rice cultivation is allowed on the right bank and banned for the left bank districts under the West Pakistan Rice (Restriction on Cultivation) Ordinance 1959. But the ban is flouted every year. Influential growers opt for it as they own rice mills. Lately, farmers have also shown a tendency to grow high delta crops like sugarcane after rice in areas considered cotton zone historically. It has led to the unusual growth in the sugar industry in Sindh at the cost of the decline in cotton production.

‘Even known growers who are part of the present government have switched to rice. You can’t force farmers to grow a certain crop though the country’s cotton production has drastically declined’

Yusuf Zafar, former chairman Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), points out that farmers grow crops that fetch them more money and that’s why hybrid rice production has increased considerably over the last several years. His estimates show rice production has increased from 4 million tonnes to 6.8m-7m tones of which 4m tonnes are for domestic consumption and rest is exported. Same is the case with sugarcane with recorded historic production of 85m tonnes in 2017-18.

“Even known cotton growers who are part of the present government have switched over to rice. You can’t force farmers to grow a certain crop. Pakistan’s cotton production has drastically declined and acreage under cotton has reduced from 3.2m hectares to 2.4m ha in the last few years,” he says. He regrets cotton visions 2010 and 2015 have not seen the light of day. He says Pakistan’s total exports last year stood at $22bn whereas Bangladesh’s textile exports alone fetched the country $37bn. “The world is earning more through processed goods,” he says.

Sindh’s large swathes of agriculture land are irrigated by Sukkur barrage’s seven canals. Two of them — Nara and Rohri — are the longest perennial channels that end up in the tail-end of Mirpurkhas and Badin districts wherefrom farmers’ cries of water shortages remained unending every kharif season. These canals cumulatively irrigate close to 5m acres of land out of 8m acres of Sukkur barrage’s total command area. Sindh is said to have around 12.6m acres of agriculture land.

President Sindh Abadgar Board Abdul Majeed Nizamani says cotton production has been substituted by sugarcane on the left bank of Sindh which he had never seen before. He says it is detrimental to soil fertility. “I don’t find zoning today,” said the octogenarian grower from lower Sindh. He recalls the province’s first sugar mill was established in lower Sindh considering soil texture and climatic conditions for sugarcane. He says five sugar mills exist on the left bank of Ghotki district, historically a cotton zone.

He adds “if there is no regulation over cropping patterns sea intrusion will also increase because reduced flows (due to intense cropping in upper reaches) will be allowed to flow downstream Kotri barrage”. If we adhere to crop zoning, soil fertility can be protected and water efficiency can be improved to overcome water shortages (that also occurs due to interprovincial disputes).

Even ministers who have large land holdings, confides a former agriculture secretary, oppose crop zoning and want ‘free zoning’. They plead cotton incurs heavy expenditures and gives lower yields while its price remains inadequate. Hybrid rice, on the contrary, gives impressive yields with lower expenses.

Despite the ban, says the vice president of Sindh Chamber of Agriculture (SCA) Nabi Bux Sathio, rice cultivation goes unchecked in Nara canal’s command. “Does anyone care?” he asks. Three right bank off-taking canals of Sukkur barrage used to be non-perennial but barring Rice canal all have become perennial. Same goes for Kotri barrage’s four canals, he says.

“We are facing climate change but with the enforcement of crop zoning, we can address the water shortage issue,” he says. He urges the government to play a regulatory role and ensure the adequate price of commodities for farmers. “Farmers are least bothered about issues of soil fertility, climate change and salinity as they are interested more in economic benefits. If the government doesn’t perform a regulatory role we will be importing vegetables after sugar and wheat”.

Only a decade back Sindh achieved considerable acreage under sunflower cultivation to produce oilseeds especially in the backdrop of 2010 super floods that inundated millions of acres. Sunflower acreage is back to square one, reduced from once 266,000ha (2010-11) to 65,000ha (2015-16). It is largely due to the missing framework of policy implementation.

Sindh is unable to meet the cotton production target of 4.2m or four million bales. It produced 4.2m bales in 2009-10. Since then the cotton production varied between 3.5m bales (2014-15), 3.7m bales (2017-18) and 2.9m bales (2018-19).

Professor Iqrar Khan believes zoning is essential as climate change is giving us surprises regularly. Crop zoning provides a strong foundation for disciplined agriculture. “AEZs or crop zoning is not the last word but a continuing thought process.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 1st, 2020

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