Badin has a long saga of disasters — natural and manmade — yet its farmers show resilience when it comes to producing food. There are several peculiarities one can talk about Badin which make it easily noticeable among other districts of Sindh. The oil-rich district is at the extreme tail end of the Indus river system. With a long coastal strip, it is prone to cyclones and devastating monsoons. It serves as a drainage route for the disposal of the runoff from heavy rainfall in the case of extreme weather events through the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD). The LBOD has been spelling trouble for this area quite regularly too.

Badin is also known for sugarcane, cotton and sunflower cultivation. These crops are losing acreage for various reasons. Factors like shortage of irrigation water, repeated controversies over sugarcane crop’s price, and seed issue of cotton haunt growers endlessly. So, farmers opt for paddy as the last option. The large landholders come from Nizamanis, Mirzas, Talpurs, Halepotos and other families. These families control 1,500-2,500 acres of lands, one way or another, on average.

Locals believe Badin — located close to the Indian border — suffers regardless of the shortage or surplus of water. Irrigation water shortage remains perennial in every summer season owing to the utter mismanagement of water distribution by the irrigation department in Sindh. When upper riparian — mostly influential and political bigwigs — take plenty of the irrigation water by hook or crook their lower counterparts end-up suffering without any recourse except for agitation and sit-ins in protest. Kotri barrage’s two main canals, Akram Wah (also known as the lined channel) and Phulelli canal feed Badin though often with inadequate flows.

In years when the Indus River System Authority calculates water shortages at 35-40pc for the sowing of Kharif crops, the net impact in Badin is of 80-90pc

Even this year, when Sindh had better water prospects for early sowing, Badin’s farmers continued to face numerous difficulties. In years when the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) calculates water shortages at 35 to 40 per cent for the sowing of Kharif crops, the net impact in Badin is of 80-90pc.

Badin’s economy revolves around said major crops. It is counted among the poorest districts in the province. Like other parts of Sindh, the grower-hari relations are governed by the share-cropping regime. The two sides share expenses and profit on a 50-50 basis under conventional practice.

In the absence of an effective farm credit availability system, growers turn to private lenders, who are called “peddys” locally. The lenders offer loans by way of inputs like seed, pesticides, fertiliser and charge an unusually high mark-up rate from the borrower/grower which increases the vulnerability of hari as he has to share its cost. A borrower’s loan is adjusted at the time of the harvesting of the crop which farmers sell to the same lenders for lower prices only to keep their credit line going or approach other lenders after losing his trust.

“When we calculate the loan’s interest to be deducted by lenders, they charge a 100pc mark-up from us over the principal amount. We are compelled to get a loan from them as banks’ procedures remain cumbersome and they are not forthcoming about offering loans,” shares a grower.

Badin’s five sugar mills are old and had regularly crushed sugarcane until a few years back. These large sugar mills point to immense sugarcane potential in the area. Only three are participating in the crushing of sugarcane for the last six to seven years.

The two mills, Mirza and Pangrio, which are non-functional for financial and technical reasons are owned by a political heavyweight from the area, Dr Zulfikar Mirza, who had fallen out of party’s favour in 2011. Sugarcane cultivation has declined as farmers prefer to grow paddy in the wake of controversies over sugarcane’s rate by millers, leading to the accumulation of liabilities.

The district is home to cotton and sunflower crops’ cultivation also. Paddy production is intact but sunflower and cotton are losing acreage. A progressive farmer and vice president Sindh Abadgar Board (SAB) Mahmood Nawaz Shah explains that “Badin was famous for Bt cotton cultivation till a decade or so back but this variety has lost its vigour. Cotton’s acreage has declined here significantly. Bt cotton’s cultivation had witnessed a boom in Badin perhaps due to climatic conditions of the coastal district which remain favourable for this variety,” he says.

Some statistics available with the agriculture department, according to an official, indicate the ups and downs of the cotton crop over the last five years. Cotton’s acreage was as high as 21,491ha in 2015-16 to as low as 5,541ha in 2018-19, before rising to 18,300ha in 2019-20. Similarly, sugarcane acreage was as high as 42,600ha in 2017-18 but had declined to 14,670ha in the last fiscal year. Sunflower’s acreage has been 45,000ha over the last half-decade on average.

Farmers feel comfortable with their paddy cultivation which they could grow as late as August. By August monsoon season also starts to make growers sigh with relief since upper riparian have already met their water needs by then. Statistics show that paddy crop was grown on 115,340ha in 2015-16, 140,825ha in 2016-17, 154,200ha in 2017-18, 110,563ha in 2018-19 and 115,100ha in 2019-20.

It is perhaps because of paddy’s cultivation that orchards don’t exist in Badin. Paddy is a high delta crop and its continuous cultivation affects the soil. It increases groundwater table too. Fruit orchards need better soil quality as well as small but consistent water flows which elude Badin.

“Besides Paddy, Badin was famous for its tomato production as well. Paddy cultivation is constant because farmers don’t need heavy expenditures and harvest it in 120 days after transplantation,” says Nabi Bux Sathio, who owns lands in Badin’s neighbouring district of Tando Mohammad Khan and is the vice president of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture.

“Regular paddy production doesn’t mean agriculture is a success story here,” he says. Rather, he explains, the farm sector has suffered badly in the last several years. He attributes declining sugarcane acreage to the rate controversy while tomato is falling prey to climate-change driven extreme weather events.

“Tomato doesn’t survive in heavy rains and needs flows of irrigation water in quick succession from sowing to harvesting,” he says. Farmers at times prefer destroying the tomato crop when the market price remains extremely low and its harvesting means additional financial burden.

Cyclones and heavy monsoon rains have hit Badin regularly over the last two decades. Cyclone 2A in May 1999 was the worst one that led to the deaths of over 200 people, including fishermen. Breaches were reported in the LBOD that passes through Badin before falling into the sea. Breach water is a potential source of destruction of the soil since lack of drainage stagnates the field. It again wrought havoc in August’s monsoon rainfall this year, inundating large swatches of Mirpurkhas and Badin.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 9th, 2020

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