Ghotki’s story of sugar and cotton

Published November 30, 2020
The Ghotki area is witnessing a major shift in the agriculture sector over the years to set new rural economic trends.— Photo courtesy: CABI/File
The Ghotki area is witnessing a major shift in the agriculture sector over the years to set new rural economic trends.— Photo courtesy: CABI/File

The Ghotki district has lately been in the limelight for political reasons. The powerful Mahar family from the area has seen a split for the first time in history after claims of stakes by first cousins to Mahars’ tribal throne.

Until recently, Mahar brothers have been taking consensus decisions when it comes to different political choices but then Sardar Mohammad Bux Mahar, a young tribal chieftain, asserted himself only to deviate from his first cousins’ political decision of joining the establishment-backed anti-Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) alliance in 2018 general elections. He then also went on to don the mantle of sardari.

What is perhaps going unnoticed is the fact that the Ghotki area is also witnessing a major shift in the agriculture sector over the years to set new rural economic trends. This northern district has historically been a top cotton zone after the southern Sindh district of Sanghar but this seems to be in the past now.

With five functional sugar mills, this left bank district it is a major sugarcane producing zone — something that was never seen in the past. This doesn’t mean cotton cultivation has come to an end. Over the last few years, its acreage has slightly increased when compared with sugarcane — the area’s new crop — whose acreage increased phenomenally.

‘Our road infrastructure has been destroyed due to the movement of heavy vehicles during sugar cane season. Our family used to grow cotton on 90 per cent of the land but with growth in the sugar industry, the white lint’s space has shrunk to 20pc’

“Our road infrastructure has been destroyed due to the movement of heavy vehicles during sugar cane season. Our family used to grow cotton on 90 per cent of the land but with growth in the sugar industry, cotton’s space has shrunk to 20pc and while sugar cane occupies 70pc. We must discourage sugar cane,” says Sindh former irrigation minister from Ghotki Jam Saifullah Dharejo.

In the last decade, the area under cotton stood at 33,993ha (2010-11) and sugarcane at 2,452ha in Ghotki district, located in zone-B agro-ecological of Sindh. A district profiling report on Ghotki, compiled by Hina Shahid of European Union Success, puts cotton acreage share of Ghotki at 15.3pc out of Sindh’s 636,636ha in FY2016-17 and sugarcane’s at 15.7pc out of Sindh’s acreage of 320,501ha in the same year.

This area increased from a marginal 2,452ha in 2010-11 to 58,774ha in 2019-20. Cotton’s area stood at 97,204ha in 2019-20. Sugarcane’s percentage-wise acreage was just 3.4pc (6,511ha in 2011-12) but it is 20.5pc (58,774 in 2019-20) out of total acreage of 286,090ha in 2019-20.

Sindh, Pakistan’s second-largest cotton producer to date, has been unable to achieve its cotton sowing target since 2008-09. From 4.2 million bales production in 2009-10, the province has been unable to come even close to the figure since then. The reasons could be many.

“If we can’t control pests that affect cotton, the crop will be wiped out. Per acre productivity has dropped significantly while the recovery in sugar cane is impressive [for millers]. Farmers have started growing maize like they do in Punjab. I am not able to run a ginning factory,” comments another Dharejo family member.

Ghotki is also home to political families like Dharejos, Dahars, Loonds, Chachars, Pitafis, Ghottos, Shars and Bozdars. But primarily Mahars, Dharejos, Loonds and Dharejos matter on the political chessboard and their allies also keep switching loyalties considering political options. “Mahars host Arabs in hunting season which reflects their clout,” says a resident.

Growth in the sugar industry in Ghotki, although unusual, was witnessed only in a span of seven years (2007-2014) and to quote Pakistan’s leading economist Dr Kaiser Bengali “a new economy is created only to benefit few for political reasons that were obvious”. He believes sugarcane cultivation should be restricted to a couple of districts of the coastal region. “Government each time needs to pay a subsidy from the public purse to allow sugar’s export. Imported sugar might be inexpensive for consumers,” he says.

Influential JKT (Jehangir Khan Tareen) had set-up the first sugar factory (JDW) in Ghotki in 2007-08 whilst he was the federal industries and production minster under the Musharraf-led government that issued permits without analysing pros and cons. Mahars didn’t lag behind and soon came up with SGM (Sir Ghulam Mohammad Mahar) sugar factory two years later in 2009-10. Tareen set-up another unit then. The fifth (Gulf) and last unit was set up in 2014-15. And that’s when the dynamics of Ghotki’s agriculture started changing altogether. Luckily, however, these units have their in-house treatment plants now, according to the Sukkur’s region Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official Ajmal Tunio.

‘Government each time needs to pay a subsidy from the public purse to allow sugar’s export. Imported sugar might be inexpensive for consumers’

“We are long term players,” Tareen had told this writer in May 2016 while discussing sugarcane cultivation in Ghotki. “We engage cultivators in a working relationship. When we started the first mill, sucrose recovery was 8pc. Now it is 11pc,” he had said.

Rich in soil fertility Ghotki witnesses cultivation of fruits like mangoes, dates, lemon, strawberry, banana, guava, watermelon, muskmelon and falsa. Among winter and summer vegetables, turnip, carrot, spinach, tomato, okra, tinda gourd, bitter gourd are grown. Of Sindh’s fruits acreage of 9,950ha, Ghotki’s share is 90ha in Rabi. Of Kharif’s cultivation of fruits on 144,400ha, the area’s share is 722ha. Among fruits, mango is grown on 231ha followed by 220ha of bananas and dates are grown on 128acres out of 722ha.

Fed by the perennial Ghotki feeder (canal) of Guddu Barrage — the first barrage over river Indus in Sindh — the district has around 995,447ha of cultivated area with somewhat better inflows. It has 1.2m gross cultivable area that is managed by the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (Sida), a water and drainage regulatory body. The body works parallel to the Sindh irrigation department to run half of Sindh’s colonial-era irrigation network.

The Ghotki Feeder Area Water Board (AWB) — a representative body of farmers — is the third AWB in Sindh since 2003 insofar as a participatory approach is concerned that the Sindh Water Management Ordinance aims to promote through this regulatory body. Around two decades down the road, Sida still struggles to achieve the goals. The 79.40 miles (127km) long Ghotki Feeder (canal) has a designed capacity of 9,561ha and command area touches Rohri in Sukkur.

The AWB recovers water and revenue charges from the farm and commercial sectors. It is trying to improve recovery. With resource constraints hitting Sida and feudalism calling the shots in the system, AWB fails to have an impressive recovery. In the first nine years after its formation in 2003, AWB had recovered Rs70m.

From 2003 to 2020 it recovered Rs450m under water charges inclusive of Rs88m from the farm sector. This Rs88m is 21pc of the targeted recovery of Rs421m against the cultivated area. Rest of Rs362m came from commercial users.

“The missed revenue target is attributable to the shortage of staff in the AWB. Arrears against commercial consumers are clear as compared to the agriculture sector where they are accumulating thanks to the influence of many. “We can’t stop their water. They mount pressure as they sit in assemblies,” confides one Sida official.

Rice cultivation is banned on the left bank areas fed by Sukkur and Guddu barrages (barring Kotri barrage) under the West Pakistan Rice (Restriction on Cultivation) Ordinance 1959. The ban is violated at will by powerful paddy growers and Ghotki being a left bank district is no exception. “Paddy is cultivated and we are not required to reflect it in our crop statistics to avoid embarrassment for the government. It goes unchecked. The ban was enforced and paddy fields were destroyed only for a brief period,” says an agriculture official.

Besides Ghotki Feeder (canal), the Water & Power Development Authority has completed the first phase of Rainee canal, a flood channel on Guddu. The Sindh government is not ready to take over this canal even after its completion. Its phase-II is planned to provide water to Tharparkar through Thar canal. The approval of its revised project cost (PC-I) of phase first depends on the Economic Coordination Committee of the National Economic Council.

In addition to the substantial contribution in agriculture, Ghotki has natural resource gas with two major fields of Maari and Qadipur working there. Given Sindh’s immense contribution towards gas production (72pc of Pakistan’s total gas production) Dr Kaiser likens Sindh as the Opec (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) of Pakistan. “We need to have a better infrastructure or we should at least improve the water supply/quality to overcome avoidable expenditures of the common man. While Ghotki is rich in resources and agriculture, poverty is evident there,” emphasises Dr Kaiser.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 30th, 2020

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