History has bestowed Multan with many gifts: it is known as a city of saints, the town has been continuously inhabited for more than 2,000 years and located in an area dating back to the Harapan civilization — it has always been a part of world-acclaimed Indus Civilisation. Not only history, but its natural endowments have been unique as well.
Falling on the bank of Chenab, after the confluence of two more rivers, its riverine area is huge and its land is enormously fertile. Benefitting from these gifts, the city earned the distinction of being the agricultural capital of Punjab, feeding the world with the finest varieties of mango and historically driving the textile industry with premium cotton.
However, Multan’s modern woes are daunting. It suffered geographical losses when three districts were created out of it — Vehari in 1976, Khanewal in 1985 and Lodhran in 1991. What is left of Multan, for decades known as a “rural city”, is now transforming into an un-planned urban jungle — threatening its agricultural identity.
Hundreds of housing schemes around it are wiping out thousands of acres of mango orchards and cotton fields. Despite being on the bank of a river, the district’s water level is dropping at a breathtaking pace — threatening its agriculture like never before.
The land encircling the city was once orchards but now housing societies run for miles. The projects would take many years to get fully inhabited but the loss to decades-old orchards is done
Official data tells the true story of urban expansion. In the last few years, 185 illegal schemes have come up along will 38 legal ones around the city. The Defence Housing Authority (DHA) is leading the way: already perched on over 15,000 acres, it is planning an expansion at the same level. Wapda Town has also cost the city another few thousand acres. Other guzzlers like Bahria Town are following the suite and bulldozing thousands of acres of orchards out of existence. Where these giants pause, hundreds of small landowners start with smaller schemes.
“This entire land was once mango orchards, encircling the city. Now, housing societies run miles after miles. These societies would take decades to get fully inhabited but the loss to decades-old orchards is done,” explains Dr Muhammad Asif, vice-chancellor of Nawaz Sharif University of Agriculture. These lands were fully developed in an agricultural sense, as peri-urban areas always are because of developed infrastructure — access roads, water management system, easy access and nearby service providers. The developers have denuded the lands of it all. Other pieces of land will be developed to compensate for the loss, but it is time, capital and human effort intensive job, Dr Asif explains.
The Punjab Development Statistics quantify the loss. The mango acreage has dropped by 6,850 hectares in four years (2015-19) – from 85,640 hectares to 78,790 hectares, or a loss of over 8 per cent. Out of it, around a loss of 5,000 hectares occurred in 2019 alone, because the slide has gathered pace. In the same period, cotton lost around 16,000 hectares — from 173,000 to 157,000 hectares, or a loss of nearly 10pc. The farmers and their representative bodies think that these figures understate the reality, which, otherwise, is far worse.
During this period, rice and sugarcane expanded a bit, but their gain came at the cost to other crops if local farmers are to be believed. “The major sufferer of housing schemes has been mango, followed by cotton,” says Major Tariq Khan, a local farmer. Mango is being shifted to fellow lands further down but cotton’s loss seems to be permanent, at least for now, he explains.
However, Multan seems to be gaining on the industrial front what it lost on the agricultural side. As per the Punjab Development Statistics, the agro-industrial units in the district grew from 116 in 2006 to 456 in 2017. In the last few years, as energy crisis subsided and road network improved (double motorway connectivity), the pace of agro-industry has quickened. In addition to a number of textile and fertiliser units, mango value-addition (juices, pulping, drying, export treatment) has emerged as a huge industry. During the same period, plants of multinational companies for chips, macaroni and pasta etc dot the district.
The city is also recovering its mango losses. Shahzad Sabir, a local agriculture officer, says the twin-trends have helped mango recovery: orchards are now being shifted to the eastern side of the city, which is still relatively safe, and a massive improvement has been seen in orchard management. “Against historical 40 to 50 trees per acre, the population has now grown to over 150 per acre as the spread is controlled through pruning and height is kept to 25 feet against earlier 40 to 50 feet. It creates space for trees and improves the quality of fruit. Mango demand has multiplied because of the juices launched by multinationals and these damage-control measures have sustained production for five years; in 2015, it was 2.20 million tonnes and 2.24m tonnes in 2020, he says.
The livestock resume of the district is not less impressive either. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey, the district currently houses 1.47m large animals (634,432 buffalos and 836,260 cattle) and 0.979m small animals — 879,966 goats and 99,120 sheep. The local livestock officials claim that the dairy sector is also transforming — from small and individual farming to big and commercial farms.
In the last few years, 14 large (over 100 animals) dairy farms have come up and around 60 smaller (of 50 animals) ones as a multinational set up a milk plant (adjacent Kabirwala) and started milk collection in the district, says Dr Muhammad Majid. Right now, the department is surveying the district for updating livestock statistics, which would certainly present a better picture, he hopes.
Water woes of Multan are identified by a recent report by the Irrigation Department. It categorises the Multan zone (an irrigational administrative unit and the district being part of it) as one of the most critical areas of the province. The aquifer level has gone to a minimum of 50 feet: at some points, it is even at 80 feet or more. This is despite the colossal recharge from River Chenab, which is joined by two other rivers — Ravi and Jehlum — before entering Multan district.
This three-river recharge has not helped the Multan district because its 11,500 tube wells are pumping out water at a greater pace than these rivers can recharge. According to the report, the level is now going down by more than a foot every year.
Though geographical clipping has shrunk physical boundaries of the district and demographic changes are threatening its historical agricultural status, these factors have certainly not dampened its influence: it still drives the sector in more ways than one. With two universities (Bahauddin Zikria and Nawaz Sharif) producing hundreds of graduates every year, two national research institutes serving and saving cotton, another research institute dedicated to mango and yet another one working on agriculture mechanisation, the importance of the district is felt far and beyond.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 18th, 2021