Khairpur’s story of dates and the SEZ

Published January 25, 2021
This region attracts a large number of workers from Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan every production season that usually coincides with monsoon rains that undermine date production.
This region attracts a large number of workers from Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan every production season that usually coincides with monsoon rains that undermine date production.

The oppressive heat of summer over June-July makes weather conditions unbearable but it is an ideal period for the ripening of fruits, such as dates. Rows of date palm trees in orchards start dotting the landscape while one travels on the National Highway as Khairpur draws near. Coupled with mango and guava orchards, date palm trees make Khairpur a rich and diversified district in an agricultural sense.

This region attracts a large number of workers from Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan every production season that usually coincides with monsoon rains that undermine date production.

The district, located on the left bank of River Indus, has been a princely state before the then elders of Mirs decided to accede to Pakistan in 1955, after the division of the Indian subcontinent. It has eight revenue talukas that reflects the huge size of the district; few districts in Sindh compete with Khairpur in size. Its people take pride in having the shrine of Sachal Sarmast which defines the region’s mystic character.

It is the home of Pirs who are the custodians of the shrine of Syed Mohammad Rashid Shah or Rozi Dhani. Pir Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi donned the mantle of custodianship after the death of his father, Shah Mardan Shah and spiritual leader of Hurs.

Also known asKhairpur Mirs, the city was founded by Mir Sohrab Khan Talpur in 1783. He had chosen the area to serve as the capital of the Khairpur branch of Talpurs who once ruled Sindh after Kalhoros. The Kot Diji fort — built by Talpurs 25km south of Khairpur atop a hill and the majestic Faiz Mahal are marvels of Khairpur. Sheesh Mahal is another architectural masterpiece that exists here.

‘Despite being the fifth largest date producer in the world, Pakistan is featured nowhere in the international market because our fruit lack value and branding’

The district is blessed with a sanctuary — popularly known as Mehrano — built by Mir Sohrab Khan Talpur. The sanctuary has forest, agriculture land, lakes, desert habitat, deers, pigs etc. Mehrano is a treat to visit for any visitor.

Insofar as politics is concerned, Rashdis, Jillanis, Bhanbhans, Wassans, Phulpotos and other smaller families matter in Khairpur that has produced two chief ministers — Syed Ghaus Ali Shah and his friend Syed Qaim Ali Shah.

Khairpur contributes to the natural resource of gas to Pakistan. Other than that sugarcane, cotton and wheat are rabi and kharif crops. Two sugar factories have been set up there. Wheat’s acreage of 100,000ha plus remains intact every year but cotton’s acreage fluctuates. All green veggies are grown in Khairpur. Among fruits, guava (4,000ha plus acreage), mangoes (5,000ha plus acreage) are holding ground. Date palm acreage remains consistent at over 33,000ha annually.

In irrigation’s sense, Khairpur has two off-taking canals — Khairpur Feeder (East) and Khairpur Feeder (West) — to feed its rich farm sector. These channels emanate from Sukkur barrage on its left side and have some of the oldest canal and branch structures in irrigation fields.

The eastern channel with a designed discharge of 2,094 cusecs has a gross command area (GCA) of 324,361 acres while the western channel has a GCA of 530,764 acres with a designed discharge of 1,940 cusecs. The eastern and western feeders GCA area is 351,127 acres and 321,968 acres respectively.

“Given the need for irrigation water in a district as big as Khairpur, the channels require de-silting. The length of around two RDs (reduced distance) serves as a common bank for the Rohri canal Khairpur feeder east, causing seepage from the Rohri canal. It needs lining,” said the superintending engineer for the two Khairpur feeders, Javed Hakeem Memon.

The former Talpurs’ state until the inception of Pakistan, Khairpur is undoubtedly Sindh’s city of date production thanks to its suitable climate conditions. Date palms are grown in Sukkur and Naushahro Feroz though on a lesser scale.

Pakistan is one of the largest date producers in the world, ranking fifth among date producing countries. Pakistan’s share in the world’s date production is assessed at 7 per cent as per the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council figures. Of Pakistan’s total estimated date production of around 0.55 million tones to 0.65m tonnes, Sindh contributes around 0.28m to 0.30m tones. Within Sindh, 85pc of production comes from Khairpur.

Aseel is the largely grown variety of date besides karbalain, kuppro etc. Like mangoes, date palm orchards are let out to contractors by growers. With favourable weather, each tree can produce 100-120kg of dates (aseel and karblain variety) including 45kg of soft dates if no rain damages the crop.

“The entire quantity is otherwise processed as chuhara which is exported to India only where it is used in religious rituals. Now exports to India are banned. The dry dates or chuhara are going to India via Dubai,” says Qasim Jaskani, a progressive date grower from Khairpur. He believes only a nominal quantity of fresh dates is exported, for it is considered inferior and can’t compete with varieties like Jordan’s high-value majool in the international market.

“We hardly produce 10pc of soft dates because orchard owners are always keen to pluck dates to avoid losses from rain and convert it into chuhara,” Mr Jaskani adds. Sindh’s soft dates are sold in the local market and aseel is used mostly in the industrial sector.

Dates were covered as one of the components in the World Bank-funded multi-billion rupees Sindh Agriculture Growth Project (SAGP) which was to support the date palm sector. The SAGP project director refers to the party evaluation report, claiming growth in date production. Mr Jaskani disputes him, saying the date component revolved around mat distribution sans any qualitative research-oriented initiatives, which are otherwise badly needed.

“We live in a market-economy era where everyone looks for brands and our fruit lacks value. We need high-value table fruits like others to claim space in the international market. Unfortunately, we feature nowhere despite being the fifth largest date producer,” he regrets.

After the federal government passed the Special Economic Zone Act in 2012, Khairpur got the status of the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Sindh, nay Pakistan.

Historically, it was a Rs1 billion scheme until 2009 but later the size of the investment was increased to Rs2.17bn when Sindh decided to execute it. Geographically, the Khairpur SEZ is set up at a point where Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan borders are easily approachable. Spreading over 141 acres it is still a small SEZ when compared with Punjab. The actual saleable area is 90 acres thus it needs expansion to give a further boost to economic activities and to accommodate more entrepreneurs and bring investment.

While only two units have started working, over a dozen or so projects are under construction. Three to four units are to start functioning by mid-2021. Sponsors of pending projects include a Korean investor, who will be shifting his investment from Bangladesh to Khairpur SEZ for his garment unit.

Another Korean investor has applied for a plot to set up a business. Cold storage was established by a firm but it had been abandoned due to operational issues while work on a dates dehydration plant on four acres of land by the same organisation could not be executed. A guava fruit processing and pulp extraction plant will be ready by April and a poultry feed processing unit will start working by May.

The Sindh Enterprise Development Fund (SEDF) is offering a loan mark-up subsidy of Rs250m for a date grading, storage, sorting and dehydration plant and a Rs70m state-of-art extraction plant in Khairpur SEZ for which machinery is being procured from Italy says SEDF’s managing director Mehboobul Haq.

Still, Khairpur SEZ faces some issues with federal power and petroleum ministries due to the friction between federal and Sindh governments. The Sukkur Electric Supply Company (Sepco) is unable to enhance energy load for SEZ to 5MW for which Rs73m cost was paid in 2015.

“The Sepco hierarchy tells us their system can’t keep pace and does not have the capacity to provide operation and maintenance for the latest state-of-art underground electric supply distribution system constructed in the SEZ. So, only 400kW are given”, said CEO SEZ Managing Committee Azeem Uqaili.

The Khairpur SEZ’s management has urged Sepco to enhance power supply load to 2MW but the utility wants management to erect old overhead distribution lines which is not only impossible but also redundant. Instead, Sepco needs to enhance its capacity to handle the underground network which would be more efficient. The Sindh government has spent Rs400m on an advanced underground electric supply system within the SEZ.

The Sindh government has paid Rs195m for a 3.5m cubic feet per day (mmcfd) natural gas connection for industrial use in the SEZ. Project Director Altaf Chachar said Khairpur’s gas contribution in the country’s total gas production is around 340mmcfd whereas KSEZ needs 3.5mmcfd which is just a small fraction of total gas produced in the area. The laying of gas pipelines has been under construction for months and needs to be completed by the Sui Southern Gas Company as more industrial units require this utility, he added.

Khairpur’s share in projected cattle population (cow and buffaloes) of Sindh in 2018 is assessed at 7.41pc while that of goats and sheep 5.71pc.

In terms of surface water quality analysis, 71.4pc of samples were found to be unsafe in Khairpur city alone during analysis conducted under orders of Supreme Court-mandated judicial commission in 2017. In a groundwater quality analysis of 2014 conducted by Dr Murtaza Arain of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, 55.6pc of 410 samples had bacteriological contamination.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 25th, 2021

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