If an entire area can be considered unfortunate then the district of Bahawalnagar is that region. One of the ten bottom-most districts in terms of poverty and social indicators, its misfortune has diverse dimensions: water quality and quantity, agricultural, industrial, livestock, connectivity and marketing, etc.

Tucked in the remotest region of South and stretched along the Indian border, this thin line of semi-arid area has an overwhelming brackish aquifer. Being situated on the right bank of River Sutlej has not helped it with water. Even the sporadic sweet water layers created along canals through water seepage are so thin that small tube wells (only 25,000 in the entire district) start pumping out brackish water after a few hours of running.

The trouble of being brackish and situated at the tail-end is compounded by a historical fact as well. Once, the area suffered from water-logging and salinity problems and saw its water allocation halved to deal with the issue.

A few decades ago, both issues got solved as the Salinity Control and Reclamation Programme (Scarp) tube wells drained the trouble away. The water allocations, however, stayed — putting a cap on agricultural expansion by making the area water-poor permanently.

That is precisely why Bahawalnagar is the only district in the South still sticking to a fossilised two-crop (wheat, cotton) pattern. All the other ten districts of the South are now expanding to sugarcane, maize and oilseed crops but not Bahawalnagar.

The Punjab Crop Reporting Service data clarifies the two-crop pattern. The district has 1.75 million acres cultivable area. Out of it, 1.5m acres are cultivated, with 247,125 left as fellow land. Out of those 1.5m acres, 1m went to wheat in 2019-20 and the district’s contribution was 1.5m tonnes to the national kitty. The rest, just above half a million acres, went to cotton to produce 820,000 bales or more than 15 per cent of national production.

The district’s contribution in 2014-15 was more than 1.1 million bales, which, in the last five years has dropped by over 20pc. The acreage though went down by close to 10pc which the locals attribute to water.

Since Bahawalnagar agriculture refused to innovate, the industrial sector did not respond as well. At present, despite being one of the oldest districts in the area, the entire 8,878 square kilometre stretch has no mentionable industry — except for a small sugar mill in one (Chishtian) of the five tehsils. The district still produces a huge quantity of cotton, but there is no cottage industry related to textile let alone a textile unit.

In addition to cotton, the district also has surplus wheat and livestock but has not witnessed related industrial development for three reasons.

Firstly, connectivity is an issue. For the first four decades of Pakistan’s existence, when an industrial base developed in the rest of the country, Bahawalnagar remained cut off from the rest of the province and country. It has India on two sides and the Sutlej river on the third. The only connection to the district was through Sulemanki barrage — with a detour of close to 100km. The first bridge across the river (Sutlej) came in the late eighties when sugar mills started coming up in the neighbouring districts. These physical disconnects did not allow an industrial base to develop.

Secondly, the entire district is stretched across the Indian border, hardly a propitious location for setting up a big industry. The city of Bahawalnagar is only 6km inside Pakistan: who would invest money right on the border area, where a few wars have been fought?

Thirdly, the government never incentivised (for example, declaring it a tax-free zone) investment here, so even the local industrialists like Ch Muhammad Arshad (Ghazi Fabrics) have invested in other areas, not native Bahawalnagar. The area thus remains industry free and agriculture remains the employer of the last resort.

Malik Naeem, a local farmer and member of Farmers Associates Pakistan (FAP), believes that the slide in cotton production and increase in poverty has a direct link. “Three of the five tehsils — Haroon Abad, Chishtian and Fort Abbas — have a completely brackish aquifer. Due to the water situation, they are forced to only grow cotton. With cotton suffering multiple crises and losing its national sheen, the producers are bound to suffer: poverty fed on itself when increasingly poor farmers reduced investment on crop and suffered even more on yield.”

“I am in the process of digging up my around 100-acre Kinnow orchard because the horticulture market has not developed owing to the poor connectivity of the district. Bahawalnagar is the only district that is still untouched by motorways and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor roads — all running parallel, but not coming closer than 50km to 70km from this pariah territory,” Mr Malik laments.

Another reality that for which the district feels pride but is painful is that the internationally acclaimed Nili buffalo and Beetle goat are natives of this area. It is still one of the few districts, where cattle have not won against buffalo.

The district has 1.15m buffalos against 0.91m cattle. Its goat (1.4m) population beats that of sheep (mere 240,428) easily. The district dwellers are convinced that these figures understate the animal population, which is at least 50pc more than the figures stated here.

“A single milk collection point of a multinational at Chishtian amounts to 160,000 litres a day,” says Malik Abad. The district also includes the Cholistan area, where the provincial government has invested billions of rupees for developing a disease-free zone.” While these factors point towards the richness of the area in terms of livestock, they also underline the painful reality that the area is denied its due importance and share in development allocations, he laments.

Its water woes are further accentuated by the operations of two canals (Sadqia and Fordwah) that take freshwater to the district. If the locals are to be believed, the canal operations are now part of the problem.

During his last two stints, the PML-N chief minister Shehbaz Sharif had a pet project called “Danish School.” One such school was built in the area. To the misfortune of growers, the school fell on the left side of the road — a brackish zone. The Fordwah canal crosses the area on the other side of the road and was connected to the school to provide it fresh water. Fordwah, otherwise a six-month canal, is now run for nine to 10 months for school supplies.

Additional water that it needs come from cutting into Sadqia Canal allocations, which is a 12-month canal and feeds almost half of the district. It now runs for 10 months as the district share and while it stays within the district, it is diverted to the other canal — thus altering irrigation operations in the area.

The provincial agriculture planners think that Bahawaganar, despite its wretched poverty, has much strength as well. It has defeated many myths about cotton (poor seed, bad management, climate change and fake pesticides ruling other core areas) to produce quality cotton and maintain yield levels as well.

They also insist that hot weather and dry winds are the two most beneficial factors that can multiply the livestock population and yield with a little bit of extra help from the provincial government. And finally, if its water management and share can be improved, the district can increase its agriculture production.

When, and if, Punjab can compensate the district for natural, historical and physical hindrances, it can certainly become part of the solution and help reduce agricultural and industrial poverty.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 1st, 2021

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