The path of Sahiwal’s success and agrarian suicide

Published February 15, 2021
It is mission impossible — others think it is downright suicidal. But that is the path that the district of Sahiwal is walking on.
It is mission impossible — others think it is downright suicidal. But that is the path that the district of Sahiwal is walking on.

It is mission impossible — others think it is downright suicidal. But that is the path that the district of Sahiwal is walking on. By learning from its neighbouring districts, it is increasingly adopting a cropping pattern that severely clashes with its water realities. In the end, and official and private experts fear the end is only a decade or two away, a collapse in the sector is inevitable unless either the government alters the water reality or growers calculate the long-term cost of their behaviour and mend their ways.

Over the last few years, as Sahiwal started witnessing the decrease in cotton’s value, it began to replace it with three alternate crops (potato, maize and hybrid rice) as was done by its neighbouring districts such as Vehari. In place of cotton, which used to lock resources (land and financial) for a year, farmers are now going for three crops, each with a four-month harvest. This is taking place in central Punjab where cotton has lost its kingdom.

The psyche and economics of the three-crop pattern are seductive. It keeps farmers working on the land throughout the year and fetches them a fortune. They sow maize in January and harvest it in April. Hybrid rice takes up the next four months (May-August) and finally, the potato gets its turn in October through to January — completing the year and the agricultural cycle.

The fiscal comparison between cotton vs the three-crops-format is forcing the farmers to forget the former. In the case of cotton, “even if the yield is 20 maunds (progressive estimate) and sells at Rs4,500 (a rarity in itself), the farmer gets Rs90,000. Take expenditure (around Rs40,000) out, and the farmer is left with a profit of Rs50,000,” says Naeem Hotiana, a progressive farmer from the area.

Now compare it with the maize-rice-potato trio and farmers feel jubilant and justified. Sown in January and harvested in April, the maize averages (with imported seed) at 100 maunds per acre. Calculated at the current price of Rs1,200 per maund, it fetches the farmer Rs120,000. Even after taking expenditure of Rs40,000 out, it still leaves a profit of Rs80,000.

Next comes hybrid rice, which is a May-August affair, and easily yields 100 maunds per acre and sells at Rs1,500 per maund — fetching farmers Rs150,000 per acre. Take investment of roughly Rs35,000 out and the grower still makes Rs115,000 per acre.

Ignoring water realities, farmers are opting for a three-crop cycle that earns Rs475,000 per acre compared to traditional cotton farming that accrues a profit of Rs50,000 per acre

Potato fits in the October-January window and, on average, yields 100 bags of 120kg. At the current rate (last Wednesday) of Rs3,499 per bag, a farmer makes Rs340,000 per acre. Take out Rs60,000 expenditure (if the farmer has his own seed) or Rs100,000 if he buys it, he is left with Rs240,000 or Rs280,000 profit. As compared to Rs50,000 profit from cotton, a farmer makes Rs475,000 per acre per year with three alternate crops. Good for farmers!

The last five year’s data of the Punjab Crop Reporting Service substantiates the new reality. Cotton’s acreage has dropped from 199,000 acres in 2015 to 131,000 acres last year. During the same years, wheat lost 111,000 acres — dropping from 375,000 acres to 264,000 acres. Rice and maize gained. Rice has touched 79,000 acres — up from 72,000 acres. Maize added 27,000 acres to its tally — from 194,000 acres in 2014-15 to 221,000 acres last year. Potato has maintained its figure at just above 60,000 acres but is set to increase this year if farmers are to be trusted.

All this experimentation is worsening the already bad water condition, which according to an expert is not sustainable any longer. Currently, over 100 years old Lower Bari Doab Canal (LBDC) serves the district. In 1913, it was built for 67 per cent cropping intensity, which now with the emerging pattern of three crops has gone up to a whopping 150 per cent. It means that the LBDC is now capable of serving hardly 40pc of its new needs. Even this percentage is conditional and valid only if the canal runs at its full capacity — a rarity in itself given perennial water shortage in the country.

According to the irrigation department, in the last five years, Rabi shortages fluctuated between 10-38pc and which the canal experienced as well. It means that it has not run on full capacity in the last five years. Even Kharif shortages range between 2-12pc and hit it three out of five years.

Where does the balance come from? Over 17,000 tube wells do the job. One must keep in mind that these are not traditional tube wells that serve up to 50 feet depth, but massive turbines that multiply benefit to farmers and damage the aquifer.

Another caveat added to the water crisis is the Sahiwal Coal Power Project. Inaugurated in July 2017, the plant is situated right in the heart of the district. Its supercritical steam generators operate at 580 degree Celsius to generate 1,320MW and, according to a power expert, heat the microclimate in a vast radius around the plant. Because of this climatic impact, “even if 100,000 acres around this 1,700-acre plant need one additional watering, one can calculate the water cost of the plant. The plant itself draws 60,000 cubic meters of water from the LBDC for cooling down operations which is yet another layer of water concerns in the area,” says an official of the agriculture department.

“The plant is hitting our lands in three ways: heating the climate and increasing water needs, drying available atmospheric moisture quickly and spraying ash around. All this has an agricultural and health cost for those falling within the radius of plant impact,” laments Muhammad Asif, a farmer living close to the coal plant.

A recent study by the irrigation department calculates that the canal now serves only 30pc of district lands, with 60pc surviving by pumping out water and 10pc on rains. The district now falls in the ‘critical category’ — in irrigational terms, it means the water is dropping by more than a foot every year — and the study terms it unsustainable. This situation is despite the district is a double water area — bordered by rivers Ravi and Sutlej on either side.

Sitting at the mouth of Sutlej valley, the ancient civilisation of Harappa (an Indus Valley urban dwelling that dates back to 3000BC) is only 22 miles away from the city of Sahiwal and has been connected through roads and railway network for centuries. This connectivity, coupled with very well-performing agricultural lands and livestock, led to a high-density industrial base. Its cotton contribution to the national economy led to the establishment of 67 units — 61 ginning, five spinning and one weaving — in the district. Rice is served by 49 mills and there are 43 confectionary and food processing units.

As per the industries department, Sahiwal’s industrial CV includes names like Engro Foods and Philip Morris. Apart from worsening water woes, everything seems to be flourishing.

Diary development is the latest addition to the list. The area has a native cow breed, named after the district headquarters — Sahiwal. Neeli buffalo and Beetle breed of goat is also present in the district. The livestock department data says that the district has over three million large animals — 1.77m buffalos and 1.23m cattle. Small animals also number a million — 941,000 goats and 170,000 sheep — and rural poultry numbers 650,000. On the basis of this livestock population, commercial activity is expanding.

The district has 183 commercial farms of 25-50 animals, 48 of 50-100 lactating animals and 17 having over 100 animals. These figures led to an industrial growth that is rivalled by few districts. About 215 milk collection points, one milk processing and 22 cheese manufacturing units dot the district. Seven poultry and six diary feed mills serve 100 broiler and 36 layer farms and around 248 dairy farms.

All this agriculture, livestock and industrial success have only one flipside: deteriorating water conditions. The economics of the three-crop experiment is so powerful that farmers may neither take the long term view nor review their water consumption. It leaves the government as the only agency that needs to act, and it must. It needs to study and find ways how to increase water supplies to the area and regulate them as was done by Indian Punjab through the “Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009” or by regulating the cropping pattern. Otherwise, the Sahiwal success story will be short-lived.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 15th, 2021

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