If proof is needed for under-utilisation, ineffectiveness, irrelevance or even failure of agriculture institutions, the district of Faisalabad provides it. Having four internationally-acclaimed institutions in its precinct for more than a century, its agricultural pattern and productivity are still fossilised and its performance is as good, or as bad, as that of any other bad-performing district in Punjab — including the remotest one like Rajanpur.

If taken out of performance context, the names and history of these institutions are imposing. The Punjab Agricultural College and Research Institute, Lyallpur, that later morphed into a university has been there since 1906. When education and research divorced each other in 1962, the college became a university and the Ayub Research Center was born with researchers stuffed in it to lead the green revolution.

A decade later (1972), the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (Niab) was established. In 1994, the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) followed. The university and Ayub Research Center have around 45 independent sub-institutes for specified research. The agriculture picture, however, remains the same, if not worse.

While these institutions are not devoted to improving Faisalabad’s agriculture alone, however, their proximity has not worked in the favour of farming and farmers. The productivity lags behind even the provincial average and the pattern and is restricted to an archaic five-major template. Both factors stand witness to how these institutions failed to educate farmers in their neighbourhoods with their utility remaining a question mark.

The Punjab Crop Reporting Service documents how five crops — wheat, cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize — hog the district’s lands. When one of the crop’s production declines, as is the case with cotton, the other four divide the area among themselves rather than making way for other high-value options and breaking the decades’ old pattern.

Despite the proximity of several agricultural institutions, the productivity averages of the district are below that of provincial numbers for almost all of its major crops of wheat, cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize

The average productivity data only lends credence to the claim. In 2014-15, when the provincial average of cotton stood at 23 maunds per acre, Faisalabad produced at the rate of 17.19 maunds. Next year, the provincial average dropped to 14.72 maunds and Faisalabad slid further to 11.18 maunds. Last year, it produced cotton at 16.38 maunds against the provincial average of 17.46. The district has never beaten the provincial average in the last five years.

Rice’s case is similar. In 2014-15, the district’s average was 19.56 maunds against the provincial average of 21.06 maunds. Next year, Faisalabad stood at 19.41 maunds and Punjab at 21.33 maunds. Last year, the comparison was at 22.09 maunds and 22.14 maunds, and the district has been lagging for the last five years.

Same is the story of maize. In 2015-16, Faisalabad fared at 64.02 maunds against 66.48 maunds of Punjab. Last year, the province stood at 80.25 maunds against the district’s 69.71 maunds.

Wheat has sometimes fared marginally better. For example, last year the provincial average was 32.28 maunds against Faisalabad’s 37.30. In sugarcane, it has again trailed the provincial average since last year Faisalabad’s yield was 708 maunds against the provincial average of 733 maunds. In the last five years, Faisalabad has beaten Punjab once: in 2018-19, it produced at the rate of 689 maunds against Punjab’s 685.

It is not only productivity as the district is also stuck in the fossilised five-crop groove. If cotton loses half of its acreage (35,000 acres last year against 75,000 acres in 2014-15), maize cashes in on the loss — from 57,000 acres in 2014-15 to 121,000 acres last year. Maize has also snatched acreage from wheat, which has lost about 200,000 acres in the last five years.

Dr Iqrar A Khan, the vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture, concedes the loss, saying “these institutions became silos; first they got disconnected from each and then the farmers. As is being argued for the last many decades, we need to integrate three streams (education, research and extension service) otherwise this loss will continue. There are many models of integration that can be debated or conflated to get the best one. The current model allows all services to work independently without interacting with each other and is collapsing.”

The district developed its industrial profile around cotton. When the Britishers developed the irrigation system, connected it with roads and rail to transport cotton to the port city for export, it gave the city its much-trumpeted alias — the Manchester of Pakistan. This historical advantage allowed the district to develop a textile base that has expanded since then.

Grasping the textile industrial picture in its totality becomes difficult considering the district, as per the industrial profile, has 250 hosiery products units, embroideries (300), dyeing (250), spinning (63), composite (09), ginning (26) and 104 sizing of yarn units. Some 74 chemical mills, 56 flour mills, 40 units of agriculture implements, 30 oil mills and 35 light engineering units are also there.

Regretfully, the textile industry does not care for the crop that was the rationale of its existence and expansion. Cotton is losing its acreage and productivity right under the nose of the very industry it gave birth to.

Add livestock sector’s population and industry to it and the industrial picture gets more confusing. The district now owns 1.4 million large animals (961,440 buffalo and 517,577 cattle) and 578,836 smaller ones (531,501 goats, 47.335 sheep). This is in addition to over 70m poultry birds. This massive population of animals has led to the growth of 97 different sizes of dairy farms; five of them have more than 100 animals and 43 of more than 50 animals.

Interestingly, commercial poultry finds its genesis in Faisalabad. All big names in the business have either been teachers or students of the University of Agriculture and now claim to have more than 60 per cent of the market. This resulted in 10 feed mills that are now leading the maize market in the area.

However, this industrial boom comes at a social cost. The industry competes for water with farming and the people who live there. First, it claims a share, then pollutes it and releases it back to the system. There are widespread reports in local media, which the irrigation department never denies, that the industry is releasing untreated water not only into drains but injecting it back into the soil, polluting the aquifer.

“This is what has turned the city into a hepatitis red zone,” says Saleem Mubarak, a local journalist, who says these reports regularly appear in local and national media, raising alarm. “However, since aquifer is brackish and water is neither fit for agriculture nor drinking purposes, the issue has not been highlighted a lot.”

The district, led by Faisalabad, its third-largest city, has seen its peripheral fields turning into housing schemes. It is now expanding in all directions, with 160 legal and 325 illegal schemes eating into agricultural lands. Since the subsoil water is unfit for drinking, the local Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa) has to extract water from an old river bed in neighbouring Chinot and pipe it to Faisalabad.

As the city expands at breathtaking speed, so does the work of Wasa: in 2008, the agency was providing 56m gallons of water to the city, which has now jumped to 110m gallons. The Wasa is now treating canal water (Rakh Branch and Jhang branch) to keep up with its supplies. Drinking water is a precious commodity in Faisalabad as it takes triple effort —extracting, transmitting and distributing.

In the final analysis, one can safely say that three factors — agriculture education, cotton and industry — which developed the district and brought it to its current prominence now seem to be threatening it. The policy-makers need to act before it gets too late.

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

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