RIVERBED of the mighty Indus near Gaimro dyke witnesses an unusual bustle with a combined harvester, a costly machinery, being used for wheat harvesting on one side and a heavy duty modernised tractor employed for even distribution of fertiliser to ensure spring cultivation of sugarcane, on the other.

The newly sown crop is then watered using groundwater lifted through tube-wells.

Ghotki is located on the left bank of the Indus and its command area is fed by Ghotki feeder canal of Guddu barrage, the first barrage over the Indus in Sindh, while the riverine area near Gaimro dyke, where mechanised means are being used for spring cultivation of sugarcane, falls within the jurisdiction of the Katcho Bhindi police station.

Usually growers opt for manual sowing of sugarcane crops, as using expensive machinery such as a sugarcane planter or a modern combine harvester adds to input costs in the commanded area of different canals.

“Land [under sugarcane cultivation in the Indus riverbed] is 1,800 acres which is actually obtained from Sardar Abid Sundrani on a contract [maqata],” said Azizullah who supervises farm management for Jahangir Khan Tareen.

Sugarcane yield which, according to him was as impressive as 1,140 maunds per acre two years back, has fallen to 825 maunds this year. “Yields dropped this year due to seasonal issues,” he said.

Sugarcane cultivation has lately made great inroads into the otherwise cotton-rich zone of Sindh. However, an unusual growth in the sugar industry here has not only affected cotton production in the area but also often leads to price controversy involving payments to farmers on sugarcane’s crop rate.

“We can’t afford machinery like a combined harvester. It is expensive but growers like Tareens, Makhdooms and Mahars certainly can. It requires investment. Even otherwise such machinery is needed for crop sown on hundreds of acres,” quipped Sindh Chamber of Agriculture’s vice president Nabi Bux Sathio.

Of the 38 sugar mills in Sindh, 32 had cropped sugarcane for 2020-21. The Sindh government notified sugarcane rate of Rs202 per 40kg in the just concluded season. In 2020-21, sugar recovery was recorded at 10.064pc against last year’s 10.130pc in Sindh.

Last year (2019-20) Sindh had crushed 14,286,367.152 tonnes of sugarcane and produced 1,459,234.300 tonnes of sweetener. In 2020-21, 15,524,728.588 tonnes of sugarcane was crushed and 1,556,265.300 tonnes of sugar was produced with 10.064 per cent sugar recovery ratio, showing increased crushing of sugarcane.

“Money makes the mare go,” said Prof Iqrar Khan, former vice chancellor of University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. Everyone knows sugarcane is a high-delta crop, but farmers always opt for the crop that gives them better returns. “This is the case with sugarcane. Since this year farmers got Rs300 per 40kg rate of sugarcane, they will go for overkill now and it leads to surplus supplies of crop next year,” he argued.

Among the 38 sugar factories, sugar mills owned by JKT (he owns two mills in Ghotki, JWD-III and JWD-IV), Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar (Alliance sugar mills), Ghotki’s Mahars (Sardar Ghulam Mohammad Mahar factory) have larger crushing capacity.

Mahars’ sugar factory has 14,000 tonnes crushing capacity per day, JKT’s two mills 13,000 tonnes per day, Alliance and Daharki has 12,000 tonnes crushing capacity and Mehran, Ranipur and Mirpurkhas sugar mills 12,500 tonnes, according to cane commissioner’s figures.

Figures show JKT’s mills in Ghotki functioned for only 110 days yet ended up with the highest crushing tonnage — 1,538,213.986 tonnes and 1,411,576.423 tonnes — in 2020-21. His two mills’ share in Sindh’s sugar production is 18.67pc this season. Tareen, a Punjab-based miller, is busy in large-scale sugarcane cultivation in Sindh for quite some time. They were followed by the second highest figures of Daharki sugar mills with 1,270,151.986 tonnes and Alliance’s 1,162,231.260 tonnes, though the former crushed canes for 110 days and the latter for 107 days.

While Tharparkar sugar factory crushed cane for 130 days, it got only 583,176.792 tonnes of cane for crushing.

Given current retail price of sweetener, figures of profit margin earned by the industry would be self-explanatory though in many cases at the cost of consumers, farmers or both. Nevertheless the wealthy sugar industry has been winning government’s favours of subsidy that comes from public purse to allow sugar export so that their ‘losses’ are offset.

Ghotki, once known for cotton cultivation, is now home to five sugar mills. In the lower part of Sindh, Badin was once considered a hub of sugarcane cultivation with five sugar factories in the area, as according to veteran grower Abdul Majeed Nizamani, sugarcane production is recommended for lower Sindh. But two of the five Badin’s factories have been lying closed for one reason or another this year, with the result that sugarcane cultivation is shifting to upper Sindh.

Sindh Abadgar Board vice president Mehmood Nawaz blames flawed policy decisions for not managing the agriculture sector and riverine area properly. “Riverine area is badly used by leasing out land for agriculture purposes. Rather we have destroyed it,” he said.

“I clearly remember when we opposed unnatural growth in sugar industry in Sindh due to fear of threat to cotton zone, our friends criticised us,” he noted.

Usually those who grow crops in the riverine area hardly pay anything to the state.

Dr Ghulam Murtaza Arain of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources believes there is no law on abstraction of groundwater. “It is only in our part of the country that groundwater is used for growing orchards and sugarcane in the riverine area,” he says.

And cultivation continues unabated on the lands belonging to government departments as well as on private lands by the dwellers of kutcha areas. In most cases, kutcha land remains in illegal occupation of those at the helm, including politicians, bureaucrats and sometimes police officers.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2021

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