Carved out of the Mianwali district in 1982, Bhakkar district is known for its Thal desert and the gram/chickpeas and moong pulse produced there. The desert, which protrudes into adjoining Khushab and Layyah districts, produces 80 per cent of chickpeas in the country. Spread over 8,153 sq km, the district lies along the left bank of River Indus and is part of the Sindh Sagar Doab.
Bhakkar, the headquarters of the district, is an ancient walled town. Various Baloch tribes are in an overwhelming majority in its 1.65 million population. Non-Pushto speaking Pathans like Niazis and Mastikhels as well as Jats and Rajputs are also in good numbers, while others migrating communities from India may also be found. Dhandlas, Niwanis and Shahanis have been occupying the political scene in the district, which comprises over 2m acres of cultivable and 130,000 acres of uncultivated land. At least 65,000 acres are under forest while 47,500 acres is a wasteland.
The Greater Thal canal project has divided the district into two parts: the irrigated area in Darya Khan, Kalurkot and Bhakkar tehsils up till Layyah district along the mighty Indus, and other rain-fed eastern parts towards Jhang district comprising Mankera and Nurpur Thal tehsil. Chaubara branch canal of the Greater Thal Canal has been constructed and will shortly begin irrigating these so far unirrigated sandy lands of Bhakkar.
Along with problems of too little or too much rain, the import of chickpeas and pulses by the government without taking into account the size of local production is also inflicting a heavy toll on farmers
The Thal desert is known for its chickpea production but for the last eight years or so it is facing the wrath of climate change as either there is no rain at all leading to failure in the germination of the seed or it rains heavily damaging the standing crop sown over one million acres of land. Being highly weather dependent, its output varies — a maximum of nine tonnes per acre yield was recorded in 2013, while the same dropped to 2.56 tonnes per acre in 2018. More area may be brought under cultivation if farmers are provided laser land levellers as the desert comprises sand dunes and mounds.
Some well-off farmers have tried to become less dependent on weather by installing solar-powered water pumps because unlike in Cholistan and Thar deserts, the level of the mostly sweet sub-soil water is not deeper than 30 feet. A few of the progressive growers are also trying to install sprinklers as a solution to water shortage. But, being costly experiments, the majority of poor farmers cannot afford to opt for it until and unless the government heavily subsidises the machinery. However, the government has installed 300 tube wells in 1998 that are still in use.
“The year 2013 was the best year for the gram crop during my lifetime as I achieved over eight tonnes per acre yield. Since then the region has been either receiving no rain at germination time or heavy showers when the crop is close to maturity,” says Amjad Magsi, a progressive farmer, urging the government to provide subsidies on solar panels and sprinklers to help farmers cultivate gram regardless of weather conditions. He laments that weather is not the only factor hurting them. “Import of chickpeas and pulses by the government without taking into account the size of local production is also inflicting a heavy toll on us.” The lower and uncertain gram production has forced the closure of two pulses mills established decades ago.
Fodder, moong, sugarcane, wheat and cotton are other major crops of the district though attempts have also been made to sow rice and maize.
As livestock also has a major role in the district economy, fodder was sown over 848,000 acres in 1995. The environment is suitable for rearing goats, cows and camels. Thus, large goat herds and camel breeding are the hallmarks of the region though there are no proper arrangements to establish the sector on scientific commercial lines. Buffaloes, however, could not be acclimatised.
The area under fodder shrank to 41,000 acres in 2005 when growers turned to, besides other crops, cultivating moong, whose acreage went up from 119,200 acres in 1995 to 209,000 acres in 2009. Bhakkar produces between 33 to 45pc of moong in Punjab and its per acre yield has also increased from 200kg to 300kg thanks to new seed varieties. But fodder again caught the eye of the farmers after the failure of moong crop in successive years. In the year 2020, fodder was sown on 677,000 acres and moong on 105,500 acres.
Like elsewhere in the country, sugarcane is gaining currency among the farming community in Bhakkar for its being a comparatively less labour intensive and carefree cash crop. Sown on 357,000 acres in 1990, the area under it gradually went up to 528,000 acres in 1995 and 72,0000 acres in the year 2020. Its per acre yield has more than doubled from 306 maunds to 657 maunds taking the total output to over four-fold, from 407,200 tonnes to 1,765,600 tonnes, during the period even though the lone sugar mill (Fecto) in the district is closed owing to financial losses.
The sensitive crop cotton is the prime victim of sugarcane’s popularity. Aamer Dhandla, a cotton grower, says the high incidence of pest attacks, non-availability of certified seeds and spurious and adulterated pesticides have made farmers reject the crop. Hitting its lowest ebb in the mid-1990s when it was sown only on 11,000 acres, cotton has seen a gradual increase in its acreage because of the booming textile industry at that time. Land under white lint went up to 118,000 acres in 2014-15 only to see its downward slide again to reach 39,000 acres in 2019-20 thanks to attacks of pink bollworm and other sects. Its per acre yield has fluctuated between 680kgs per acre to 400kgs during the period. All 15 ginning factories in the district have closed down because of poor business.
Despite all odds, farmers’ love for growing wheat has never waned for a major portion of it is consumed by the community itself. Land use for grain grew from 315,000 acres in 1995 to 460,000 acres in 2020 as per acre yield also improved from 18.1 maunds to 26 maunds in the district. Thus, a better yield and increase in acreage has doubled wheat output, from 212,000 to 446,000 tonnes, during the last 15 years or so.
Rice and maize crops have also been unsuccessfully tried. Rice was sown on 1,000 acres in 1995 and its acreage went up to 6,000 acres in 2009 and then gradually declined to 1,000 acres by 2020 as its per acre yield could not go beyond 20 maunds. Some cotton growers have adopted maize as the alternative crop allocating 10,200 acres to it in 2019 only to half the land next year. For, the average per acre yield of maize in the district could not cross 30 maunds against the provincial average of over 80 maunds. Even the adjacent Mianwali district has been reaping a yield of over 53 maunds per acre.
Some progressive farmers are also trying to develop citrus orchards with the help of drip irrigation in the Jehan Khan area of Bhakkar tehsil, whereas melon is a known fruit of Mankera tehsil. A few mangoes and guava orchards also dot the district’s landscape. Plantation of khaggle trees is also gaining popularity as the plant grows fully in four to five years and not only serves as a natural shield against sand storms when planted around fields but its wood is used in manufacturing furniture as well. Some people tried to plant eucalyptus species but soon rejected it as it is a water-guzzling plant.
The establishment of controlled sheds for poultry farming during the last couple of years is a new trend on the economic scene of the district. If proper guidance and financing services are made available, because of its location in the region, it may become a hub for supplying white meat to two large urban centres — Punjab’s capital Lahore and twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 10th, 2021