FOUNDED by Raja Bachan Pal Gujrat in 460BC, the town, which later came to head the district, is an area that rivals any other part of the world, and for all right reasons: history, industry, agriculture, natural endowment, geography and what not!
The fact that Gujrat, as a town, is one of the three sub-continental cities, which were planned before being built, rebuilt or expanded, adds another feather to its historical curriculum vitae. An architectural marvel Fatehpur Sikri, meant to be the imperial capital, and Dipalpur — for housing the royal army — are the other two examples. But Gujrat has always been people’s place.
The former president Fazal Ellahi Chaudhry hailed from the area, and so did former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Former Chief Minister and current speaker of the Punjab assembly Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi also belongs to the district. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the area in 2005 because many of his voters were Gujratis.
Falling on the foothills of Kashmir, this 3,192 square kilometre district is separated from Mirpur (of AJK) by River Jehlum in the northwest and from Sialkot by River Chenab in the Southeast. Though its 864,225 acres are categorised as highly fertile, only 572,911 acres are cultivated. Out of them, 378,503 acres are irrigated and 194,408 acres are rain-fed (barani). Forests cover 11,342 acres and a huge culturable waste of 204,345 acres remains untapped agricultural potential.
Located between two major rivers of Punjab, situated on the foothills of Kashmir, mild weather and a respectable amount of rain amount should have turned the area into an example for crops diversification and a centre for vegetables and fruits. But it has not been the case. The enterprising spirit of the area reflected in industry and clay and wood artisanship has failed to touch agriculture. Locals blame particular social realities for agri-failure.
The entire social effort is to settle abroad and earn a foreign income, pushing agriculture down to the bottom of the priority list
The twin-crop agriculture of the district is perhaps the only sore point of the area. Wheat and rice have hogged the area as far as Pakistan’s recorded agricultural history goes. Anything between 360,000 acres goes to wheat and 100,000 to 120,000 acres to rice, and it ends the agricultural snapshot of the district. The social profile of the district hardly leaves any space for innovation and diversification of agriculture. Almost every middle-class family has a part of it settled abroad and they mostly survive on remittances.
Land, however small, gives social and political respect in an area dominated by big political names and their small-time representative. There are hardly any big land holdings in the entire district. Since people do not depend on agri-income, they do not invest either, treating agriculture as more of a perfunctory function rather than an income-generating enterprise. “The lands are so neglected and fragmented here that any amount of investment on them does not make commercial or agriculture sense,” explain s Shehzad Butt, who own a few ancestral acres on the Gujrat suburbs.
The only chance here is an integration of land to make the district start taking land income seriously. It may be physical integration or cooperatives of farmers or corporate farming, but highly fragmented land has to be integrated so that it qualifies for commercial and personal investment. Local farmers and planners have long been toying with ideas like “one village, one product,” but it has not progressed beyond discussions because “land and agriculture” is not a matter of survival in the district, he concludes.
“The natural endowments — proximity to hill, rivers, a large number of rivers tributaries snaking through the area, weather, rain — is unique in cropping terms and it should be tapped,” says Akram Warraich — a local farmer, who is trying to survive on land sources. Here is his diagnostic: “the trouble is that agriculture has not been a priority because remittances help people survive. The entire social efforts are riveted to go and settle abroad. The area is strewn with palatial places, made with foreign income, which have become symbols of political and economic power — pushing agriculture down to the bottom of the social priority list.”
Highly concentrated industrial development may be the result, or a cause, of the agriculture failure. Gujrat, along with Gujranwala and Sialkot, forms the “Golden Triangle” of districts that have export economies. Gujrat has been known for the quality of its clay, and Gujratis have honed skills for making pottery through the millennia.
Since the 1940s, they have been making electrical fans and have excelled in the genre to the extent of providing them to people within and without Pakistan. The making of furniture comes next in the area and the district is now nationally acknowledged for the art of playing with wood; the parliament works on furniture made by Gujrat. According to official data, the Gujrat district now houses 362 electrical fan making concerns, 137 pottery making units and 784 furniture factories. The number and success of these concerns have shifted the district’s focus away from agriculture and its possibilities.
Though the above-mentioned personalities have not been able to improve agriculture, they did serve the district in every other way. Social statistics explain the reality. The district has 1,470 schools, 21 colleges and one university. The health coverage is elaborate with 118 concerns — one district hospital, four tehsils headquarter hospitals, 90 basic health units, 9 municipal corporation hospitals etc — taking care of the district dwellers.
Like agriculture, the livestock performance of the district also leaves much to be desired. According to the official record, the district (four tehsils Gujrat, Kharian, Sarai Alamgir and Jalal Pur Jattan) has only 461,000 large animals: 305,000 buffaloes and 156,000 cows. The numbers of the smaller animals are lower: 126,000 goats and 25,000 sheep. This is despite the fact that the district has four artificial insemination centres, 19 hospitals and 45 dispensaries dedicated to the development of livestock. Of late, however, the industrial spirit of the district has started touching the diary sector and 64 farms (of up to 100 animals) have come up. One hopes that the process continues.
Rural poultry numbers 328,000 only. Commercial poultry, however, is beginning to look up, with 82 controlled sheds dotting the district and three hatcheries feed them chicks.
In the final word, as summed up by Dr Iqrar A Khan, Gujrat has the potential and weather to feed the entire central Punjab region with quality vegetables. The only thing it needs is planning and political will to follow through with the planning.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 1st, 2021