One of the oldest districts of Punjab, Muzaffargarh was granted the status of a district back in 1861. The town Muzaffargarh, which serves as the district headquarters, had been founded by Nawaz Muzaffar Khan, the governor of Multan in 1794. The old town still lies within the four walls of the fort built by the Nawab. The district spans 8,249sqkm in the form of a strip between the Chenab and Indus rivers. Thus its lands are often inundated by floodwaters. The calamity also leads to improving the fertility of the area.

Wheat, sugarcane and cotton are the main crops in the district, though cotton is losing its sheen because of successive crop failures over the last five or six years. Rice crop is benefiting from the loss of cotton, while jawar, bajra, moong, mash, masoor, ground-nuts, maize and oilseeds such as rapeseed/mustard and sunflower are also grown in small quantities in the district.

The sensitive crop, cotton, had once been the prime crop of the region until the introduction of water-guzzling sugarcane when a number of sugar mills were established in and around the district adding to atmospheric moisture detrimental to cotton. It had been sown on 524,000 acres until 2004 when it began gradually losing ground and was grown on 338,000 acres in 2020. Poor seed and pesticide quality, higher input costs as well as dropping profit margin are stated to be the reasons behind this fall.

Even if sold at Rs5,000 per maund, the indicative price recently announced by the government, cotton will fetch only Rs50,000 per acre for the farmer, whereas the per acre expenses are close to Rs70,000 in Muzaffargarh

Malik Wajid Bohar, a local cotton grower laments the lack of research to develop white lint varieties that can withstand climate change, which is triggering lethal whitefly attacks. Likewise, pesticides companies are failing to introduce new formulae to subdue the pest, which has developed immunity against the available formulations. The quality of the drugs also matters as local companies with dirt-cheap chemicals are playing havoc with agriculture to benefit off from farmers’ poor purchasing power, he adds.

Haroon Bosan, another grower, says the alternative crops are offering a higher profit than cotton, whose per acre yield has declined to less than 10 maunds as compared to 16 maunds which is Punjab’s average. Even if sold at Rs5,000 per maund, the indicative price recently announced for the cotton crop by the federal government will fetch only Rs50,000 to the farmer, whereas the per acre expenses are close to Rs70,000. Thus, the growers are turning to the alternatives like rice, maize, mango and citrus orchards and even pulses.

Shaukat Ali Abid, deputy director of agriculture (extension) claims that they have prepared a bio remedy as a climate-friendly solution to control pests this year which will reduce the number of chemical sprays and thus the production cost. According to him, a potion of kaur tumma (colocynth or cucumis trigonus), tobacco, heeng (asafetida), neem and aak (calotropis) has been used as a pesticide to deter most of the pests that damage cotton and results of it have proved to be very beneficial. The mixture is helping restore the ecosystem in the area and promote the growth of farmer-friendly pests, he claims, sharing a photograph in which a sparrow has nested in a cotton plant. About the poor cotton yield, he discloses that the farmers are allocating less fertile lands to the crop and more to other profitable alternatives.

Wheat used to be sown at 640,000 acres in the 1990s and its acreage touched its peak of 780,000 in 2009 when its support price was increased from Rs625 to Rs950 per 40kg. Maintaining its hold till 2015, the area under the grain began shrinking and in 2019 it was reduced by around 200,000 to 542,000 acres. However, Mr Abid doubts the credibility of the figures given by the Crop Reporting Service.

At least 21,700 acres of land were under sugarcane crop in 1990. Its popularity among the farmers grew with the establishment of three sugar mills in the district as the acreage went up to 151,000 acres in 2017 only to lose over 50,000 acres by the year 2020. The agriculture (extension) officer attributes this rise and fall in the sugarcane domain to the treatment meted out to the growers by the millers. “Payments made earlier and with lesser ‘illegal’ deductions would encourage the growers to sow more cane the next season.”

The area of rice, mostly grown along the two rivers, has almost tripled during the last three decades — from 35,000 acres in 1990 to 107,000 acres in 2020. The Super Kainat Basmati variety is most popular for sowing.

The dejected cotton growers are also trying to develop mango, date palm and citrus orchards. The cultivation of mango orchards has gone up to 70,000 acres, while date palm is covering around 20,000 acres of land. And Mr Abid says both the fruits have harvested bumper crops this year. “There has been a 99 per cent flowering and 85pc fruit setting this year in both types of orchards.”

Meetha variety of citrus, pomegranate, java plum (jaman), grewia (faalsa), banana and pears orchards also dot the area. Onions, carrots, cauliflower and peas are the main vegetables grown in the district. Ladyfinger, turnips, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic and chillies are also sown in small quantities.

At least 100,864 acres are under forest, the largest one is Lashari wala Jungle, in the district. There is also a linear plantation of 1,250 miles along the roads, railway tracks and canals. The trees grown in the area are kikar, shisham, millbury, eucalyptus, bamboo and coconut.

The district is prominent in cattle farming as it houses the highest number of cattle, 1,272,637, among Punjab’s districts. Bahawalpur is second to Muzaffargarh with 795,739 cattle. Buffalo population-wise, Muzaffargarh holds the fourth position with 665,822 animals, and third in goat farming with approximately 1,117,286 animals. There are also 472,268 sheep in the district to grant it second position in Punjab. To cater to the feed requirements of the livestock, fodder crops are sown on a large scale. Presently, around 70,000 acres of land is under fodder crops.

Fisheries is yet another important sector in the district. Fish farming on private lands was initiated back in 1995 and within years it gained so much currency among the locals that many cut down their orchards to develop fish farms there. Chaudhry Javid, who claims to be the pioneer of fish farming in the area, says there are over 4,000 fish farmers in the district producing the best species of fish, including rahu, thela, silver crop, etc. Tilapia was also introduced here five years ago. Most of the farms are located along the River Chenab.

The district is also known for being a hub of thermal power generation and houses the country’s largest refinery. Pak-Arab Oil’s Limited’s mid-country refinery was commissioned in the year 2000 and represents about 35pc of the country’s refining capacity with 100,000 barrels per day at Mahmood Kot. It helps substitute imports of approximately $100 million per year worth of refined, value-added oil products.

Kot Addu Power Company Limited was incorporated in 1996 to contribute economical power to the national grid. Besides the Lal Pir Thermal Power station, there is also the Thermal Power Station, Muzaffargarh, which consists of three oil-fired steam-operated units of 210 MW each with the provision of adding another three units of same or more capacity.

Other industries in the district include cotton ginning and pressing, flour mills, jute textile, oil mills, paper/paperboard articles, petroleum products, polypropylene bags, readymade garments, solvent extraction, sugar, textile composite and textile spinning.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 9th, 2021

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