One of the five oldest districts established in Punjab in 1849, Jhang is spread across an area of 8,809 square kilometres. Historians say it had been populated around 2000 BC when it was known as Jhagi Sial. The district is known for the shrine of the noted saint and Sufi poet Hazrat Sultan Bahu, while it also figures in the most popular folk love story of Punjab — Heer Ranjha. Heer, the heroine of the story belonged to the district. Her tomb lies north of Jhang town on the way to Faisalabad.
Most of its land is plain and cultivable, except in the western part, where the Thal desert extends from the bank of River Jhelum to the far western districts of Khushab and Bhakkar. Rivers Jhelum and Chenab, which confluence at Trimmu headworks almost in the midst of the district, keep flooding and making the lands fertile. The area along both the rivers’ banks is called hitthar (the area inundated by floodwater), while the upland between bars and hitthar is called utar. Thus the surface of the district presents three distinct levels — sand dunes of Thal on the extreme west, low lying river valley in the centre and old Sandal Bar on the extreme east.
Unlike its adjacent districts of Sargodha, Faisalabad, Khushab, etc, feudal lords still hold large chunks of lands of Jhang. These feudal and politically influential families include Syeds (Faisal Saleh Hayat and Begum Abida Hussain), Bharwanas, Sials and Chadhars.
At about Rs400 per kg selling price, the cumin crop offers over Rs300,000 per acre income to growers while not requiring intensive care
Wheat, cotton, rice, sugarcane, maize and chickpeas are major crops of the district, while the main fruits are mango, orange, lemon, guava and watermelon. Wheat used to be sown on 791,000 acres of land in the 1990s but the area shrank after Chiniot, one of its tehsils, was carved out of it as a separate district in 2009. The grain remains the largest crop of Jhang as it was grown on 660,000 acres in 2020.
Cotton was once a prime crop and would cover more than 200,000 acres. Its downfall began after 2004 and now not more than a few thousand acres are allocated to it. The crop was grown on at least 35,000 acres last year, and only on 11,000 acres in the ongoing season. The main reasons behind the debacle are the increasing pest attacks, requiring more and more pesticide sprays that increase input costs, and uncertainty about the white lint’s market rate in the absence of an official support price. The beneficiaries of cotton downfall are sugarcane and rice.
Sugarcane is a popular cash crop since five sugar mills exist in the district. And in the words of Amjad Sardar Faran, a representative of an international non-governmental organisation working on a water project in Jhang, if there are sugar mills operational in the vicinity people will begin sowing sugarcane though the water-intensive crop creates many problems.
Rice, another water-guzzling crop, has also been attracting the local farmers as its acreage increased from 114,000 in 1990 to 280,000 in 2007-08 when it lost some of its lustre and is now grown on 184,000 acres. Mr Faran says that sugarcane and rice both are planted along the river banks where subsoil water availability makes irrigation of the crops easier.
Fodder and maize are two other common crops in the district. Maize is planted through broadcast primarily for livestock and not for human consumption as there are 1.175 million large animals (buffaloes and cows) and around 1.392 goats and sheep in the district. Besides, there are also 396,107 poultry units as a number of cattle and poultry feed mills have been set up to meet the local requirements.
The land under maize is declining as per Crop Reporting Service (CRS) data. However, Deputy Director Agriculture (Extension), Jhang, Akhtar Hussain challenges this data and insists that acreage of the crop is instead on the rise. He argues that the CRS is perhaps differentiating between maize and fodder, though most of the latter is hybrid maize varieties sown through broadcast to feed livestock.
Medicinal plants and herbs like fennel (saunf), cumin (zeera), as well as carom seeds are fast gaining the confidence of farmers as alternative crops. Hafiz Ahsan Ali, a researcher associated with the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute, Faisalabad, says medicinal crops are affecting acreage of all major traditional crops for these offer a much better return than even sugarcane, rice and maize. “Cumin crop gives between 16 and 20 maunds per acre yield and one kg of the daily use kitchen item is sold at a rate of about Rs400. That means over Rs300,000 per acre income to the grower, while the crop also doesn’t require any intensive care.”
He says that oilseeds are also giving a tough time to the traditional crops like sugarcane, which is a 14-month crop needing 28 watering (once each fortnight), and paddy, a six-month crop. The government is offering Rs5,000 per acre subsidy for promoting oilseed sowing, whereas the Agriculture Department is developing more and more demonstration plots for the purpose. Mr Hussain says that they are encouraging sugarcane and oilseeds intercropping and the focus of the activity is Thal.
Watermelon and strawberry orchards are also springing up along the river banks towards Sargodha, whereas mango, citrus and guava orchards are already in fashion and increasing their presence with every passing year. Dates-palm trees are being planted in the Thal desert in large numbers. Vegetables, particularly chillies, ladyfingers, brinjals and potatoes, etc, are also being grown by those who are fed up with exploitation by sugar and cotton mafias in Ahmedpur Sial, Garh Maharaja and Pirkot areas.
Sajid Chadhar, a farmer of the area who has also worked in a project of the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the Jhang farming sector, says the agriculture potential of the district is not being fully utilised simply because of uneven lands. “You cannot find even two adjacent acres of land fully levelled — this causes irregular irrigation of fields and thus wastage of water.”
The local farmers claim that most of the land laser levellers and other agricultural machinery offered by the government free or against nominal charges mostly remain deployed at the farms of influential families putting a question mark on the performance of the Agriculture Department. No official of the On-Farm Water Management was available for comment, however, Mr Hussain says that at least 150 new land levellers have been given to the district in the ongoing year and that these are being rented out to farmers in the Thal area.
Poor road infrastructure is a matter of concern for agriculturists. Mr Chadhar points out that poor farm-to-market roads not only make transportation charges higher but also add to post-harvest losses of fruits and vegetables. “When overloaded trucks carrying delicate but improperly packed fruits and vegetables, like mangoes and tomatoes, pass through broken and bumpy roads, 20 to 25 per cent of the produce is lost before the consignments reach the mandis.”
Shortage of farm labour, particularly the diminishing role of women in farming, is also negatively affecting the agriculture sector in the district as younger generations — both male and female — are making a beeline to the nearby town of Faisalabad in search of better remuneration at the large textile industry there. Mr Chadhar holds the increasing incidents of violence, including sexual harassment, responsible for deterring the womenfolk away from agriculture.
Industry-wise too the district is not barren as there exist about 44 large industrial units, including four sugar mills, nine textile units, seven wool mills, chemical and food products units etc and around 2,000 small ones, which include fruit grading and packing factories, rice-shellers and other food processing units.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 30th, 2021