One of the earliest human inhabitations, Mianwali _ then known by its ancient name Kachachi _ was once part of the greater Bannu district. It got separated somewhere in the sixteenth century and was named after a local saint Mian Ali, who lived on the bank of the River Indus. In 1982, Bhakkar was carved out of it and the district is now perched over 5,840 square kilometres.

As a district, Mianwali has many distinctions. In agricultural terms, it is perhaps the most diversified district that includes some five ecological zones. Its 1.42 million acres are spread across the Thal desert, its irrigated lands are fed from Jinnah barrage, a huge riverine area along the River Indus runs through it and Pothohar (rain-fed region) extends into the upper parts of the district and so does the salt range. The district can certainly be a laboratory of different crops performance in different ecological zones and thus lead agriculture for the rest of the country.

The same advantage also extends into geography. Situated in the heart of the country, it borders eight districts _ Chakwal, Attock, Kohat, Karak, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismael Khan, Khushab and, of course, its offspring Bhakkar _ that gives it the potential to emerge as a trading hub. With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) road network now touching the district, experts see its added significance, both in terms of connectivity and commerce.

It also has a historical advantage when it comes to connectivity as some of the old and most powerful transport services owners and truckers hail from the area and serve every part of the country.

Spread over 1.42m acres and containing different ecological zones, the district should have been leading the country in agricultural terms

However, with only 22 per cent (according to the 2017 census) of 1.54m people living in the urban areas, it is predominantly a rural district _ largely depending on agriculture, livestock, small mining, and traditional artisanship.

The acreage profile traces the causes of agricultural poverty. Out of a total of 1.42m acres, only 645,588 acres are sown of which just 160,287 acres fall in the category of sown more than once in a year. What Pakistan Economic Survey calls culturable waste is a massive 103,555 acres, with forests covering 31,875 acres.

Agriculture is largely restricted to flat hilltops and slopes in two of the three tehsils. Piplan, the third tehsil, is an exception for fertile soil and irrigation. Otherwise, its arid and semi-arid soil has seen traditional agriculture for centuries. It’s loamy with clay soil produces wheat and maize, sandy soil and rain-fed areas see gram, moong and guar production and the irrigated belt yields wheat, cotton, sugarcane and onion. Cotton is a new entrant in the district.

According to the Punjab Crop Reporting Service, wheat is the dominant crop in the area, with 520,000 acres going into it last Rabi. Gram crop also consumes around 50,000 acres and rice another 20,000 acres. Cotton, though a new Kharif entrant, had swept across 66,000 acres. Punjab is facilitating moong crop in a big way in the area and hopes to reap the benefit soon.

“The district is as unique in its social profile as it is for its climatic zones,” explains Sabtain Khan from the Piplan tehsils. On the one hand, huge feudatories exist (like Nawab of Kalabagh and some other politicians) and on the other hand are small landholdings in uneven regions, with their agriculture restricted to hilltops, terraces and slopes _ depending on rain. It means agriculture below subsistence level and continued poverty. An area that should have led agri-research due to its diversified zones, is trying to survive on agricultural poverty, Mr Khan says.

Water is fit for soil and more than half of the district is irrigated. But rainfall is scanty, with an average of 44mm and a maximum of 100mm during the monsoon. Furthermore, any rainfall upstream translates into flooding of the district, especially of the riverine area, where gram and moong are traditionally sown and sweeps the crops.

The subsoil water is sweet along the river and three canals — Thal, Mohajir and Dullewala, off taking from Jinnah barrage — and irrigates half of the district. In addition, the government also built a number of lift-irrigation schemes at different stages in the last 70 years to serve the area.

With the hilly area providing lively grazing prairies, one expects a huge livestock population, which is not the case. “Largely, because it has not been priority,” claims local officials of the department. The entire district, according to the departmental data, has 324,895 cows, 117,243 buffalos, 245,220 sheep, 367,131 goats and 694,138 backyard poultry. There are only three dairy farms and 30 poultry farms in the entire area.

“Though most of the district has mild weather and abundant greenery, livestock and poultry are mostly restricted to small personal holdings, largely due to commercial reasons,” says one of the local officials. Multinationals, dealing in milk, have a very limited presence. It is the middleman ruling the entire district, who does not pay more than Rs50 per litre, which does not cover basic expenditures, let alone a profit. So, no one dares to expand the herd and suffer losses.

Both poultry sheds and dairy farming are now capital intensive concerns and no one invests unless assured of a healthy profit. That is where things are stuck and the district, despite having potential, has not been able to develop the sub-sector. If the parent sector (agriculture) is weak, sub-sectors are bound to suffer and it is, he concludes.

Mianwali’s agricultural poverty is largely neutralised by mineral richness. Its hills with a number of ranges contain deposits of rock salt, alum, coal, iron ore, silica sand, fire clay, dolomite and gypsum. Both the private and government sectors have been excavating it for years. One of its hilly ranges, called Dhal, is also known as the geological museum of Pakistan.

Coal at Makerwal is extracted by the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation and iron ore is used by the Mini Steel Mills. Two big cement plants are situated in the area because of the massive availability of raw material and a fertiliser plant has been there for the last few decades.

“One expected the district to leapfrog in development and commerce when Prime Minister Imran Khan chose it as his constituency,” says Jabbar Awan _ a resident of the Kalabagh area. That was a genuine expectation because he also chose the areas for building (Nemal) university. He was passionate about water sports at Kalabagh areas or Chashma Lake as well.

However, dreams have not been realised so far. The district has potential in many areas: agriculture, mining, tourism and livestock to name a few. Investment, however, has not reached the area and we are waiting, he says and adds: “Now we are pinning our hopes to motorway connectivity and keeping our fingers crossed.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 20th, 2021

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