The birthplace of known poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Shiv Kumar Batalvi, writer Afzal Ahsan Randhawa and showbiz personalities Dev Anand and Rajendra Kumar, Narowal is located at the North-East tip of the barani areas in Punjab along Indian borders. It was given the status of a district in 1991.

The historic Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, one of the holiest places of Sikh religion, lies in the East of district headquarters Narowal town, on the bank of river Ravi. It offers a vast opportunity for religious tourism, particularly of the Sikh diaspora. Sikh religion founder Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji had spent the last days of his life here at the start of the 16th century. The Kartarpur Corridor, a 4.1km overland passage linking the Darbar Sahib with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur, India, was built in 2019 at a cost of Rs16.5 billion to allow visa-free entry to Sikh pilgrims. But, political expedients of India have been rendering the world-known temple unable to harvest its tourism potential.

Erstwhile a small town, it began developing after the British built a rail track connecting east and west Punjab through Narowal, where a railway junction was established. Most of the track, however, was blown up after the Partition apparently for security reasons.

The growers are exploited by arhtis and owners of rice mills from whom farmers get loans to buy seeds with the condition that the creditor gets the first right to pick their produce — the arhtis not only charge interest but also give a rate lower than the market

Narowal has an agro-based economy, mainly small landholdings that prevent experimentation of new agriculture techniques and crops. Its fertile fields produce mostly high-quality rice and wheat, while fodder, maize, sugarcane, potato, Bajra and Mash pulses are other popular crops. Despite being prone to drought and thus fretting about low productivity and high risk, agriculture and livestock have been traditional sources of revenue for the people there. They are gradually moving to off-farm sectors for livelihood opportunities through temporary migration abroad or to nearby cities because the already small landholdings are further fragmenting due to an increase in population with little improvement in agricultural productivity.

The total cultivated area of Narowal district is 433,712 acres, of which 400,796 acres are irrigated with the help of tube-wells or farmers rely on rain, particularly in Zafarwal tehsil that lacks subsoil water facility. Just a few hundred acres of land are canal-fed.

Wheat, like other Punjab districts, is the biggest crop sown on 240,000 acres. The acreage had once crossed the 400,000 acres mark in 2009-10 but the trend was not sustainable and soon began losing ground to settle at historical 250,000 acres.

Rice, especially the crop produced in Narowal, is a major export and earns foreign exchange reserves for the country. It is grown on around 180,000 acres of land. The area under paddy had risen to over 254,000 acres in 2008-09 but the acreage gradually decreased chiefly because of water blues.

The introduction of mechanical rice plantation and harvesting is hurting job opportunities for rural women. A research report by the Faisalabad Agriculture University in 2020 suggests that over 60 per cent of paddy nursery plantation, threshing and harvesting used to be done by hired or family female workers. But this share is decreasing every year as more and more machines are being introduced in the farming sector, further shrinking female agricultural labour in conventional tasks. And cultural barriers prevent women from learning to run agricultural machinery.

Currently, sugarcane is grown in the district only for producing jaggery (gur) for domestic use and each rural household sows an acre or two for this purpose. It was planted on close to 20,000 acres three decades ago when Pasrur Sugar Mills in the adjacent Sialkot district was operational. The closure of the mills discouraged the growers and crop acreage dipped to 3,000 acres. However, with the re-opening of the factory a year ago or so its plantation is again gaining momentum, says Ali Muhammad Bajwa, a local grower. He says if the mill administration paid the farmers well, and in time, the crop would become popular within no time.

Rana Afzaal, another local grower, says the new mill’s management had distributed quality sugarcane seed among the farmers and assured them of picking their produce this season but the community is not yet ready to rely on it fearing the factory may close again leaving them in the lurch.

Fodder, maize and potato crops are being sown on 8,700, 1,000, and 2,320 acres respectively. Their acreage varies with the weather conditions (quantity of rains) each year.

The district is facing the negative impact of climate change as Shakergarh tehsil earlier used to receive as much rain as in adjacent Indian-occupied valley of Kashmir but now the precipitation level is less than even Lahore, says Deputy Director (extension) Muhammad Arif. Whereas the district could not achieve its wheat sowing target as the area marked for grain fell short by 100,000 acres because of heavy rains last season, he adds.

Cultivation of Bajra is also on the rise as many farmers fed up with competition and exploitations in the wheat and rice markets are turning towards unconventional crops, he says, adding Bajra was planted on at least 30,000 acres last year.

Narowal, like other barani areas in Punjab, also used to produce pulses. But the trend declined because of the problems with weeds with no particular effective weedicide easily available, says Rana Afzaal, a relative of former interior minister and PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal.

He says many of the farmers are also trying to cultivate fruits like watermelon and vegetables but lack of or higher charges of farm labour are desisting them from further ‘adventures’. Carrots, squash, bitter gourd, radish, cauliflower, peas, spinach, coriander are vegetables usually sown in the district.

A foreign-funded project for olive cultivation in barani areas, including Narowal, had been initiated back in 2011. But Mr Afzaal says he didn’t see any such plantation in the district. Rather he laments that the barani status of the district was withdrawn a couple of years ago and resultantly the farming community was robbed of the facilities like laser land levellers.

As most of the farmers are smallholders they usually lack resources and resolve to try unconventional agriculture crops and techniques. “The growers are being over-exploited by arhtis and owners of rice mills from whom the farmers would get loans to buy seed with the condition that the creditor would have the first right to pick their produce. The arhtis would not only charge interest but also give a rate of their own choice, which is usually a couple of hundreds of rupees below the market,” claims Mr Bajwa. He regrets that other than Zarai Taraqiati Bank Ltd no other bank is ready to extend loan facilities to the small farmers.

Raising livestock is another option for the smallholders to get some cash for meeting their needs other than agriculture by selling cattle and goats on Eidul Azha. Mr Afzaal says that’s why the farmers allocate a couple of acres of their lands for fodder crops. According to the 2018 livestock census, the number of desi and cross-breed cattle in the district is 158,616 and 280,063 buffaloes. There are also 118,394 goats, chiefly of the Beetal breed, and 38,467 sheep of the Lohi breed. Narowal is ranked fourth in Punjab in the population of asses, which stands at 30,673, while there are 250,483 units of poultry as per the census.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 4th, 2021

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