A former tehsil of Gujranwala, Hafizabad district spans over 2,367sqkms and is located 109km away from Lahore. It comprises a flat alluvial plain suitable for most agricultural crops and is divided between low-lying alluvial fans and an uplands area.
Tube-wells are a major source of irrigation, while a minor chunk of land is watered by the Lower Chenab canal. Owing to the proximity of hills, there is more rainfall in the east than in the west part of the district.
Folk tales say Hafizabad town, the district headquarters, had been built by Mughal Emperor Akbar’s advisor Hafiz Meerak, on a request from Faqir Sarmast. The emperor had been impressed by the great generosity of Faqir Sarmast during the former’s visit to the area.
As per the 2017 census, the total population of the district is over 1.15 million. Centuries-old caste system still dominates the social fabric. Major castes included Bhattis, Kharals, Tarars, Mughals, Maliks, Arain, Jandrans, Mohals and Cheemas who own most of the local industries and lands. The political field is, however, under the influence of Tarars, Arain and Bhattis.
A billboard that says “The City of Rice” welcomes motorists when one passes by the Hafizabad district through Motorway-2. It is the biggest rice market in the country. Its importance in the rice sector may be gauged from the fact that at least 23 rice mills were operating here at the time of Independence. It is also an extension of the Faisalabad textile industry and many hand- and power-looms are functioning here, adding to the economy of the district as well as of the country.
The PTI government has increased the cane rate by just Rs20, from Rs180 to Rs200 per maund, but allowed the sugar price to be doubled
Rice is the major crop and the area under it has increased from 211,000 acres in 1993, the year Hafizabad was given the status of district, to 346,000 acres in 2020. Half of the rice sown is non-Basmati, chiefly 386 and Supri varieties. A new seed named 1509 is also gaining popularity among the farmers as it matures in a comparatively short time but with more yields. Hybrid varieties are also being tried but not widely because of being costlier and only large landholders are able to purchase. Many growers, interested in cultivating fodder crops after harvesting rice, opt for early sowing of Basmati Super Fine variety.
Rates for non-Basmati varieties, however, dropped by Rs400 per maund this year, which led to protest by the growers. Arguing that prices of farm inputs like seed, fertilizer, diesel (for tube-wells) as well as labour went up during the year, the protesters sought a minimum support price of rice like wheat and sugarcane crops. They blocked Gujranwala Road at Chan Da Qila on September 8, and it was opened to traffic only after the Gujranwala commissioner held talks and assured them of taking their voice to the provincial authorities. Yet another protest rally was taken out on October 2 outside the Hafizabad press club.
Kisan Board Pakistan vice-president Amanullah Chathha, who belongs to Hafizabad, says agriculture authorities had been providing subsidies on paddy dryer machines until the Musharraf era. It helps rice growers to dry their produce and store it for selling at a better rate when the market improves around a month after harvesting is over. He demands the government reintroduce the scheme in the larger interest of the farming community.
Mr Chathha is also critical of cases registered and arrests made on the burning of paddy stalks left in the fields post-harvesting. He argues that paddy stalks burning is responsible only for 12 per cent of smog and the rest is caused by kilns, factories, vehicular traffic and burning of domestic waste in urban centres. But action is taken only against the farmers, he laments, suggesting the government stop the action until a new harvester, which shreds the stalk into small pieces, becomes common. The present machines, he says, leave most of the stalk intact and this hampers the working of tractors during ploughing, while manual labour, though expensive, is not available in villages as most of the farmworkers have migrated to cities in search of greener pastures.
Popularity-wise wheat comes second but acreage-wise first in the district. It used to be sown on 283,000 in the mid-90s but its land cover crossed the 400,000 acres mark for a couple of years between 2014 and 2018 only to drop to 361,000 in the latter years.
Saifullah, a wheat grower from Kot Panah, complains that the ‘flawed’ procurement policy of the Pakistan Agricultural Storage & Services Corporation Ltd, which is given the sole right to procure wheat from the district, lets middlemen exploit the farmers. Alleging the use of political influence in the distribution of gunny bags and balloting for selecting the farmers to procure grain, he says that the federal entity neither procures all the produce nor lets the growers transport their wheat to other districts for selling it to the Punjab food department. This puts them at the mercy of middlemen of arhtis, who purchase the grain at a rate much lower rate than the official support price as the growers lack space and resources to store their produce for a longer period, he claims.
On the other hand, if and when there is a wheat crisis, the grains saved by the farmers for domestic use are forcibly lifted from their homes.
Sugarcane is grown along river Chenab that flows along the western boundary of the district separating it from Mandi Bahauddin and Sargodha districts. Its acreage keeps fluctuating in line with the treatment meted out to the growers by the sugar mills. The area under sugarcane crop swings between 13,000 to 23,000 acres though its yield has improved from 405 maunds in 1993 to 705 maunds per acre by the year 2020. Mr Chathha says middlemen exploit sugarcane growers too. He regrets that the PTI government has increased the cane rate by just Rs20, from Rs180 to Rs200 per maund, but allowed the sugar price to be doubled, from Rs58 to Rs110 per kg. He demands that the sugarcane rate should be fixed in proportion with the sugar price.
Maize is also cultivated in the district but mostly for silage purposes and not human consumption. It was planted on 4,000 acres in 1993. The acreage went up to 12,400 but gradually dropped down to 2,300 acres notwithstanding a four-fold increase in per acre yield. Fodder crops are sown after harvesting paddy on around 14,600 acres. The area under fodder increased to 20,000 acres by 2005-06 but came down to 12,100 acres last year as the crop is planted for domestic animals and not for commercial purposes.
Water-logging and salinity are two menaces being faced by the farmers. The level of Qadirabad-Balloki link canal is higher than adjacent lands causing seepage of water and over-irrigation damages plants. The area’s economy had been once badly hit by the problem but the situation improved with the construction of drains. However, the drains are not being properly cleaned, says Haji Nasrullah, a victim of the water-logging and salinity issue. The government had been providing gypsum at subsidised rates to overcome the salinity issue but the project was wound up around eight years ago. He calls for restarting the project and making pure gypsum available in the open market.
Some farmers have made unsuccessful attempts to grow kinnow orchards, found in abundance along the northern side of Chenab in Mandi Bahauddin and Sargodha districts. The kinnow produced here is poor in taste and colour. Director Horticulture Dr Muhammad Basharat says Hafizabad land is not suitable for kinnow plants because of soil moisture. As paddy crop demands excessive water, this deteriorates the soil composition required for kinnow plants, he adds. However, watermelon is sown on a large scale. But the plants bear fruit for the growers only when the Afghanistan market is open. Guava orchards have been cultivated at around 2000 acres. But this fruit too is not of high quality.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 11th, 2021