Tucked between the central and south Punjab, some 4,349 square kilometres area is the Khanewal district. The Britishers planned the city, and a huge wave of settlers streamed in early last century as irrigation and rail networks expanded to the area. One of the casts, who came in early, were Daha — a sub-cast of a wider Punjabi clan Jat — who wrote Khan as part of their name, and gave the town its name — Khan-e-wal.

In 1985, two tehsils (Kabirwala and Mian Chunu) were taken away from Multan to upgrade the town to a district and the area, hitherto taken as an appendage to greater Multan, got an identity of its own. Since it historically belonged to the core cotton belt, the crop not only provided early identity but the economy as well: seven textile mills in the district, more than 100 ginning units and 59 factories that produce cottonseed — a by-product for oil mills — are testimony to the early cotton dominance of the district.

The agricultural strength of the area can also be gauged from the fact that the current federal minister for food security and research Syed Fakhar Imam hails from the area and so does the present Punjab Minister for Agriculture Hussain Jahania Gardezi. One of the former chief ministers Ghulam Haider Wayen also came from the district.

It is only a matter of time before cotton loses its residual appeal and quits the district as it did in other areas in favour of rice, maize and potatoes

However, this early identity, as in the rest of the province generally and the area surrounding Khanewal particularly (Melsi, Vehari, Pakpattan, Sahiwal), is now wearing out. Amir Sahu, a local farmer, sums up cotton and emotional loss in these words: cotton is now “deleted from the district” — at least in perception, if not fully in the fields.

The data of the Punjab Crop Reporting Service provides evidence of the loss. According to it, cotton acreage has dropped from 472,000 acres in 2014-15 to its current 290,000 acres. The local officials of the crop reporting service, however, hope that the crop might redeem some of area next year because of the introduction of a new variety of better yielding seeds, weather helping the crop and high rates, which helped farmers make some money this year.

But, farmers disagree with this official optimism. “The district is factually at the crossroads,” says Malik Naeem Hotiana, who thinks it is still “reluctant to fully abandon its old love but is unable to sustain it as new (fiscal) beauties — rice, maize and potatoes — throng the area and offer better prospects. It is only a matter of time before cotton loses its residual appeal and quit the district as it did in the area, he claims and predicts: “Khanewal has just started following the pattern of other districts, which completed the cotton transition. Cotton loss has created a vacuum and other crops started filling the gap. Per acre rent, which ranges from Rs80,000 to Rs100,000 in areas where these crops have taken hold, is still hovering Rs60,000 in Khanewal because cotton is still holding in some parts. Once these rates equalise, and it is only a matter of two years, cotton will be wiped out. Maize is forcing its way into the district because of massive silage demand, generated by expanding livestock and its demand for fodder.”

The crops, which have gained at the expense of cotton, are rice, maize and potato. During the same time (2014-15 and 2020-21), rice has more than doubled its acreage: 59,000 acres to 130,000 acres. So did potatoes, during the same period: from 14,550 to 26,570 acres. Maize did even better by nearly tripling its area: from 33,600 acres in 2014-15 and touched 95,900 in 2019-20.

“This three-crop invasion started from the upper side of the province and doubled down in the south, claiming districts after districts in the last five years,” explains Khalid Khokhar, chief Pakistan Kissan Ittehad. These crops, which may turn out to be an ecological disaster, now claim major areas in what once was the core cotton belt. The trend seems to be unstoppable, at least for now. Rice this year stood at 6.3 million acres, a record unto itself. At what cost of water and greenhouses gasses would it ripen is not hard to imagine, he says.

“There is no particular sowing time for maize now. It is sown and harvested around the year,” says the head of the local crop reporting service. The tradition “spring and autumn cycle” of maize sowing is totally irrelevant now. This constant harvesting and sowing also make it hard to conclude seasonal acreage and yield. Maize is now altering traditional agricultural patterns and picture, he says.

“Khanewal is facing a double invasion, which may quickly alter its agricultural outlook,” further explains Mr Khokhar. From above (northern side) came the three-crop invasion and from the lower (south) side came the pressure of shifting mango orchards. As massive housing societies claimed the area around Multan and removed mango orchards from there, these orchards started shifting to adjoining areas. With this shifting came high density and ultra-high-density technologies, which helped sow 1,000 plants per acres against traditional 100 plants and areas like Khanewal, standing next in line, started falling to this new trend.

The high-density technology was then applied to other fruits like guava, citrus, peach and loquat. With orchards came another convenience of leasing them out to the contractors, who then are supposed to take care of them all — releasing the owners of maintenance and investment responsibilities and limiting them to making, and in some cases minting, money. This commercial agriculture, benefitting from the rail and road network, which connects the district to the entire country, may provide Khanewal with its new and fiscally luring identity, he thinks.

This commercial experiment may soon expand to include livestock as well, says Jamal Hotiana, who is running a fattening farm. Due to agricultural fertility, livestock has always been a favoured activity to pass time. This trend is further aided by the internationally acclaimed local cow and buffalo breeds of Nali and Ravi. Its buffalo population, as per Pakistan Economic Survey, stands at 862,504 and cattle at 711,274 — a massive population of 1.5m large animals. The number of smaller animals also cross the one million mark. Around 218 poultry farms, increasing at a brisk pace, including 25 layers farms are proof of vibrant livestock activity in the area. “Animal fattening, controlled poultry sheds, egg production, milk activity (production and collection), all are gaining pace in the areas as housing schemes throw a lot of money in the land market, which is now being diverted to the livestock sector,” he says.

The district, as per the livestock department estimates, produces 2.2m kilogrammes of beef and 439,632kg of meat annually. Milk collection has risen to close to 40,000 litres a day. It is on the basis of these factors, Nestle put up one of the biggest plants in the district. The Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority, in one of its recent studies of the district, pointed out a long list of potential investment areas, which included cattle, sheep and goat fattening farms, dairy products, textile, spinning and weaving, hosiery, fruits, jams, jellies and other food products.

“The district is transforming both in agriculture and livestock sector because of massive money thrown in the market by housing societies, motorways connectivity and commercial crops replacing traditional ones. Which way it takes, remains to be seen,” concludes Irfan Niazi, a local farmer who is also involved in the housing business.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 18th, 2021

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