A historic settlement Attock is the eastern terminus of the River Kabul, which joins River Indus close to the old town. The district located at the border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a natural corridor to Central Asia carved out by the Kabul River and its tributaries through the Hindu Kush mountains. At least 14 historical sites, including Gurudwara Punja Sahib — a sacred place of Sikhism at Hassan Abdal — highlight its religious and cultural importance.

Kamra Aeronautical Complex and Sanjwal Ordnance Factories are other claims to fame for the district that offer employment opportunities to the locals and provide defence equipment, services and ammunition to Pakistan Army and Air Force. It also houses some cement, textile, engineering goods and glass manufacturing units. The discovery of the largest oil and gas reserves in 2017 in the Jhandial area has only added to its significance while an oil refinery has been in operation there for decades.

Bounded by Haripur and Swabi districts of KP in the north, Rawalpindi in the east, Chakwal in the south, Mianwali in the south-west, Kohat in the west and Nowshera in the north-west, it was given the status of a district by the British back in 1904. In fact, it had been named Campbellpur after Sir Campbell, who founded a new settlement close to old Attock town. It was renamed Attock in 1978.

Awans, Pathans, Ghebas, Jodhras, Khattars, Gujjars, Mughals, Sheikhs, Syeds and Rajputs are major tribes or castes residing in the district and except Rajputs, most others claim to be descendants of the invaders from Afghanistan and Central Asia. The battle between Mahmud Ghaznavi and Rajputs had been fought on the plain of ‘Chhachh’, between Hazro and Attock along the Indus in AD 1008. It ended in the defeat of the Rajput confederacy and thus the sub-continent fell to the invading Muslims from Afghanistan.

Agriculture is a subsistence activity for those unable to make it to the military or abroad — the average yield is much lower than the provincial average

Spanning over 6,856sqkm and generally barren with poor vegetation and thinly wooded, the district is a combination of hills and plains — hilly in the north-west and south. Of the hills, the Kala Chitta range is rich in mineral resources like argillaceous clay, gypsum, bentonite, fireclay, limestone, silica sand and iron ore.

An overwhelming majority of the farmers are small landholders as 79 per cent of households own less than 7.5 acres of land each. Around 83pc of them are self-operators. Of the total 778,431 acres of cultivated land, only 43,818 acres or just 2.53pc of the cultivable land is canal fed and the rest of the area is arid depending upon rains for irrigation purposes. The cultivable wasteland is around 100,081 acres, while over 160,000 acres or 9.45pc of the area is under forest cover.

Wheat and gram hog major share, while groundnuts, chickpeas, oilseeds, mung and mash pulses are also being grown. But, none of them yields enough to make the district or its inhabitants part of the provincial, let alone national, commodity market. Agriculture is a subsistence activity for those unable to make it to the military or abroad. The average yield is much lower than the provincial average.

Wheat, for example, was sown on 497,000 acres last year, and the Punjab Crop Reporting Service recorded its average yield at 17.8 maunds against the provincial standard of 32 maunds per acre. Maize, which took over 28,000 acres, fared better last year with 29.89 maunds; up from 12.90 maunds for the last many years, whereas the provincial average is over 80 maunds per acre.

This poor and inconsistent yield also highlights the increasing irrelevance of agriculture when it comes to surviving strategy in an area that is largely dependent on weather moods. Weather assumes added significance in an area that is mainly rain-fed, partly irrigated and partly tube-well-dependent. A total of 32,000 open wells and tube wells are functional in the district. The potential for rainwater harvesting is high in Tehsil Pindi Gheb and Jandas where a large number of small basins/ catchments exist. Besides 14 perennial streams and nullahs, 15 small and 30 mini dams, 200 ponds have been built and 500 lift irrigation schemes have been executed to meet the irrigation needs of the area. Drip irrigation, sprinkle irrigation and roof harvesting technologies are also being introduced.

Groundnuts, a historical speciality of the area, seem to have largely disappeared because of old varieties that yield too little to make commercial sense. It is being replaced by potato crop, whose acreage has gone up manifolds, from 2,380 to 16,000 acres, during the last three decades.

Some growers are also experimenting with citrus, guava and apricot orchards and over 1,300 acres are reported to be under them. Vegetables, besides potatoes, are mainly grown in Hazro tehsil and around the urban centres of the district. These include cauliflower, onion, garlic, bottle gourd, brinjal and peas.

The massive cultivable waste provides huge potential but lacks land integration effort, which is necessary to give agriculture commercial viability. Otherwise, small pieces of land would continue to be wasted on wheat and maize with no one benefitting.

Shoaib Wardag, a local landlord, says that the agriculture authorities need to run a massive farmer education campaign for persuading and training them to turn to high-value crops instead of practising the centuries-old wheat and maize crops system. The government should step in for training the farmers in tunnel farming system for growing vegetables and subsidising the required stuff to enable small landholders with meagre resources to maximise the potential of their lands as well as earnings as soils along Kabul and Indus river banks are fertile, so are tracks falling between hills and acres served by dozens of lakes and dams dotting the district, he adds.

Muhammad Umar, a tenant in Hazro tehsil, bemoans of lack of the government’s neglect towards their plight. He says that their crops are being damaged due to hailstorms for the last three consecutive years but the area has never been declared as calamity-stricken and thus peasants fail to get any compensation from the government.

He asserts that subsidies worth a couple of thousands of rupees on the purchase of fertiliser is not enough to make agriculture for smallholders sustainable and for alleviating rural poverty; rather the government should focus on the provision of quality seed and other farm inputs at highly subsidised rates.

Since the agriculture sector is poverty-stricken, its sub-sectors are even poorer. With less than half a million large animals (301,648 cows and 75,837 buffalos) and half a million small animals (306,423 goats and 170,408 sheep) as per the 2018 livestock survey, the district hardly has anything to boast about. Some investment did come into the dairy sector but ran out of steam as neither manpower nor fodder is available at commercial scale, say local livestock officials.

The area under fodder crop has shrunk from 10,400 acres to 3,800 acres in the last two decades or so as more and more agricultural land is being consumed by mushrooming housing schemes particularly around those urban centres located along the Grand Trunk Road and Abbottabad Road, protests Shakeel Ahmed, deputy director agriculture (extension). Some farms are still surviving but none of them is turning out to be a commercial attraction. However, backyard poultry is flourishing on official subsidy.

There is a need for offering loans on easy terms to attract educated youth towards dairy farming and financial institutions should come up with tailor-made products suitable for the local requirements, Mr Wardag suggests.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 6th, 2021

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