Travelling towards Lalyani from Bhalwal in the district of Sargodha, Punjab, one is captivated by the sight of citrus trees, laden with bright-coloured fruit, that line either side of the road.
It is not just any citrus that these trees bear, but the king of citrus fruits, known as kinnow in our part of the world. After all, I was in Sargodha, a district of Punjab sometimes called the California of Pakistan for having the second-largest kinnow production fields in the world.
Once I was in the midst of these orange trees, walking in a kinnow orchard with some farmers, one of them claimed that most of Sargodha district produces kinnow but Bhalwal and Kot Momin are especially known for the production of citrus fruits. Every third person in both these tehsils is associated with kinnow farming and its export. Sugarcane farming and export is just as much of a means of livelihood for the locals. Sargodha also produces sugarcane, wheat, rice and maize. A number of sugar factories exist in these two tehsils and across the rest of Sargodha.
Yet, business is not flourishing, say the farmers. Around 100 kinnow factories have closed down in Sargodha district, after the owners experienced a drastic loss in business due to inflation and the restrictions amid Covid-19. Farmers were compelled to buy low-quality fertilisers after prices of the good quality fertilisers surged by 200 percent. Cheaper fertilisation yielded inferior produce, negatively impacting the size and quality of kinnows.
Qasim Ijaz, a kinnow-processing factory owner in Bhalwal, says an increase in global exporting costs, coupled with high inflation worldwide, has affected Pakistan’s kinnow-processing industry, as shipping rents surged to four times their original rates.
Sargodha is sometimes called the California of Pakistan for its production of oranges. But kinnow farmers there are hard-hit by changes in both the climate and the economy
Ijaz explains, “If [the shipping cost of] one container was 1,000 US dollars previously, it now costs almost 4,000 to 5,000 dollars.”
Shaikh Atteq Ahmad owns a citrus polishing and grading unit. He tells Eos, “We have gone through the worst ever period of business. And we are not the only ones suffering. Labourers and factory workers associated with kinnow-farming, which are estimated to be around 300,000 in number across Sargodha, are suffering,” he says.
According to a 2019 report by the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority (Smeda), “Citrus is among the main exportable horticulture commodities from Sargodha and accounts for around 90 percent of the total citrus exports from Pakistan. The cluster is providing direct employment opportunities to around 25,000 to 30,000 people.”
“Before the pandemic,” Ahmad says, “there were over 250 registered kinnow-processing and polishing units in the region, but that number has declined to 150 within just two years, because of the current wave of inflation and a decrease in demand in the international market.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Pakistani kinnow is exported to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Iraq, Oman, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Maldives, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan, Canada and Europe through ships or routes via Afghanistan.
According to Ahmad, who is also a member of the Sargodha Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SCCI), 20-25 people associated with each kinnow factory bring the fruit from the orchards to the factory, while some 500-600 work inside the factory. With the closure of factories, thousands of people have lost their jobs in what was the kinnow heartland of Sargodha.
PRODUCTION AND EXPORT
According to the Economic Wing of the Ministry of National Food Security & Research, 283,807.379 tonnes of kinnow were exported in 2018-19, which was more than 60 percent higher than the 2017-18 export figures of 174,624.189 tonnes. However, production was reportedly lower than in the past, as 192,230 hectares of farmland were recorded as under kinnow cultivation in 2017-18, which declined to 183,849 hectares in 2018-19. According to farmers in Bhalwal, kinnow production this year (2021-22) has declined further; some quote it as a 25 to 35 percent decline, while others claim a grievous 40 percent.
Naseeb Elahi, a 65-year-old farmer, had established orchards of citrus fruit 22 years ago on five acres of land in Lalyani. After five years of planting the trees, they started producing kinnow. A kinnow tree bears fruit until about 50 years of age, and then starts to become barren. Despite being in the prime of their production cycle, however, this year Elahi’s orchards were not as fruitful. Ten to 15 percent of his orchard trees dried up and production was the lowest he has ever recorded.
Ripening of the fruit was also delayed by two months. Ikramullah, also from Lalyani, is closely engaged with the citrus fruits business. The kinnow-flowering season usually begins in June, he tells Eos, and the fruit ripens by November. But this year, due to climate change, the natural process was delayed and the kinnow fruits did not ripen until the end of December.
“We are still waiting for the kinnows to ripen but it seems they will now ripen in January and that is when we can supply them to the dealers,” he says.
The Sargodha kinnow is sold in different quality grades; the A- and B-grade fruit is exported to foreign countries, whereas the C-grade kinnow is sold in the domestic market. The fertile land of Bhalwal also produces other citrus fruits — fruiter, red-blood and mosambi, for example — but only the kinnow is exported.
At Bhalwal, I met Khuram Baloch, a contractor who has been buying kinnows from orchards and selling to factories for years. He himself bought an orchard last year as it was at a more affordable rate than in the past, but the timing could have been better. While labourers load the fruits on to the supply vehicle from his orchard, Baloch tells me that he has never experienced such a major decline in production in his years of the kinnow business.
“The same kinnow trees on the 1.5-acre land I have bought from a farmer had produced 37,500 kilos of kinnow in 2019, but this year it has yielded only 15,500 kilos,” he says.
He says that, while on the one hand, lower production, quality and smaller size of the fruit affected business, on the other hand, because of labour wages and the hike in transport charges, the factories bought the fruit at a lower price. This made the business for citrus fruit less profitable.
Sargodha draws labour from neighbouring areas during the kinnow season. According to the Sargodha Chamber of Commerce and Industry, mostly labourers, box-makers and local suppliers equipped with tractors come from Multan, Muzaffargarh, Burewala and other cities for seasonal work associated with the kinnow business.
Muhammad Ansar, who hails from Muzzaffargarh, is busy working, along with his colleagues, in a wood-making factory on Kot Momin Road in Bhalwal. He tells Eos that he and some of his male family members were excited at the prospect of making some cash during the four months of the kinnow season. But after the factory was opened, they received very few orders of wooden fruit-boxes from the industry markets.
“The five of us are making hardly 900 to 1,000 boxes daily, at 350 rupees per 100 pieces, by collectively working,” the box-maker says. He says upon their inquiry from the factories’ management about the lower number of orders, most gave the reason of low production of fruits in the orchards due to climate change.
Shoaib Ahmad Basra, president of the SCCI, holds global inflation responsible for the hit the kinnow market has taken. “Here a common man cannot afford to buy fruit and that has caused a drastic decline in the demand of kinnow export,” he says. For this year, 2022, they had set a target of 300,000 tonnes of kinnow to be exported from Pakistan, but this now seems impossible.
Ijaz, who is also a member of the chamber, also complained about the neglectful attitude of the agriculture department authorities towards their industry and farming. He claims kinnow production and export has seen a 50 percent decline this year.
Mohammad Imran, a citrus fruit expert running a kinnow farm in Bhalwal, says agricultural tools also need to be examined and awareness about agricultural advances must be cultivated in farmers. Whereas inflation and other factors are certainly a major contributor to low yield, farmers are also less aware about the latest technology for farming. For instance, the use of excessive and unsuitable pesticides is another reason for the decline of kinnow production, according to him.
The director general of the Punjab Agriculture Department, Muhammad Anjum Ali, however, refutes these claims. “The agriculture department of Punjab has a proper citrus research centre in Sargodha, and several [on-going] projects through which it supports farmers and trains them as well,” he informs Eos.
Moreover, he reports that kinnow export is on the rise. According to him, last year more citrus fruits were exported compared to previous years. He admits, however, that sometimes the fruit value drops in the international markets due to quality and other issues. Similarly, Dr Basharat Ali Saleem, deputy director (technical) at Punjab Agriculture Department, claims that 2,000 fruit nurseries across Punjab have been registered with the Federal Seed Certificate Registration Department so far, in order to strengthen the industry and facilitate farmers.
Contrary to governmental department numbers, the scaled-down activity in Bhalwal and Lalyani during this kinnow season indicates an unpropitious change. Factories and farms alike are slowly continuing to close down.
Sikandar Hayat, a farmer, owned a kinnow farm on seven acres in Lalyani. Every season in the past, it gave him a decent profit. But during the last three seasons, owing to the pandemic, the delay in rains and a four-digit increase in fertiliser prices, the plants were badly affected. The land was now producing only half of what it once did and that too was small-sized kinnow. To cut his losses, Hayat sold all seven acres of his kinnow orchard for a paltry sum. More and more farmers like Hayat will be forced to turn to more fruitful means of livelihood, if the government has nothing to show for the endeavours it promises them on paper.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
He tweets @umar_shangla
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 23rd, 2022