THE cotton crisis in Punjab is deepening. By first week of June, the crop had lost 20 per cent acreage against a target of 6.2 million acres. Only five million acres have been sown. With the sowing (even late) period almost over, the tally might be final.

To make the matter worse, of 1.2 million acres of loss, over a million acres have come from the core cotton belt — the southern Punjab, where only four million acres have been sown against five million acres target.

So, the ground is slipping from under the crop, and also for the economy — it brings over 60 per cent of national exports. Socially, the crop worth Rs500 billion sustains rural economy and social fabric.

Official planners have been blaming water shortages at very critical stage of sowing and hold them entirely responsible for the loss of acreage. That is partially true. Water shortages have been part of the cotton sowing cycle for the last many years, ever since the BT gene was introduced and sowing shifted to first quarter of the year.

Given historical pattern of water flow, first three months are leanest water period. With dams hitting dead levels at the end of February and beginning of March, river flows dip to bare minimum before improving in May.

It is true that shortages were a bit more severe. But are they to be entirely blamed for the cotton sowing crisis? It is stretching the water excuse a bit too far.

Advocates of this argument conveniently forget that sugarcane was also sown during the same period, or during the one just preceding the cotton sowing. How come it has achieved the sowing acreage, despite the fact that it would need 10 times more water than cotton? The farmers went whole hog after cane crop ignoring cotton.

The planners also blame high cost of inputs affecting the cotton sowing. Why only cotton is getting the hit? It is true that cotton needs more care, but so does grapes for that matter, or the entire regime of horticulture spectrum. Why all these factors are hitting cotton, leaving others unaffected. The planners, both provincial and federal, need to sit down and try to understand these phenomena and devise possible preventive strategy.

Official circles often quote example of East Punjab, where cotton farmers have progressively shifted to other crops, to prove that loss of interest in cotton is not exclusively a Pakistani phenomenon. But here again, they ignore few basic facts.

The Indian government, under a conscious policy decision, decided to shift the crop from its irrigated to rain fed areas — lower parts of India which are close to the Equator and receive more rains.

The decision paid off because high velocity winds and frequent rains do not allow pest to survive on plants, and cotton production in India went up to 32 million bales — from 18 million bales. That is how cotton was shifted away from Indian Punjab, which is located in upper part of the country. With the cotton culture largely gone to other areas, the residual East Punjab farmers are now looking for alternatives.

The loss of one million acres in southern Punjab would hit the entire agriculture economy, and hit it badly because there are not much alternatives in the areas. How the farmers use these one million acres — whether they go for rice or any other crop — remains to be seen.

In other parts of the province, 200,000 acres might largely go to maize, guar pulses or fodder. Of late, guar is emerging as a big alternative to any other crop. With its price going up by almost 350 per cent in one year — from Rs7,000 per maund to Rs25,000 per maund — the crop is in celebratory mood. The farmers thus may go for it, and justifiably so.

Maize might be another option. With its price also hovering over Rs900 per maund, and an acre could yield as much as Rs100,000 for a farmer. Being 110-day crop, it could also fill in the gap being left open by cotton. In July, it is also time for sowing pulses. With their prices multiplying in the last few years, especially after 2008, they also offer an attractive option for farmers.

All these options prove only one thing: farmers have a number of choices to replace cotton. What would the industry do? If it thinks it can follow Bangladesh model, where the country’s textile exports are surging without having cotton crop of its own, it is sadly mistaken.

It might never get domestic and international facilities that sustain Bangladeshi textile industry.

The textile industry has higher stakes in cotton crop than the farmers. Thus, it must join hands with the government and the farmers to prepare a long-term strategy to save cotton crop. To begin with it must offer a fair price to the cotton growers.