Outdated techniques in the modern world
SINDH’S first sugar factory was established in Tando Mohammad Khan — then part of Hyderabad district — some time in the early sixties. It was situated on the left bank of the Indus.
Cotton cultivation was allowed on the left bank while rice cultivation has been banned in this area, at least on paper. The right bank areas, however, were to produce rice as a matter of policy. And all this land was fed by the colonial era Sukkur barrage, built in 1932.
The crop-mapping or zoning strategy for Sindh’s agriculture sector was based on parameters established long ago. Sadly, things are different today. A major shift is seen in crop cultivation as the government, both provincial and federal, has turned a blind eye to it.
Crop zoning regulates the farm sector. It determines how and where a particular crop or is to be cultivated so as to achieve the greatest yield. Such zones are defined in view of weather conditions, available water flows, drainage system and soil fertility etc of that area. This method helps ensure efficient utilisation of resources.
Sindh and Punjab are both bearing the brunt of adverse implications of this change. Punjab’s southern parts are home to sugar cane cultivation thanks to the unusual growth of the sugar industry in water deficient areas that do not suit the crop. Sugar cane is considered Pakistan’s political crop commanding patronage of all bigwigs.
The crop-mapping or zoning strategy for Sindh’s agriculture sector was based on parameters established long ago. Sadly, things are different today. A major shift is seen in crop cultivation as the government, both provincial and federal, has turned a blind eye to it
Pakistan’s National Food Security Policy was approved for the first time in 72 years by the outgoing PML-N government. Punjab and Sindh — Pakistan’s two main grain producing provinces — have also framed their own agriculture policies.
Besides these two provinces, Balochistan contributes towards the paddy crop while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa focuses on tobacco, although it also has a lot of potential for maize production.
The national food security policy, coupled with the two provincial agriculture policies, cover all policy areas for sustainable agriculture growth. However, to ensure sustainability, what appears to be missing is synchronisation at federal and provincial levels.
“The government needs to share information-based knowledge to convince growers about which crop should be sown in a given season. This culture needs to be developed if we aim to achieve sustainability in our farm sector which has a huge potential for growth,” contended Dr Yusuf Zafar, former chairman Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
Water, a precious commodity, is becoming scarce. The government often uses the public’s purse to provide subsidies to first produce a certain crop, such as sugarcane, and then export the sweetener with rebate, without benefitting either genuine farmers or consumers. Farmers don’t get the desired price for their produce while consumers get expensive sugar thanks to institutional lacunas at the implementation stage.
It is owing to a missing zoning system that Pakistan often has a bumper sugarcane crop coupled with sugar surpluses, all at the cost of declining cotton acreage and looming water scarcity. The country has a huge potential for cotton production and a large textile industry.
To borrow from a Punjab-based agriculture analyst, Ibrahim Mughal, Pakistan is spending Rs600-700 billion on import of various agro-commodities especially cotton, edible oil and pulses.
“We can easily produce [these commodities] by ensuring proper zoning to protect our ecosystem. But we have to protect the natural habitat of our crops and we must stop tinkering with the natural ecosystem or be ready to face the consequences,” he observed.
If the country earns foreign exchange on rice exports, it also spends a huge amount to import edible oil and pulses. And both crops can be grown domestically, as evident from the experience gained in the 2010 super floods when sunflower cultivation boomed.
The West Pakistan Rice (Restriction on Cultivation) Ordinance 1959 is often invoked in command (left bank) areas of Ghotki Feeder canal (Guddu barrage), Nara and Rohri canals (Sukkur barrage) to ban sowing of paddy. This mirrors the zoning system. But due to weak governmental writ these rules are not strictly enforced, thus paddy surpluses are seen in banned areas.
Pakistan exports a freshwater resource when rice is exported, says former chairman Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources Dr Mohammad Ashraf. Out of 8.6 million tonnes of rice produced in 2015-16, 4.2m tonnes (worth Rs194bn) were exported. These exports required 6.8MAF of freshwater amounting to Rs8.4bn (at Rs1,233 per acre foot of water)
Due to nonexistent zoning, high delta crops are grown in areas where surface water is insufficient and groundwater is deep or saline. Edible oil crops should be introduced which require less water and don’t affect foreign exchange.
Dr Ashraf underscored the need for crop zoning given depleting water resources. The focus should be on water conservation and maximization of per acre productivity to lessen the usage of surface freshwater resources. Abstraction of groundwater, another important resource, is going unchecked and is another burden on the ecosystem.
Over the years Pakistan has become largely dependent on cotton import thanks to declining domestic production of cotton bales. The textile industry needs around 15m cotton bales while domestic production hovers around 10m, resulting in imports.
The area under cultivation for cotton faces massive encroachment in Sindh and Punjab by the sugar cane crop which continues to be politically patronised regardless of which party is in power. This has lead to an unnatural growth of the sugar industry.