Last season Imtiaz Chaudhry, a young man from Khanewal, cultivated cotton on 76 of 96 acres of family land. The cotton grower from South Punjab said he would not sow cotton on more than 20 acres in 2016.
He is not an exception. Most farm experts asserted that in absence of immediate policy intervention many cotton farm owners in Punjab will do the same: switch from cotton to a crop that they perceive to be more rewarding.
If their assessment is taken to be true the future of the cotton economy of Pakistan does not appear promising. The acreage of cotton crop and its production in Punjab is set to shrink drastically. The prospects are clouded also because there appears to be no sense of urgency in the official circles. How would it portend for the massive textile sector and the economy beyond? My guess is as good as yours.
The story of Imtiaz, 34, was typical. He claimed to be tilling the land for the last 15 years, unlike his other brothers who decided to move to cities for a more predictable future.
A brief chat with him revealed that it was the romance associated with the land, instilled by his rural background that tempted him, an educated man, to pick a riskier future in farming. As expected the graph of his annual income has not been linear but he said he was content with it up till now. However, the ordeal and the loss he incurred this year shook his resolve.
“Right now I feel trapped and depressed. I cannot jump boats now as farming is what I have learned and can do with ease. I have no choice but to pull myself up and strategise for the next season,” he told this scribe.
“The pain of losing a crop is not much different from loss of a loved one. In farming it is not enough to spend liberally. One has to tend and monitor a farm closely,” he felt the need to explain to evoke empathy.
Continuing to tell his story he said, “Three months after sowing in August last year I knew that something was wrong as the growth of cotton plant was subnormal not only in my but all adjoining farms. My initial response was to apply more fertiliser and go for an additional spray but soon I realised that the problem was deeper.
“By mid August instead of attaining 4-foot height, plants were a foot and half tall and leaves were pale and curled inwards. The shape of cotton bud was twisted and when finally flower opened up brown stains were visible. Eyeing the low prices I gave up on plans that involved investment to salvage the crop and tried to dispose of the produce as fast as I could.”
At the start of the season he expected a minimum return of Rs2.5 million on his investment of Rs3.5m. Sharing break-up of spending, he said the cost of cotton cultivation per acre comes to about Rs45,000. It includes cost of inputs like seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, water, diesel for tractors and electricity for tube wells but excludes spending on labour for cotton picking, transportation to the market and payment to the agent (broker).
The loss this year in volume and quality of the crop did not allow him to recover even the cost and at the end he incurred a net loss of over two million rupees.
Like others, Imtiaz contested the government’s claim that changes in weather pattern and pink bollworm attack in the province were primarily responsible for the short crop. “I don’t think more than 10 per cent of the loss can be attributed to these. Lack of availability of the right pesticides compounded the agony of farmers but I believe some genetic disease spread by substandard seeds is the real culprit,” dejected Imtiaz said adding that other factors such as lack of guidance and timely intervention by the government aggravated the situation.
Cotton crop failure in Punjab left several hundred thousand rural families in deep distress. The small farm holders who raised capital cost from loans are worst hit. Many had to sell their animals and part of their land to settle their obligations towards lenders.
“I have seen ups and downs in the past. The closeness to nature tends to make us patient. The weather was harsh with too many rainy days and there was pest attack but it was the apathy of the government that sealed our fate,” a leader of farming community Khawaja Shahab said when reached in his office in downtown Multan.
He said he was planning to replace cotton by sugarcane though cane requires much high water intake as returns are relatively higher and secured.
In 2015 area under cotton crop in the province fell marginally to 2,260,000 hectares from 2,300,000 in 2014. The production according to official data released on 15 January 2016 dived from 11 million bales last year to 5.7 million bales during the current year.
Dr Farrukh Javed, Agriculture Minister Punjab, said the government was not only alive to the situation but doing all in its power to assist the farming community. “The government has reduced the input cost significantly by providing subsidy on inputs and duty reduction in utilities.
The Rs341 billion PML-N Kissan package announced in September last year for small farmers includes direct cash support of Rs5,000 for families and provision of soft loans,” he said over phone from Lahore.
“We are not beggars waiting for charity. We want farming to get the respect and importance it deserves in Islamabad. The government needs to check price manipulation of inputs and dumping of agriculture products by India and China. We are asking for a fair deal,” a local in the cotton belt reacted.
“The PML-N government has an urban bias. Let Dr Farrukh compare input cost in Pakistan to India or Bangladesh before he boasts of providing relief. There is urgent need to monitor inputs standards and price,” said Shakeel Ahmed, a grower.