Troubled cotton sowing season


COTTON sowing in Punjab is in trouble, so are its seasonal prospects. Water has become a scarce commodity. Canal water shortages have touched a whooping 50 per cent.

With electricity shortfall even more severe, option to use tube-well is down correspondingly. And to make the matter worse, diesel cost have gone up over Rs100 per litre, reducing use of water from subsoil resources. As if all this was not enough, cotton growing is concentrated in the brackish zone (southern Punjab), where water for irrigation can only come from canal.

These factors have delayed cotton sowing in the province, along with Sindh, which may impact its yield and damage the long-term prospects of a crop which has already stopped making commercial sense for many farmers. These trends – short- and long-term cotton crisis – need to be halted before they consistently start seriously hitting the crop.

The immediate crisis is triggered by severe water shortage, which is not allowing farmers to sow cotton. With national water scarcity moving beyond 50 per cent at the most crucial period for crop, the sowing is stuck at 40 per cent even after a week (when this piece is written) of May 15 deadline. Traditionally, sowing reaches 85 per cent acreage by mid-May — the pushed forward date after the BT phenomenon.

It means around 60 per cent crop in Punjab may fall in late, or very-late, category. With such a delay, damages to crop could be three-fold: exposing the crop to pest and virus attacks in crucial months (August and September), shortening its life cycle and hitting the final yield.

Over the last few years, especially with the induction of BT cotton, the sowing cycle was pushed forward for three reasons. First, it was thought that the more time the BT gets in the field, the better it performs — though it is partly true for almost all varieties of cotton.

Second, early sowing makes the crop healthy enough to withstand Cotton Leaves Curl Virus (CLCV) attack and helps plants rejuvenate once the attack is over. Third, it helps wheat sowing on time if fields are cleared of cotton early.

Water scarcity can easily lead to low yield. No doubt, low yield does not mean that the nation may not be able to go beyond 14 million bales, but only to point out that such a figure is grossly below the country’s potential, which is much higher than that – some experts put it at 20 million bales. Any slide in production would certainly hit individual farmers.

Only on account of late sowing, experts believe, the crop can lose 10 to 15 per cent yield. It would not only lose early flushes, but there will be less bolls (may be 50 to 60 instead of normal 80) on each plant. These factor might bring the yield down by 10 to 15 per cent, which in numerical terms come to around Rs50-75 billion loss for farmers in a crop worth Rs500 billion.

If, God forbid, the CLCV attacks the crop, the loss would quickly multiply. Though the scientists have still not been able to clearly link CLCV attack with early or late sowing, empirical evidence in the last four to five years has shown that late sown crop is more susceptible to such attacks.

The crop has consistently been losing its commercial sheen for farmers, thanks mainly to the industry that is maximising its profits at the expense of growers and the government, which has not only slapped taxes on inputs but also allowed private sector to fleece farmers.

It is in industries long-term interest to keep the crop growing. However, the manipulation of price knows no bounds. During cotton harvesting, the industry pushed price as low as Rs2,500 per maund when the farmers were selling phuti. Currently, the price has touched Rs6,200 per maund when ginners and other stakeholders are selling lint.

The price escalation happened without any external intervening factor. Presently, the domestic price of cotton is more than international price. The only difference is that in first instance, it was farmers who were selling it. In the second one, these are industrial players.

The industry knew that Rs2,500 per maund price was at least Rs700 per maund less than the actual cost of production, given skyrocketing prices of inputs. Even then, it kept the price low and let the farmers – the most vital, and equally helpless, part of the textile industry – suffer.

It is this attitude of the industry that has hurt the crop’s economics for farmers more than any other factor. It is this factor that has been forcing farmers to look for other Kahrif options. Huge acreage of maize, sunflower and sugarcane in the core cotton belt reflects the farmers’ changing attitude towards the crop.