Pakistan, an exporter of cotton in the past, is facing acute shortage of this crop and importing it in large quantities to meet its demand. In addition to its shortage, the quality of cotton produced here has also suffered over the years.
The year 2015-2016 proved to be one of the worst years in the context of cotton yield as its production declined by around 30 per cent. Punjab was affected far more than the other cotton producing province Sindh. As per the figures shared by the Cotton Commissioner, the country had to import cotton worth $4 billion in just one year to overcome the demand-supply gap.
Forecast for the next year crop is also not looking good. There is a fear that disheartened by last year’s experience, farmers may sow less cotton and opt for other crops.
Though most of the harm was caused by an abnormal rain pattern and unfavourable weather, non-availability of quality seed, ever-increasing input costs, lack of support and guidance from Agriculture Extension Department, pest attacks, low prices of cotton in the global and local markets etc have also played their role.
Initially, Punjab was projected to produce 10.5 million bales during the period in question, but the projection was revised downward to 7.4 million bales following the abnormal rainfall in cotton growing areas and attack of pink bollworm and whitefly. Similarly, Sindh was expected to produce 4.4 million bales but the estimate was revised downward to 3.4 million bales after pink bollworm and whitefly attacks. However, Sindh did not face erratic rainfall like Punjab. One bale weighs around 150kg according to Pakistani standards.
The situation calls for immediate and concerted efforts by stakeholders to address the root causes. While it is not possible to fight with nature, farmers can at least be informed about the latest methods to minimise the damage. They can be facilitated by the government.
All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) Punjab Secretary Anis-ul-Haq tells TNS that though excessive rains during the crucial season did damage cotton, the Bt cotton seed excessively used in the country seems to have lost its resistance against pest attacks. “Resultantly, the pink bollworm attacked cotton and caused huge destruction of the standing crop. This worm is so strong that its traces remain even after the picking of the crop and are passed on to the next crop. Therefore, it has been suggested by agricultural experts that the farmers in the affected area do not sow cotton crop for one whole season to fully get rid of pink bollworms.”
Haq adds there is another suggestion that friendly pests be released in the areas under pink bollworm attack so that they can feed on the latter and terminate them. “This is an environment-friendly technique because it does not involve the use of pesticides and is called pest management.”
He also holds the staff of Agriculture Extension Department responsible for the crisis faced by farmers and states that it is no more interested in reaching out to the farmers to assist them. “Instead, their services are being put to political use and they are carrying out other tasks like setting up Ramzan bazars, dengue prevention exercises etc.”
Haq says “the country is importing cotton from countries like India, Western Africa and the US to meet its demand that has also increased due to the GSP Plus Status awarded to Pakistan by the European Union (EU).”
Importing cotton from India through Wagah Border is the most suitable and economical option for the industry but the issue is that the government of Pakistan has imposed a limit on the quantity imported this way in a particular period of time. On the other hand, there is no such limit in case the product is imported from India by sea. The reason cited for imposition of this condition is that the government wants to save the country from being flooded with Indian cotton which is possible through Wagah and save the local farmers.
Pakistan Kissan Ittehad President Khalid Mehmood Khokhar comes down hard on the Punjab government for ignoring the agriculture sector altogether and creating highly unfavourable conditions for farmers. “It is a pity that seven provincial secretaries have been appointed/replaced in the agriculture department during the last three years. This means none of them could find enough time to work out proper agricultural policies and implement them. Similarly, the Central Cotton Research Institute in Multan is without a regular head for the past many years.”
Khokhar alleges that most of the Bt cotton seed used in the country has been smuggled or introduced locally without keeping the local needs, weather, soil and other conditions in view. “This has badly affected both quality and quantity of the cotton crop. Therefore, Pakistan must introduce seed varieties that are resistant to the climate change effects that the country is facing at the moment and pest attacks.”
He calls on the government to facilitate farmers by reducing input costs, taxes on inputs and electricity tariff, providing them quality seed and sufficient water well in time. “How will they think about sowing cotton if they are unable to even recover their input cost, especially when subsidised Indian cotton is there in the market?”
Khokhar points out that cotton crop is not only the need of the textile sector, it is also required to make feed for livestock and for consumption in the oil industry. “Besides, the cotton picker women earn their livelihood this way. The shortage of crop has affected them a lot. The cotton stick which is used as fuel in rural areas has also become rare and it is feared that people may cut trees and use the wood as fuel.”
Tariq Iqbal, a cotton trader, tells TNS that farmers are switching to sugarcane because it is not harmed due to exposure to abundant water. “Secondly, its producers do not face competition in the form of imports. This is a dangerous trend and the government must give incentives to farmers to continue with cotton production.”