Following a year-on-year decline in the acreage and output of the cotton crop, the government is taking immediate measures to arrest the trend and enhance the production of the silver lint.
The cash crop is witnessing a gradual decline in production since 2005 due to a fall in the acreage, water shortage, poor-quality seed and spurious pesticides.
Last year, its output remained 11 million bales against the target of 12.6m bales. But in the ongoing season, the harvest will hardly be 10.5m bales as per the estimates of analysts. Pakistan is the fourth largest cotton producer in the world. Its cotton industry saw its “magic years” in the early 1990s when the crop output exceeded 20m bales.
The cotton plantation area has shrunk in the last couple of decades as sugar mills were set up in the cotton zone of south Punjab and Sindh. The absence of a support price has also pushed cotton farmers towards wheat and sugar cane for which the government announces support prices every year to ensure a fair return to growers.
Farmers prefer growing sugar cane and wheat only because these crops enjoy support prices, which ensure that they recover at least their cost of production
For a return to the golden era, Prime Minister Imran Khan at a recent meeting sought plans for achieving the production target of 15m bales in the 2019-20 season. Punjab has forwarded to the federal authorities a 20-point activity plan with responsibilities assigned to each relevant department/agency for funding and other necessary action, according to an official who was part the planning process.
The plan fixes the sowing target of 5.7m acres for harvesting 11m bales of cotton in the province. It also suggests the zoning of the province’s cotton belt for specific seed varieties and sowing window (period) purposes.
To obtain the required crop yield, it recommends that both the federal and Punjab governments ensure the provision of quality certified seeds at Rs4,000 per 40-kilogram bag or Rs100 per kg to cotton growers. At 8kg per acre, the province will need 45,600 tonnes of seeds for the 5.7m acre sowing target. The provincial government has already approved a subsidy of Rs700 per acre, but it is for only 100,000 acres of land in south Punjab under a World Bank-funded project.
The plan also demands a pilot project of Rs3,000-per-acre subsidy for at least four cotton-producing districts — Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan and Vehari — as an incentive for cultivators who are inclined towards cash crops, particularly sugar cane.
For reducing the cost of production, it seeks the launch of an integrated pest management (IPM) programme, which will include seed treatment, use of PB ropes to control pink bollworm and botanical plant extracts.
Besides recommending a ban on the cultivation of the maize crop in Bahawalpur and DG Khan divisions, it makes an important but controversial recommendation: diverting upper Punjab’s water to the cotton belt, particularly during the sowing season from March 15 to May 31.
Some stakeholders argue that farmers keep two factors in mind before sowing a crop: which crop will bring them a reasonable livelihood and which one is easier to cultivate. They prefer growing sugar cane and wheat only because these crops enjoy the minimum support price and guarantee the farmers that they will at least recover their cost of production.
Cotton Research and Development Board Chairman Suhail Mehmood Harral said the government should extend cotton-specific incentives instead of relying on general proposals for the whole agriculture sector to increase the area under cotton crop.
The most important step, he says, is the announcement of a support price for cotton just like wheat and sugar cane crops. “What cotton grower needs is the restoration of his confidence that has been shattered because of an uncertain price regime in which he sometimes fails to recover even his cost of production. His confidence will be restored only through offering him a support price of at least Rs4,000 per 40kg for his produce,” he says.
A few weeks ago, the federal minister of food security and research hinted at introducing a support price of Rs3,500 per 40kg phutti (raw cotton) to encourage cotton growers.
Mr Harral, who is also a former chief of the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association (PCGA), urged the government to come up with a package that includes a support price as well as the provision of affordable and good quality pesticides and fertilisers. Offering subsidised seeds won’t work wonders that the government is looking aiming for, he adds.
Some experts underscore the importance of improving crop management for enhancing output. “Better crop management contributes 80pc in achieving higher cotton production,” says Dr Zahid Mahmood, a researcher.