Cotton is a cash crop of Pakistan and the basic raw material of the textiles sector that contributes the largest chunk to country’s exports. This sector also has a major share in the country’s GDP and provides employment to hundreds of thousands of people.
Similarly, cotton cultivation provides livelihood to a huge number of population involved in farming and related activities. In many areas of the country, cotton crop cultivation has remained the backbone of the rural economy.
Not very long ago Pakistan would grow cotton in enough quantity to meet its domestic needs. Over the years the country has seen a shortfall in its production. Every year the government sets a production target but fails to achieve it. The reasons cited generally for this trend are use of substandard seed, crop diseases, poor advisory services by agriculture departments, irregular water availability etc. To overcome this shortage, Pakistan has to import cotton to meet the demand of both the local and export-oriented textiles industry.
This year the government has set a target of 15 million cotton bales, which is termed a bit ambitious by experts including agricultural scientists, cotton growers etc. To achieve this target, the government has instructed the concerned departments to visit farmers across the country and persuade them to grow cotton on their lands, ensure availability of quality seeds, give them advice on how to save their crop from diseases, identify the reasons why their yield per acre is not optimum and suggest solutions.
This year the government has also announced a subsidy of Rs1000 per bag of cottonseed to farmers in different areas.
No doubt these measures are being taken to address the issue and may yield results but stakeholders believe a lot more needs to be done to overcome this shortage. Their point is that apart from the steps taken at micro level, there is a dire need to bring changes at the policy level also. For example, the government needs to look at the reasons why the area used for cotton cultivation in the country is decreasing by the day and why farmers are opting for other crops. On the basis of its observations, the government can come up with incentives for farmers so that they can reconsider their choices.
The State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP’s) first quarterly report of the current fiscal year points out one major reason. It identifies mushroom growth of sugar mills in the main cotton-growing areas of Southern Punjab and Sindh as the major reason why large areas used for growing cotton crop in the past are being utilised for sugarcane production.
The sugarcane industry is controlled by highly influential people who can win incentives easily including government subsidy to export their stocks that are not competitive in the international market. They also give incentives to farmers so that they can switch from cotton farming to sugarcane farming.
Anis-ul-Haq, Secretary All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), Punjab, points out that apart from the shortage of cotton bales the problem they face is that the cotton bales are underweight and carry impurities and foreign objects like shoes, bricks etc. This, he says, “is done to increase weight and show higher production to get benefits like bank finance etc.” If this aspect is taken into count, he says, the shortfall becomes even larger. In other countries, he says, there is a concept of truth labeling, meaning one has to mention what exactly is inside the packaging and what are its specifications but unfortunately this is not the case here.
Haq says, “There is an urgent need to do agricultural research on how to increase yield per acre, fight pests and diseases and bring down the input costs incurred by farmers on cotton cultivation.” He points out “the biggest dilemma is that the farmers do not receive services from agriculture extension department whose mandate is to guide them at every stage of cotton production cycle.” The officers of the department are also required to introduce and explain new research to farmers and teach them through demos on how to benefit from it but this hardly happens, he adds.
He thinks the use of substandard, unapproved and smuggled Bt cotton seed is a major reason affecting cotton crop and making farmers switch to other crops. No doubt incentives for other crops have a role, “the fear of having poor cotton crop year after year due to uncontrollable diseases also makes farmers switch,” he adds. Therefore, he suggests, “the government must ensure use of certified seed and launch crackdown on those who are selling smuggled or unapproved Bt cotton seed in the market.”
The situation at the moment is that cotton crop production has fallen to less than 11 million bales. In 2011-12, there was a bumper crop of around 15 million bales. Since then there is a downward slide in terms of cotton production.
Similarly, imports of raw cotton have increased from 450,000 tonnes in 2012-13 to 610,000 tonnes in 2017-18 as the local demand surpassed supply of the crop.
Farooq Bajwa, Director Farmers’ Associates Pakistan and Convener Member, Agri Commission Punjab believes the area under cotton cultivation can be increased by offering incentives to the farmers. For example, he says, the government must impose duties on imported cooking oil and promote oil extraction from local cotton lintseed (banola) to meet domestic demand. When lintseed will be in demand, it will fetch high prices whereas at the moment it is being disposed of by farmers at throwaway price.
Bajwa shares that two-thirds of the cotton produce comprise lintseed and a raise in its price will bring financial benefits to the farmers. At the moment, he says, farmers are getting price for cotton lint (phutti) only which comprises only one-third of the crop.
Environmentalist and lawyer Ahmed Rafay Alam urges proper research in cotton seed production and need for a mechanism to inspect and approve genetically modified varieties. He says such a system does not exist at the moment especially after the introduction of 18th Amendment.
Alam shares that 80 percent of the cottonseed in use in the country is Bt. technology based and the issue is that many fake varieties have permeated the market. The low toxin level in such fake or substandard seeds has resulted in loss of their effectiveness against severe cotton-related diseases like cotton bollworms etc. Due to this reason, he says, large quantity of cotton crop is damaged and disease-infected.
Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI) President Khalid Khokhar demands the government announce support price for cotton if it wants to achieve the target of 15 million bales. He says the demand is not out of the ordinary as there are examples like Indian government supports 27 crops including cotton.
Khokhar’s demand is endorsed by independent experts who believe support price for crops like wheat and sugarcane results in their surplus production whereas production of crops like cotton suffers. And the worst part is that the surplus stock is exported after getting subsidy from the government.