Oct 1, 2013 – When I received an invitation from the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council to speak at the conference on “Regional Workshop on Youth and Agriculture: Challenges and Opportunities”, I was filled with nostalgia even though I had never visited Pakistan. After all, I live not five kilometres from the India-Pakistan Border in village Maujgarh, Punjab; fenced from my neighbours. Also, my grandfather studied in Lahore and has been telling me tales of the good days when the nations were one. He came to Delhi only after the partition; a British inheritance and a bloody one at that.
While applying for a visa, I was surprised to know that Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s countries needed visas for every town they wished to travel to and had to specify the mode and place of entry into the country. This is a ridiculous arrangement and I needed many friends and an efficient Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi to swing all the required permissions. It literally meant getting permission to enter Pakistan ‘on foot” at the Wagah border, near Amritsar.
Being a keen kinnow farmer, I had arranged to visit kinnow farms in Sargodha in Pakistan. I insisted on visiting only those farmers who stayed on the farm. That was an opportunity not to be missed.
The motorway M2 that connects Lahore to Islamabad is a marvel; one that I am yet to see in India. It passes close to Sargodha. First, we crossed the river Ravi to arrive in the citrus country of Sargodha, hemmed in between the rivers Chenab and Jhelum.
I meet a dynamic, young, strapping farmer member of parliament, Ch. Faisal Farooq Cheema. An avid farmer, he has more than 200 acres under citrus and more land where he grows vegetables using the latest tunnel technology. He sells his vegetables in the local market. We discussed reasons for the possible decline of kinnow in the last few years and other issues.
He patiently explains the situation with electricity supply in Pakistan. There is no free electricity for farmers in Pakistan and the cost is more than double what their Indian counterpart’s pay.
There were no problems of electricity supply till 2006-07. Then, from 2008 onwards, fuel prices went up as did demand; from 13,000 mw-14,000 mw to 19,000 mw, while the generation capacity remained unchanged.
I am surprised to learn Punjab in Pakistan is not fully irrigated and some areas are ‘barani’ (rain-fed). The salt mines appear the minute you cross the Jhelum on the way to Islamabad and there seems to be no irrigation channels. People in Sargodha or in central Punjab are more open to experimenting and are more pragmatic than farmers of the southern parts of Punjab and Sindh where land holdings are also larger.
The canal system is impeccable and works efficiently, designed as it was by British engineers; as in India. The command area management of the canals is found wanting though, leading to water logging at many places. Tube wells are a menace, and at many places, the water level is falling. A network of canals transfers water from Chenab and Jhelum to the river Ravi. Ravi waters are utilized by India as per treaties signed under the aegis of the U.N.
In four days, I was witness to at least 10 wedding processions. I wonder why and I am told that Muharram is fast approaching and weddings do not take place after the new moon rises in the month of Ramzaan; they are thus being quickly solemnized.
Amongst the many farms that I visit is the farm of Ch. Asghar Mumnana of Kotmomin, which has 50 year old kinnow trees. The national average yield is 250 ‘mand’ per acre. All transactions are quantified in ‘mand’ (40 kgs). Farmers in Kotmomin and Balwal in Sargodha have the best kinnow in Pakistan and get yields up to 350 ‘mand’ per acre. Ch. Asghar prunes/removes the dry wood and the water shoots twice a year; in September and early February; after the harvest. Normally, it takes a team of 16 people about 15 days to prune one ‘maraba’ or 25 acres of land and costs Pakistani Rs 4,500 per day or PKR 27 per tree (INR 1=PKR 1.75), which is far cheaper than in India.
Flood irrigation has been the main form of irrigation. Farmers water their orchards five times a year. Drip irrigation has not caught their fancy as yet and there are no subsidies from the government. Compared to them, farmers in India are a pampered lot.
Ch. Ashgar’s has 100 trees per acre, as is normal practice here. In India, more trees are planted per acre with reduced spacing. Farmers till the orchard five to six times a year. Ch. Ashgar applies fertilizer by broadcasting it under the edges of the tree canopy. This is then mixed with a side protruding ‘rotavator’ to till the land. The area near the stem is cleared of the grass with a ‘kasi’ (an implement with a long handle with a broad blunt metal blade at one end). No one uses the smaller, hand-held ‘khurpi’ as in India; which means that there is no practice of ‘godi’ or ‘khodi’.
A common problem for the last seven years has een ‘sudden death’; what India is experiencing too as ‘die back’. Essentially, the tree dies quickly and no one quite knows why. ‘Rodomil’ a Syngenta product is the most effective control of phytophthora in the area according to the farmers. This is true for Indian orchards too.
“Citrus scap” that causes the fruit to be blemished with scratches is more controlled in Pakistan than in India by applying ‘Amistar top’. Even ‘Citrus cilla’ is more controlled. The quantity of pesticide used in Pakistan has doubled in 10 years but is still half of what is applied in Indian orchards.
Pesticide companies like Syngenta have franchises in Pakistan, unlike in India, where farmers buy from shopkeepers selling agriculture input of every kind. Farmers are thus saved from the whims and manipulation of agriculture input shopkeepers as in India. These franchisees keep up to 200 men. The ‘spray man’ sprays pesticides on the farm with his back-mounted pumps and farmers pay PKR 200 per head per day for the services. A farmer can place an order and the spray man comes to spray the field. The franchisee is a specialized service provider and essential for farmers. This is a service that should be duplicated in India.
Fertilizers are exorbitantly priced in Pakistan. Urea is nearly four times more expensive than in India and DAP is nearly double the Indian price. The retail network of fuel stations is poor and the rate of diesel increases as one goes into the interiors. Per acre consumption of fertilizer is less than in India.
The kinnow story really took off in 1974 when the erstwhile Shah of Iran, flush with funds after OPEC jacked up oil prices, placed a huge order for Pakistani kinnow. The earnings of the farmer went up from PKR 10,000 per acre to PKR 1,00,000 per acre all of a sudden, leading to a rush to plant more orchards.
Kinnow exports were pioneered by Ch. Abdulla Yusaf Warraich but he went off to America later. Growth of the grading and waxing industry started in 1980 when three agencies put up factories and used the now banned ‘Benomil’ for waxing. In 1983, local equipment started being manufactured and in 1991, a number of new kinnow factories came up in Pakistan. Since then there has been no looking back.
I also visit the Zahid factory in Balwal tehsil. It runs on a mind-boggling scale and the owner, Zahid Sultan, not only patiently explains the kinnow trade but shares his deep knowledge of local and world trends in kinnow marketing. Zahid is looking for government support to convince the Russians to lift the ban imposed on import of kinnows on account of pesticide residues from Pakistan.
Compared to India, there is little support for farmers or for the kinnow-processing industry in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the farmer earns more and seems to be better educated about the problems and practices of kinnow cultivation. The kinnow plucking season begins November 15 and exports are allowed only after December 1. As in India, the factory owner contracts labour to pick the fruit from a farmer and transport it away. The selling price of around PKR 700 per ‘mand’ translates to INR 10 per kg, a clear 20 per cent more than in India currently. The cost of cultivation of kinnow is a good 25 per cent less than in India.
The region has seen the renaming of many places; Montgomery is now Sahiwal but the name of the Toba Teg Singh district remains unchanged; even though fundamentalist were keen to rechristen it. The locals resisted such attempts because they had not forgotten the sacrifice and love of the Late Teku Singh in 1890s in helping farmers arriving from areas east of Lahore to Ludhiana settle in the ‘sandelbar’ areas, in between the Chenab and Sutlej.
The chief minister of Punjab, Shabaz Sharif (the brother of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) is much appreciated for his governance skills. Before leaving for India, I am reminded of Ch. Faisal Farooq Cheema’s words, said in a lighter vein, “God has given Pakistan good land, water and weather and was confident it was enough for Pakistan to prosper”. God’s grace will only go that far, both the nations need to sort issues and help the poor prosper. There is another striking commonality: farmers in both the countries have the same opinion of their respective government’s agriculture departments.