HYDERABAD: Lack of reasonable rates for traditional vegetables and price volatility has forced coastal farmers to spare larger sections of their agricultural land to cultivate cotton, for which the provincial government also announced a support price.
Last year, growers received Rs6,000-6,500/maund for cotton in the local markets, which was likely the motivating factor this year. Farmers hope to recover the losses they incurred on account of instability in the prices of vegetables.
Gulab Shah, a farmer in Keti Bunder, Thatta district, said coastal farmers have witnessed challenges one after another like increasing sea intrusion, scarcity in irrigation water and exploitation in the markets. Over the years they have lost traditional crops like banana, betel leaves, indigenous red rice, mango orchards and now even melon and watermelon.
Only a few farmers still own small plantations of bananas and betel leaves, or cultivate rice, cotton, wheat and other crops. “Our families sowed these crops for generations, but now, many of us are reluctant to continue doing the same,” Shah added. Apart from price volatility, weather was another phenomenon that became a reason for decline in cotton cultivation. “But with an announcement of support price, local traders are more willing to buy the commodity,” and “we do not even have to bother about picking and transportation to big city like we had to with vegetables,” he added.
Being advanced areas, some coastal growers started cultivating cotton from the first week of February, which might continue up to March and April in other areas, as per the local crop calendar.
Besides other crops, coastal farmers produced tomato, chilli, ridge gourd, cucumber, karela (bitter gourd) and other vegetables. These edibles were supplied in the major and more accessible markets of Karachi, where growers received proper rates.
However, now they were getting low rates, prompting some growers to abandon the vegetable crops in their fields to avoid spending on picking, grading, packing and hiring transportation.
Talking about water, the coastal farmers said it depends on the river Indus flow. Gone were the days when fishermen and farmers together used to welcome water downstream Kotri in early March by dropping rose petals in the streams. They expected to see prosperity in the deltaic region. But for the last few years, farmers were facing water shortage, as the river itself did not bring water to its ultimate end, delta.
Coastal farmers get irrigation water through perennial distributaries, such as the Odero branch, part of Kalri Baghar Feeder, which flows from Kotri barrage. Presently, a fear prevails that the irrigation authorities were initiating lining of the water body under the World Bank funded project. If this happens, the farmers do not have any other option to save their crops.
It is not only coastal farmers, who have put cotton on priority. Chilli producers in Kunri of Umerkot, Nao Kot and Kaloi in Tharparkar and Jhudo in Mirpurkhas districts, have also increased land for cotton, compared to chilli crop. Their reasons however might be different.
Rain-flood 2020 in these areas played havoc, ruining standing crops mainly chilli and cotton in wide areas. As a result, farmers faced colossal losses. Muhammad Sadiq, a farmer in Kaloi area said they usually start cultivating cotton and preparing chilli nurseries in the first week of March. After that they initiate transplantation of the chilli seedling.
But, he said, unfortunately this time the irrigation authorities are releasing less water in watercourses through tributaries due to overall water scarcity in canals. “Our turn would come after 21 days instead of a week,” he added.
This has also increased uncertainty about preparing chilli nurseries. “A 21-day gap is unreliable to initiate chilli seedling transplantation or meeting the requirements of the cotton crop,” Sadiq said.
In case of receiving late water, chilli productivity might be affected. Farmers have to bear expenses of around Rs100,000/acre, including seed, fertiliser etc. One acre requires seed worth Rs20,000—23,000.
Last year, they also suffered huge losses because of substandard seeds, which did not germinate. All these factors make them reluctant, Sadiq added. About the water situation, farmers said only Rann Shakh (locally called Thar branch), the last distributary of Mithrao canal feeds 70 watercourses.
Each watercourse covers 700 acres of land, mainly chilli, cotton and other crops. When contacted, leading researchers in agriculture said they found gaps within government-run seed producing institutes. For example, they said mostly farmers received cotton seed prepared in Punjab, which either could not germinate here in the Sindh environment or gave low yield.
Thus, they advised the provincial government to improve capacity to produce climate resilient seed varieties as per the local environment, as this major cash crop was quite vulnerable to pink worm attacks and other diseases that ruin it or cause low yield. Presently, Sindh farmers purchase cotton seed at Rs400—450/kg, paying double prices compared to the previous year, when it was available for Rs200-250/kg.