Rahim Yar Khan is a culturally complex district located on the far southern side of Punjab. It is scattered over a vast desert and vast riverine zone with three canals watering its farmlands. This natural endowment gives it immense potential for agricultural and livestock production, both exploited and untapped.
This natural gift has helped the region a great deal. It is renowned for cotton of the finest quality. It has supported Pakistan in fulfilling its requirements for milk and beef. By producing high-yield sugar cane, it is now sustaining the sugar industry.
There’s a flipside to performance, though. The district morphed from being a cotton champion to the sustainer of the sugar industry. At the most important moment of our economic journey, it is now persistently blamed for failed cotton crops and damaging textiles.
The district has been recognised, at least in the agricultural sense, for jettisoning cotton and adopting sugar cane for the past one and a half decades. The pattern, at least for now, seems unstoppable. Not only has the sugar industry led the move, but it has also cemented its success at both political and commercial levels to the point that a turnaround seems almost unlikely.
The commercial success of the sugar industry has been so comprehensive that traditional landlords are now sugar mill owners as well
This has helped farmers grow seeds. It allowed them to lease out large stretches of land at twice the usual cost. It also encouraged farmers to adopt the new machinery and methods. Most notably, the cut-to-crush time has reduced to less than 24 hours, ensuring tremendous financial gains in the process.
The production of sugar cane has been promoted at the policy level by a two-pronged strategy: to gradually raise the minimum indicative price and to ensure sufficient water for this water-guzzling crop. Further clarifying the condition is the five-year acreage map. The sugar cane cultivation area increased from 310,000 acres in 2014-15 to 430,000 acres this year according to the Punjab Crop Reporting Service results. It reached 477,000 acres in 2017-18, before eventually slipping down a little. In the same period, its production grew from 10.56 million tonnes to 13.2 million tonnes. Six sugar mills led and rode the cane bandwagon in the district of two JDW RYK Group plantations, Hamza, Ittehad and Gulf.
Supply data from the Panjnad barrage Fed reveals how water helped ensure the cane achievement in Rahim Yar Khan. Three canals irrigate over 1.5 m acres in the district, which is predominantly a brackish aquifer, Panjnad, Abbasia and Abbasia Connect, although there are a few pockets of sweet water.
As per the Irrigation Department data, their joint allocation (both for Kharif and Rabi) is 5.05m acres feet (maf) a year. In 2014-15, the district got 6.96maf, in 2015-16 7.11maf, in 2016-17 5.96maf, in 2017-18 4.99maf, in 2018-19 6.67maf, and last year 6.27maf. Over the years, the province has experienced seasonal shortages by up to 40 per cent. But Rahim Yar Khan water sources remained impervious to these issues primarily because of the monsoon’s flood supplies.
The sugar industry’s commercial growth was so extensive that traditional landlords, like several branches of the Makhdoom family, are now also owners of sugar mills. On the basis of their achievements in the sugar industry, new entrants like Chaudhry Munir and Jahangir Khan Tareen won a spot in national politics.
Alongside the rise of sugar, the decline of cotton took place. Cotton acreage fell from 511,000 acres to 474,000 during the time described above. In 2017-18, when its acreage fell to 389,000 acres, the dip was sharp. During the same time, its production went down from 743,000 bales to 621,000 bales. Cotton has had plenty of its own issues. It was not the only sugar cane crop that was rolled over several mango orchards that dotted the district also lost their fight for cane.
The district provides more than 500,000 litres a day in terms of milk processing and is a major supplier of multinational companies that supply milk to customers. Late, low-fat, more healthy camel milk has built a niche market for itself, thanks to some of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences’ local initiatives that connect farmers to major city markets.
The Makhdooms, Qureshis, Legharis and Rais families have traditionally dominated the region. The United Arab Emirates, whose president, the late Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, began making an annual sojourn to the region in the 1960s and 70s to hunt houbara bustard and deer, has also helped a lot. In the area, he and his sons helped construct highways, hospitals, schools and colleges that helped achieve a literacy rate of close to 40pc in a largely rural district.
Of late, their participation seems to be diminishing, but the spending in infrastructure in the region still represents the attention it once got from the Arab world.