Saving ecology, agriculture in Bahawalpur

It is time for the politicians (I am specially talking about of the souls belonging to Central Punjab and upper Sindh) to get out of the useless politics they are now involved in. If you don’t want new dams and can’t afford to have smaller units ( so that they can look after their own developmental needs) play your role in making your cities and waterways clean and let the scientists undertake their noble task they have taken up to themselves to make available the water required for the wheat crop .

By Riaz Missen

 The attempts of the South Punjab’s politicians to make the link canals flowing down from Chashma and Taunsa headworks perennial (as a step to compensate the southern part of the country for its losing of three eastern rivers) has caused uproar in Sindh. Pervez Musharraf era did bring a relief in terms of the opening of these canals but it is not possible as long as the PPP remains in power and PML-N depending for its support in Punjab. Even if these canals remain open for, at least three months of the winter, the damage done to the water table on the both sides of the Sutlej River (it has become brackish due to constant pumping from the farmers to water the wheat crop) is irreparable.

 The human settlement on the left bank of the Sutlej River witnessed an upsurge 300 years back when some tribes fled the anarchy of Sindh, brought by raiding Afghans, and made the region their abode. The Abbasids who had led them there were wonderful agriculturalists. They allotted lands to their followers, sunk wells and dug canals to ensure their survival. The formation of the state was yet another miracle they brought in the no-man land where Sutlej meandered in the times of plenty. A long spell of peace and stability helped the growth of culture and civilisation. But all changed after 1947: the state was first merged into Pakistan and then into Punjab.

 The Sutlej River gradually dried up due to its selling by the Ayub regime to India through the fateful Indus Basin Treaty (1960). The huge amount the defunct princely state had paid to construct water reservoirs on the Sutlej River (Head Sulemanki, Head Islam and Head Panjnad) was almost rendered wasted when India started exercising its complete control on the perennial river.

 The cotton boom of 1980s made mud houses vanished and the cemented houses were lit up with electricity. A road was constructed during the Musharraf era. The cotton boom is over as the crop has been constantly hit by deadly virus for last eight years. But this did not discourage the farmers to sow cotton for many years: they needed stems to burn them as a fuel. During a whole decade, the farmers had not planted trees on the heads of their fields wrongly assuming that they reduced the per acre yield. Now they have no cotton but don’t have trees either.

 At the very time the per acre yield of cotton had started dropping the government had offered one-window facility to farmers to get loans from Zari Taraqqiati Bank (ZTBL) instead of probing into the reasons as to why the farmers were suffering the loss. Actually, the mindless use of pesticides and chemical fertiliser had disturbed the ecological system and it had become unfit for the proper growth of this crop.

 As I have mentioned earlier the farmers not only did not planted new trees but also sold the existing ones to the kiln owners.  The mechanisation of the agricultural sector sent the bullocks to the slaughterhouses; the short-term prosperity made them feel no urge of raring goats and sheep. The animal dung was now not available to replenish the soil fertility. They used chemical fertiliser but it eroded the fertility of the soil. The pesticides not only killed the crop friendly insects and birds but also proved hazardous for human health.

 

The authorities responsible for taking care of the environment remained silent spectators as the farmers treaded the suicidal path. I don’t know exactly whether the cotton produce did bring foreign exchange for the country. Even it did so but who will pay the cost the farmers have suffered in terms of both health and ecological system (1.8 percent of GDP is spent on the treatment of water-born diseases) ? About the loans given to the farmers, the fact of the matter is that these loans were given at the mark up higher than the market. The Mobile Credit Officers (MCOs) and Patwaris made billions for facilitating the farmers to get the easy money. When the reversal course started and crop failures became a reality, farmers’ lands were put on sale. No political party stood by farmers during the 1990s when all this happened.

 Now what is the fate of the small farmers? Their children now travel to the far flung areas in search of jobs because the few ginning factories and cotton mills can’t cater to the employment needs of the growing population. The region is not supplied even with its due share of canal water. When the cotton crop has failed farmers’ dependency on wheat crop has increased. But the problem is that this crop needs water in days when there is no water at all. So the water has to be pumped out. Now think about the mounting energy rates. The profitability is on decline with the every passing year. No industry, no agriculture.

 The mindless pumping of the ground water is turning it brackish besides making it slip downward (more diesel/ electricity consumption). A day is not away when the people will know the cost of sowing wheat, too. They will have to buy it up to quench their thrust. Will they migrate in search of water? I don’t know exactly if people are thinking about such option (politicians, are you ready to lead the people on the trail of tears!). The ex-Chief Minister of Punjab evolved the habit of sacrificing the water of Bahawalpur to earn good will of Sindhis. The situation changed only when a delegation of Cholistanis travelled to Lahore and told him that the Sindhis used the very water to have a good crop which they (Cholistanis) needed to quench the thirst of their children and livestock!

 Irony is that Punjab has double the cultivable area than Sindh but the lower riparian gets canal water nearly equal to the former. The will of the Punjab to get its due share is paralysed in the face of the fact that the Central Punjab is catering to all its needs by the canal water. The northern regions can’t have a canal system but only on a smaller scale. In the southern belt (except Bahawalpur), the owners of the large tracts also manage water for their crops anyhow. Only the small farmer is deprived of this facility.

 Against all these odds, a rare breed of agricultural scientists has brought ahead a solution that should galvanise the political parties to action: It is about the cost-effective treatment of wastewater through bio-remediation techniques, to cater to the agricultural needs of the country. As per estimates, the total size of the wastewater (used by household and industry) is 32 MAF which, if managed properly, can cater to the needs of the entire wheat crop. The project is ready with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) for its implementation throughout Pakistan by its National Institute of the Bio-remediation (NiB) and it can turn up a ray of hope for the small farmers of the dry regions of Pakistan, particularly the South Punjab, which is predominantly an agricultural belt but lacks the political vigour to get what is due to it. Sindh and Central Punjab cater to their 95% needs through canal water.

It is time for the politicians (I am specially talking about of the souls belonging to Central Punjab and upper Sindh) to get out of the useless politics they are now involved in. If you don’t want new dams and can’t afford to have smaller units ( so that they can look after their own developmental needs) play your role in making your cities and waterways clean and let the scientists undertake their noble task they have taken up to themselves to make available the water required for the wheat crop .

Status-quo is, of course,  not acceptable because it is darkening the future of the country and its people. Times have changed and it is time for politicians and the political parties to change as well. Try to understand that the future of the country and politics lies in understanding the nature and adjusting our ways according to its dictates — remember flash floods of 2008?

-The Post 

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About Sutlej News

News stories, features and columns on state and society in Pakistan with special reference to Bahawalpur, a princely state struggling to regain its provincial status it lost in in 1954

Posted on October 10, 2010, in Columns, Nature. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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