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Wheat sowing may be delayed in Punjab              
By Ahmad Fraz Khan

AS Punjab is focused on the cotton crop, and justifiably so, wheat sowing in the province might get delayed beyond prudent limits.

At present, the entire attention of the Punjab Agriculture Department is riveted on saving cotton. It is still issuing repeated advisories to farmers for application of fertiliser.

Cotton crop takes at lest 60 days to mature after the application of fertiliser. That means the crop would mature in the second week of November – the most propitious time for wheat sowing. Its picking would take another 10 to 15 days, and then
soil preparation for wheat another week or so. The sowing might thus be delayed till mid- and even late-December, which, by no means, is desirable: after November 20, each day costs the farmer about 10 kilograms in yield.

The factors forcing Punjab to save cotton as much as it can are truly compelling. The loss of every million bales deprives the rural economy of around Rs32 billion, increasing poverty correspondingly. It forces the textile industry to import the
same quantity at the cost of very precious foreign exchange. Since 60 per cent of exports depend on cotton, it is wise to save it to the last boll.

To top it all, the farmers have done the hard work. They have nurtured the crop for many months and made huge investments on sowing, fertilisation and pesticides. They deserve return on their investment, and that is what the Punjab government
is struggling for.

But, the provincial government also needs to ensure that food safety is not compromised next year. The huge carry-over stocks (about six million tons at present) do provide it huge space for manoeuvering. But it maintained the stocks at a
massive cost – around Rs2.5 billion in per month interest payments to banks on a loan of over Rs200 billion.
 

 


If it has to carry those stocks for next year’s food safety, it is asking for huge financial trouble. It would thus be prudent to clear those stocks this year, and plan a better crop next year. Allowing, rather planning, delay in wheat sowing only
because of substantial stocks would be a risky proposition.

Another pressure that wheat crop might face this year is “uncertain subsidy package” for the flood-hit farmers. Though the Punjab government is preparing an elaborate package for farmers, which includes money for soil preparation, seed and
even fertiliser, it is yet to find a donor for the money.

The ambitious package would cost the provincial government around Rs10 billion – an amount that it neither has nor can generate from its own sources. The donor is hard to find. The provincial government has already raised expectation by
repeating range and depth of package for political mileage.

If it could not find a donor in the next two to three weeks, it would end up compromising on the package, which might hit the crop – at least in flood-effected areas. It has already restricted the package to flood-hit areas alone, excluding
rain-effected areas. Any further, especially financial, restriction will affect wheat production next year.

There are signs that wheat acreage might improve this year for a simple reason that farmers consider it the easiest crop and a sure investment, with almost ensured buyback surety by the government. It might be true that farmers in the flood-hit
areas would avoid risking any new crop like canola – as being advocated by the federal government.

Rabi crops like potato, gram and cane might suffer to some extent in the flood-hit areas. The flood waters must have also increased fertility of the soil, which might help wheat crop to a large extent. Residual soil moisture would also be beneficial
for the wheat crop, and it being a monocot crop might also escape other water problem like crust formation.

The cooling down of temperatures in the country, especially during night, would help wheat grow efficiently. All these factors should make the wheat crop most favourite this season.

But it still needs official patronage, which is currently drifting away from it – temporarily at least.

The province was able to grow around 18 million tons of wheat only when the Punjab government launched one billion rupees wheat maximisation programme, and literally focused all its financial, human and infrastructural resources on it.

For the last two years, it has not only abolished the plan, but also was “relatively ignoring” the crop because of huge stocks that it could not clear from the 2007-08 yield. It reduced production last year by at least two million tons.

There is still an uncertainty about the next crop, which is about availability of seed. Most of the farmers in flood-hit areas have lost seed. The food department does not separate wheat on the basis of seed. It just dumps everything together, and
no one would know which seed will lead to what.

The Punjab government is trying to involve federal seed institution to ensure “germination strength” of wheat, which the provincial food department would be providing as seed from its stocks. How these old and fumigated stocks, to be used as
seed, would behave, no one knows at present.

The government must realise that if there are benefits in saving cotton, there is some cost involved in delaying wheat sowing. If there are good signs for wheat crop, there are also question marks that make it uncertain. By adopting a strategy of
“planning a delay” in wheat sowing, the provincial government would only elongate the list of uncertainties. Both crops are vital for the country, and the government must try to find a balance for the benefit of both crops.



Courtesy: The DAWN

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