The unspeakable price of a Pakistan farming obsession
The first speech Prime Minister Imran Khan gave in 2018 bore a word not usually found in such pronouncements on the national stage: Malnutrition. To elucidate his point, he showed an x-ray of a child’s brain with stunted growth.
Malnutrition had actually became a buzzword about five years before his speech, when the dying babies of Thar hit the news cycle. We surmised, in a paralytic helplessness, that of course, this was to be expected in a desert area; nearly 70% of children in Thar were underweight. But how could we explain away the malnutrition of 48% of children in Sindh’s most fertile district: Tando Allahyar?
Even more puzzling is that the Federal Bureau of Statistics said that Pakistan was cultivating more land and was producing more crops–but we were still facing malnutrition. (Cotton was the exception with less produced on the same fixed area). If we were ostensibly growing more food, why were so many children malnourished?
That is because we were only growing a certain limited type of food. We had mono-cropping syndrome. We had cash crop fever for thirsty crops. We used to have a system of growing multiple crops, which is why we had vegetables, pulses, fodder, grains and seeds the whole year round. Every village had poultry and livestock, pure fresh organic milk, ghee, eggs. It was a balanced diet. Then landholders started to prefer cash crops to staple crops, dairy and poultry, which used to form a complete nutrition value chain. This change meant that more water for agriculture came to be dedicated to high delta crops as a result.
Today this is a breakfast menu in a village: rusk with tea.
Over the years, there have been plenty of warning signals that our choices have been flawed. Sindh has always been prone to floods and drought but its people were prehistorically resilient to them. The floods of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 were, however, an eye-opener for aid agencies. The devastated farmers were stuck because in the past landlords had only allowed them to grow sugarcane, cotton and wheat, those cash crops. The tenants were forced to buy vegetables and fruit from nearby city markets instead of growing them themselves. As a result, during climate change disasters they had zero social security.
History also tells us that this is not the first time Pakistan has faced a sugar crisis. Remember 1968, when a movement was started against Ayub Khan over the rise in sugar prices? It snowballed to the point (and for other reasons) that students came out on to the streets of Rawalpindi. One of them was shot dead. An emerging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went to the funeral. This was the start of Ayub’s downfall and Bhutto’s ascent. Ironically, today Bhutto’s descendants own the majority of sugar mills in Sindh. Two are on the right bank, which is actually an area reserved for rice, cotton and wheat growing.
So how did we get here—become so impoverished that children in the countryside are malnourished even though there is no shortage of land and we inherited the world’s largest irrigation network?
The story of sugar is one of the land, its rulers, and the choices we have made. On Saturday, when the Prime Minister’s Inquiry Committee into the sugar crisis was made public, the people of Pakistan got a glimpse into the systemic rot. Here is a look at some other, interesting parts of the picture.
History of sugar mills
There were two sugar mills in Pakistan around Independence. The processing expanded in 1949 with the opening of Premier Mill in Mardan. By 1957 the federal government formed a commission to set up a sugar mill, knowing the importance of sugar and its domestic consumption. Sindh’s first mill was set up in Tando Muhammad Khan in 1961. From 1959 to 1990, 28 new mills were set up and from 1990 to 1998, another 31 mills came about. By 1998, the government introduced a three-year ban on new mills. (An earlier version of this article mentioned that the first Sindh mill is now called Faran mills. This has been amended. Faran Sugar Mill commenced operations in 1981. Activist Amar Sindhu has suggested the first one was the Mirpurkhas Sugar Mill founded in 1964 but which become operational in 1966).
Today, 2020, we have 90 sugar mills—even though our water shortage has grown.
Punjab produces the most sugarcane (65%), followed by Sindh (25%) and KP (10%). The Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (2017-2018) says that contrary to public perception, cultivation and production are increasing. Eighteen sugar mills have been set up in the last 16 years and sugarcane crushing has gone up to 27 million tons.
(In southern Sindh three sugar mills were shut over money laundering investigations. In Punjab, the companies instantly relocated to southern Punjab which is irrigated by the Indus. And KP has installed four sugar mills in Dera Ismail Khan, which affected water flows down to Sindh.)
It is worth mentioning that two sugar mills, AKT and JK, have the same address as Janoobi Cricket Ltd, which is owned by the Multan Sultans owner: 13-B, Block-K, Main Boulevard, Gulberg-II Gulberg Town Punjab 54000
Eight sugar mills are working in an area starting from Ranipur up to Ubauro at the Sindh-Punjab border. These days, some political initiatives are working on construction of a river crossing road bridge on the Indus River between Ghotki and Kashmore. The official reason is to ease travel but the secret motivation is to make it easier to transport sugarcane from the right bank to the left bank sugar mills of local tribal chiefs. Some seasoned irrigation engineers are opposing the scheme, as the Indus is already confined by five new road bridges. This one will have consequences on flood flows.
The water-sugar connection
The story of the rise of sugar barons is linked to how the land and water is managed across Pakistan. It should be told starting from the British because the systems they put in place tell us of a time when crops were managed quite differently.
Before the British came, people in the area that is now Pakistan dug simple small canals and farmed their land. In 1845, the British started surveying the Indus Basin Command Areas and mapped it. They started work on the Sukkur Barrage and built new irrigation canals and organised old ones. Prior to this, water flows from the River Indus had not been regular.
The engineers at the time noted the quality of soil and how much water came into the river each year among many other factors. They set crop patterns and fixed water allowances for every 1,000 acres from all canals of the Sukkur Barrage irrigation network. They limited how much you could grow on your land based on what canal supplied it water. This meant that nobody was allowed to fully cultivate their land at any given time. The lowest permissible limit was at Nara and Rohri canals with 27% in the summer and 54% in the winter. The highest was the Rice canal with 88%.
That system lasted roughly a hundred years. By the mid-1970s, compromises started to be made on irrigation rules. The control on cropping weakened. As a result, farming at the head and middle of every canal started to intensify and the tail-end started shrinking because the water was being sucked out of the system above. Cropping intensities fixed at 70% for the whole year started to hit 150% in some areas.
In the 1980s, the Agro-Ecological Zoning (AEZ) of Punjab and Sindh said where you could grow crops given the water and climate. The best weather for sugarcane is tropical and subtropical. Pakistan is a mix of subtropical arid and semi-arid climate. The ideal amount of rain for this crop is 600mm annually. We just receive an average of 225mm and that too in the monsoon. The ideal temperature for sugarcane growth is 4 degrees centigrade to 38. In Pakistan the only area declared fit for sugarcane production is southern Sindh, the pre-historic abandoned deltaic plains of Thatta and Badin.
Most of Sindh and Punjab are otherwise good for cotton, wheat and rice growing. It was only in limited areas that sugarcane was proposed under the AEZ in 1980, but today Sindh and Punjab are dominated by sugarcane and wheat. In fact, the Supreme Court ordered three sugar mills in Punjab to shut down for working against the agro-ecological zone boundaries as they had started to encroach on cotton belt areas.
We need to bring back the Agro-Ecological Crop Zoning. The new AEZ map of Punjab needs to be part of a law to control overgrowing sugarcane. A similar survey and AEZ is needed for KP and Sindh and new laws to restrict cropping patterns.
The cost of sugar
There is no doubt that sugarcane has made us rich in the past half century—but at what cost?
Sugarcane is a 12- to 14-month crop and needs water throughout the year. It takes the longest to grow and thus sucks up the most water. On average, an acre of sugarcane requires 1.9 meters depth of water for the whole cycle that consists of 24 irrigation turns. Sugarcane takes up far too much water for a crop that forms only 3.6% of our exports. To put it in further perspective, 25.49 billion cubic meters of water are used up by sugarcane nationwide. This is equal to almost three Kalabagh dams worth of water.
Sugarcane growing starts in Sindh before anywhere else in the country (as early Kharif) from February. This is the time when water is needed at the tail end of Sukkur and Kotri Barrage canals. This is almost the same time, March 15 to April 15 when the early sowing of cotton also starts. This is the peak season when all the irrigation managers pray the temperatures of the glaciers rise so that the melted water starts to flow down.
However, this water first recharges the groundwater (aquifers) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and northern Sindh, which have been emptied due to overexploitation. It is only what is left over that starts to reach the tail of the Kotri system in the south.
The sugarcane growing expansion upwards to northern Sindh and southern Punjab has had a serious impact on river flows lower down to southern Sindh and the Indus Delta. Similarly, when sugar mills shifted from central to southern Punjab this too had consequences for Sindh.
So, what is the point of spending almost all of our water on sugarcane? Wheat is a three-month crop. Isn’t it strange that at the start of the cropping year, we see protests for water shortages and at the end of cropping season (Rabi) we witness protests for good sugarcane rates? Only a powerful elite in the head areas of every canal can cultivate higher delta crops. “You vote for me, I will not let you run dry” is the slogan these days.
Crunching the numbers
Sugarcane exports are 2.3% of total exports ($511 million) in a normal year. The highest exports of Pakistan are textile $4 billion, the second is cotton at $3 billion. The irony is that we are facing reductions in cotton growing and production even though it is a three-month crop that needs half the water compared to sugar.
The international price of sugarcane is around Rs150 per 40kg. The government subsidizes mill owners to buy it at Rs182. The subsidy hits the exchequer up for at least Rs20 billion. The irony is after using half our country’s water on growing sugarcane and subsidizing it heavily, we sell it at home for Rs80 per kg. Outside Pakistan, the price of refined sugar is Rs36.71.
There are studies on the environmental hazards created by sugar mills. It is estimated that a single mill drains 5,300 cubic metres of black toxic effluent daily. For all mills in Sindh for a whole season that comes to 26 million cubic meters dumped into waterways which reach the Indus delta.
In Punjab, many mills are fermenting sugarcane juice to produce alcohol base. The sugar mills of south Punjab on the left bank discharge their toxic effluent into the deserts of Rahimyar Khan, which ultimately enters Sindh and is destroying the natural habitat of Ghotki desert.
Last year we exported molasses worth $420 million, according to an expert. It’s a pity that sugar millers and exports cannot spend that amount on the treatment of the black water they produce. The black water drained into natural waterways is called spent wash and if treated and dried properly it can be a good soil fertilizer. Some livestock experts claim that it can be used for feed.
The prime minister has given 40 days for a forensic audit into the sugar crisis, which is due by April 25. So far, the inquiry report has revealed how sugar barons gamed the system. If this is going to be a turning point for the way government regulates the industry, new laws and systems might be worth considering. The good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. History has already shown us the best way to farm the land.
|1||Al-Noor Sugar Mills||26°33’16.89″N||67°59’9.24″E|
|2||Faran Sugar Mills||25°14’46.17″N||68°40’9.60″E|
|3||Habib Sugar Mills||26°15’47.01″N||68°24’27.75″E|
|4||Khairpur Sugar Mills is owned by Mubeen Jumani||27°24’11.39″N||68°40’22.22″E|
|5||Matiari Sugar Mills||25°34’29.02″N||68°30’0.44″E|
|6||Mehran Sugar Mills||25°29’15.02″N||68°42’47.74″E|
|7||Naudero Sugar Mills||27°39’38.20″N||68°20’53.91″E|
|8||New Dadu Sugar Mills||26°57’20.08″N||67°48’38.80″E|
|9||Sakrand Sugar Mills||26°16’21.11″N||68° 7’6.63″E|
|10||Sanghar Sugar Mills||25°55’46.05″N||69° 0’30.08″E|
|11||Tharparkar Sugar Mills||25°17’20.07″N||69°18’17.60″E|
|12||Al-Abbas Sugar Mills, Karachi (Seems to be closed. This is not a sugar mill. Confusion is caused due to the name. This plant used to make chemicals and alloys.)||24°47’49.09″N||67°30’49.89″E|
|13||Al-Abbas Sugar Mills Mirwah||25°17’31.91″N||69° 3’50.69″E|
|14||Ranipur Sugar Mills is owned by Shunaid Qureshi (The HUM Network & they own Al-Abbas)||27°17’21.71″N||68°32’28.00″E|
|15||Ansari Sugar Mills||24°59’8.29″N||68°39’50.88″E|
|16||Army Welfare Sugar Mills||24°37’58.59″N||68°50’52.34″E|
|17||Shah Murad Sugar Mills||24°48’25.67″N||68°19’17.70″E|
|18||Sindh Abadgar Sugar Mills||24°58’5.87″N||68°25’13.52″E|
|19||Bawany Sugar Mills||24°52’52.30″N||68°49’18.78″E|
|20||Digri Sugar Mills||25° 9’34.05″N||69° 2’18.73″E|
|21||Mirpurkhas Sugar Mills||25°31’16.22″N||69° 4’54.80″E|
|22||Mirza Sugar Mills (Not operated last year)||24°31’28.48″N||68°56’23.92″E|
|23||Pangrio Sugar Mills (Not operated last year)||24°44’39.96″N||69° 4’21.53″E|
|24||Khoski Sugar Mills||24°38’13.87″N||69° 6’23.07″E|
|25||Seri Sugar Mills||25°10’4.12″N||68°30’51.41″E|
|26||Tando Muhammad Khan Sugar Mills (Not operated last year)||25° 6’56.44″N||68°31’26.57″E|
|27||JWD-III Sugar Mills (Ghotki) owned or operated by JKT||28° 2’52.48″N||69°19’12.58″E|
|28||Abdullah Shah Ghazi Sugar Mills (Al-Asif)||24°17’47.04″N||67°36’30.53″E|
|29||Dewan Sugar Mills||24°37’24.11″N||68°15’33.85″E|
|30||Kiran Sugar Mills is owned by Islamuddin Shaikh||27°41’48.70″N||69° 0’18.18″E|
|31||Larr Sugar Mills||24°32’4.43″N||68° 8’0.44″E|
|32||Najma Sugar Mills (Not operated last year)||24°59’31.00″N||69°22’55.91″E|
|33||SGM Sugar Mills (Sardar Ghulam Mohammad) owned or operated by JKT||27°56’44.82″N||69°27’8.58″E|
|34||Deharki Sugar Mills Pvt. (owned or operated by JKT)||28°11’37.30″N||69°50’38.78″E|
|35||Tando Allahyar Sugar Mills Pvt.||25°17’34.53″N||68°50’39.91″E|
|36||Alliance Sugar Mills Pvt. is owned by RYK group (Khusro Bakhtiar’s cousin)||28° 7’13.82″N||69°43’18.41″E|
|37||Bandhi Sugar Mills Pvt.||26°36’26.03″N||68°19’1.44″E|
|38||Gulf Sugar Mills Ltd operates under the name of AKT Sugar Mills (Pvt.) Ltd. AKT acquired it in 2019. Some even refer to it as JK Plant II. The Tareen family owns it. This is not part of JWD Group.||28°17’48.20″N||69°48’48.58″E|
|1||Abdullah Sugar Mills Depalpur /Okara||30°50’0.85″N||73°52’14.22″E|
|2||Abdullah Sugar Mills (Shahpur) Sargodha||32°14’33.50″N||72°29’7.53″E|
|3||Adam Sugar Mills Bahawalnagar||29°49’4.67″N||72°51’6.29″E|
|4||Ashraf Sugar Mills Bahawalpur||29°17’37.87″N||71°30’42.51″E|
|5||Baba Fareed Sugar Mills Okara||30°51’15.70″N||73°26’42.80″E|
|6||Brother Sugar Mills Chunian Kasur||30°57’37.44″N||73°59’46.41″E|
|7||Chanar Sugar Mills, Faisalabad||30°58’34.83″N||73° 8’57.79″E|
|8||Chaudhry / Gourmet Sugar Mills near Gojra Toba Tek Sindh||31° 6’20.60″N||72°50’7.08″E|
|9||Chistian Sugar Mills, Sargodha||31°52’10.88″N||72°26’34.80″E|
|10||Colony Sugar Mill was originally owned by Imperial Sugars. They had 2 plants. They sold the Mian Channu one to the Tareens. They were left with a plant in Khanewal, which the Tareens claim they bought at the year’s start but no official announcement was made. Imperial Sugar Mills, the owner of both plants, originally had the sale of this plant on agenda on their AGM. (Updated April 7, 5:17pm)||32°25’16.35″N||73°41’12.38″E|
|11||Colony Sugar Mills Mian Channu is being operated as JK Sugar Mill. It is referred to as JK Plant Unit 1 and is owned by the Tareen family. In Dec 2017, Ali Tareen inaugurated it. (updated April 7, 5:12pm)||30°15’2.05″N||72°11’4.92″E|
|12||Crescent Sugar Mills, Faisalabad||31°27’51.55″N||73° 7’14.71″E|
|13||Ittehad Sugar Mills, Rahim Yar Khan||28°34’20.43″N||70°19’15.33″E|
|14||Fatima Sugar Mills, Muzaffargarh||30°17’51.72″N||70°58’13.46″E|
|15||Fecto Sugar Mills, Darya Khan, Bhakkar||31°46’50.96″N||71° 6’43.95″E|
|16||Ganj Bakhsh Sugar Mills, Pasrur Sialkot (Not operating)||32°17’19.08″N||74°39’22.12″E|
|17||Hamza Sugar Mills, Rahim Yar Khan||28°41’20.25″N||70°44’58.98″E|
|18||Haq Bahu Sugar Mills, Jhang||31° 7’32.17″N||72° 4’19.62″E|
|19||Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills Nankana Sb, Sheikhupura||31°25’8.80″N||73°41’4.28″E|
|20||Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills, Muzaffargarh||29°26’36.67″N||70°52’22.02″E|
|21||Huda (Fauji) Sugar Mills, Nankana sb||31°42’41.02″N||73°23’50.07″E|
|22||Hunza Sugar Mills Faisalabad||31°34’7.29″N||73°20’22.23″E|
|23||Husein Sugar Mills, Faisalabad||31°19’18.48″N||73°25’2.61″E|
|24||Indus Sugar Mills, Rajanpur||29° 1’8.11″N||70°19’56.46″E|
|25||Ittefaq Sugar Mills, Pakpattan||30°31’33.34″N||73°12’5.14″E|
|26||JDW Unit – 1 Sugar Mill, Rahim Yar Khan||28°31’47.64″N||70° 4’27.25″E|
|27||JDW Unit – 2 Sugar Mills, Sadiqabad||28°14’39.28″N||70° 2’41.78″E|
|28||Kamalia Sugar Mills, Toba Tek Singh||30°46’1.55″N||72°34’55.57″E|
|29||Kashmir Sugar Mills, Jhang||30°49’20.81″N||72° 8’39.74″E|
|30||Kohinoor Sugar Mills, Jauharabad, Khushab||32°18’21.67″N||72°16’28.50″E|
|31||Layyah Sugar Mills||30°59’12.45″N||70°57’6.94″E|
|32||Madina Sugar Mills, Jhang||31°38’6.06″N||73° 0’55.58″E|
|33||Macca Sugar Mills, Kasur||31°14’46.79″N||74° 9’11.48″E|
|34||National / Popular Sugar Mills, Sargodha||31°57’46.89″N||73° 5’41.03″E|
|35||Noon Sugar Mills, Sargodha||32°16’44.20″N||72°55’2.15″E|
|36||Safina Sugar Mills, Jhang||31°49’18.41″N||72°49’47.56″E|
|37||Pattoki Sugar Mills, Kasur||31° 3’23.22″N||73°52’40.90″E|
|38||Ramzan Sugar Mills, Jhang||31°36’41.54″N||72°45’35.81″E|
|39||RYK Sugar Mills, Rahim Yar Khan||28°59’30.38″N||70°47’7.38″E|
|40||Shah Taj Sugar Mills, Mandi Bahauddin||32°35’19.78″N||73°27’17.05″E|
|41||Shakar Ganj Sugar Mills, Jhang||31°13’59.51″N||72°20’5.75″E|
|42||Shakar Ganj Sugar Mills, Bhone||31°46’39.38″N||72°15’48.70″E|
|43||Shamim Sugar Mills, Faisalabad||Not Found, already listed as Gourmet SM Faisalabad|
|44||Sheikhoo Sugar Mills, Kot Addu, Muzaffargarh||30°18’8.33″N||71° 3’33.96″E|
|45||Tandlianwala Unit – I, Faisalabad||30°54’32.91″N||72°55’47.14″E|
|46||Unknown Mill Listed in Faisalabad as Madina Sugar Mills||31°28’9.72″N||73° 4’39.70″E|
|47||Tandlianwala Unit – II, Muzaffargarh||30° 1’15.96″N||71° 4’14.49″E|
|1||Al Moiz Sugar Mills, Dera Ismail Khan||32° 2’19.29″N||70°58’41.68″E|
|2||Chashma Sugar Mills, Dera Ismail Khan||31°45’37.92″N||70°50’39.55″E|
|3||Chashma Sugar Mills Expansion, Ramak, DI Khan||31°22’30.07″N||70°41’48.04″E|
|4||Frontier Sugar Mills, Mardan (Not operating)||34°16’59.93″N||71°55’47.03″E|
|5||Khazana Sugar Mills Peshawar||34° 4’35.14″N||71°35’35.17″E|
|6||Premier Sugar Mills, Mardan||34°10’17.15″N||72° 1’34.93″E|
|7||Tandian Wallah Sugar Mills, DI Khan||31°24’17.00″N||70°43’14.99″E|
|8||Bannu Sugar Mills |
(Not operated last year)
Mapping by Rahim Sajwani and Junaid Khatri
Graphs by Muhammad Obair Khan