Low canal water supplies: Dry regions sinking deep in poverty
July 20, 2012
Sajjad Ahmad is a small farmer in the fifty-mile wide green belt running along the Sutlej River in Bahawalpur. When he started cultivating a 2 hectare farm two years back, he could hope to make moderate earnings. But after he had a bumper wheat crop, cost-benefit analysis was enough to make him feel depressed. What he was left with, after paying back the rent and subtracting the other expenses, was the trash amounting Rs10,000. His next hope was cotton that he could sow in the summer.
The cotton crop in the dry regions like Bahawalpur, after a long period of failure, is on the course of revival. New varieties of seed (BT) have fended off the curse of virus that had hit the crop during the last five years. Contrary to sugar industry, which has invested a lot on research on sugarcane and has been successful in increasing the acreage and the yield the crop, the textile industry has only been interested in profit earning leaving the research matters to the government. But now the situation has certainly changed with the arrival of new seed varieties.
The scarcity of canal water in Bahawalpur district is the biggest problem for agriculturalists. For years the share of water available to the green belt has reduced to one third. Being a dry region and heaven showering very occasionally, the other source available is tube well. But to run the machinery, there should be an unrestricted power supply. It was with very difficulty that the wheat crop was watered; it is now a problem, acute than ever, when cotton crop is sown.
The tube wells can be run on electricity and also on diesel. Both are heavily taxed. The small farmers suffer the most as input cost goes up and nearly devours up the profit margin. Low profits just add to rural poverty: it means education of girls and high risks for infants and pregnant women.
The scarce supply of canal water and high energy prices are promoting poverty in the countryside; pumping underground water for crops is simply dangerous for the future of human population that is on the course of rise. The depletion of aquifers is one issue; the water table slipping downward is another. The more it falls, the more the water becomes brackish, salty and unfit for human consumption. A large chunk of household income is being spent on water borne diseases. Too, the brackish water means low productivity of the farm land — in many areas it has already be declared unfit for crops.
If Sajjad or many other small farmers in the ‘sweet belt’ of Bahawalpur can blame anyone, it is history. The Bahawalpur princely state had arranged a golden future for upcoming generations by investing in Sutlej Valley project in the 1920’s; three headworks were constructed to divert water from the perennial Sutlej River and that was enough to ensure supplies during the flood season.
But no sooner the loan of the Bank of England was paid back, there was partition and the royal state was welded to Pakistan: India first stopped the canals flowing down to Pakistan and then pressed the country for selling its three eastern rivers to it, including Sutlej.
Sajjad does know very well, thanks to the revival of politics in the region, what went wrong. The man who sold Sutlej to India was a dictator. Another dictator did not restore the province of Bahawalpur when he announced the demise of On Unit scheme. The injustice done in the past is subject of politics, so is the short canal water supplies.
Can democracy decompensate the losses the dictators inflicted on Bahawalpuris? Sajjad has started believing it after Punjab and federation has responded positively to the calls for the restoration of Bahawalpur province, which he has come to believe, would prove to be a bulwark against the poverty of the countryside — it means canal water and jobs, the both.