HYDERABAD: Persistent misdistribution-driven shortage of irrigation water in traditional channels has devastated the harvest of chilli , reportedly bringing the cultivation area of this major cash crop down by 50 percent this year.
“Can’t say for sure but reports are pouring in from parts of the province that area under cultivation has halved compared to last year,” Mian Salim, President Chilli Growers Association (CGA), told The News.
“For example, in Kunri, chilli was grown on around 150,000 acres last year but now it’s standing on only 75000 acres.”
Salim, who belongs to Kunri, a town in Umerkot District, added that the CGA would duly make an assessment of the crop losses. “Due to delayed sowing the product definitely will come late in the market,” he said.
Kunri Town, once known as 'chilli capital in Asia', is now being ignored by the government in terms of ensuring water distribution in watercourses. The red chilli market of Kunri usually starts receiving fresh products by the first week of August and continues to sell the chilli till the end of March every year. This year, however, things would be different as the market was likely to receive the product late. It will affect all the people associated with product, like growers, chilli-picking female workforce, market labour and traders.
The CGA official further said that many farmers have opted to cultivate cotton this year because of uncertainty of irrigation water. “Another reason behind this shift may be the lucrative price of cotton. Growers have also decided to cultivate cotton to recover losses incurred by chilli farming,” Salim opined.
Reports show that leading growers, who earlier used to spare 100--200 acres of land for chilli now are now reluctant to grow the cash crop. “Obviously it is setback, not only for growers but also the country’s economy, because Sindh produces the best quality chilli in the whole Pakistan,” the chilli growers’ leader said.
Apart from Umerkot, this phenomenon is also being reported from Badin, Mirpurkhas and Tando Allahyar, which are also known as a major chilli producing areas.
Nawab Zubair Talpur, chief of Sindh Growers Alliance (SGA), said this year early monsoon rains have showered happiness on growers in the entire province, mainly in those water-strapped areas.
“Early rains are beneficial for agriculture, but in some low-lying areas strong wind storms with heavy downpour have affected the flowering chilli crops,” Talpur said. He added that this damage is also countable as growers have suffered more. "I myself have planted chilli over 45 acres of land and faced the losses due to natural disasters this year," the SGA official said.
Talpur explained that chilli is the most sensitive crop and needs proper temperature, water, and care. “The recent rains flooded the crops with two to three feet stagnant water in heat, which destroyed the crop instantly,” said he.
The SGA chief said that longstanding water shortage had made things difficult especially for the tail-end farmers, who did not have access to irrigation water in their respective watercourses.
"It seems as if chilli crop is no more a priority of provincial government", Talpur said slamming irrigation department officials over their imprudent approach. He said the growers would definitely suffer if they were unable to manage to have sufficient water through canals. “Growers receive water late. Sometimes it is delayed for up to 30 days, depending on the availability of water,” he said adding, this year all the irrigation canals received less than 60 percent of their actual designed capacity.
Moving ahead, Taplur accused the irrigation department officials of favoritism and depriving tail-end farmers of their rightful water supply. "In this situation how we can imagine to depend on agriculture and contribute to the national exchequer," he said.
It must be noted here that growers of Umerkot chilli hub have not been able to recover from their losses because of the water shortage in canals and extreme weather since the devastating floods of 2011. According to rough estimates, Kunri’s chilli market usually receives more than 20,000 bags of the produce daily; however, this time around, grower leaders are not sure about the yield.
Talpur also pointed out that the hybrid chilli seeds, which come from Punjab, are not authenticable. “I will advise the government to keep vigil on this “seedy” business, which causes losses to the growers.”
In his understanding, the growers usually use indigenous longi mirch seeds, which bear exceptional chilli having attractive colour, taste, and aroma; whereas hybrid seeds are chancy and sometimes bring losses to them.
According to Prof Ismail Kumbhar of Sindh Agriculture University Tandojam, red chilli is an important crop, which not only contributes towards domestic consumption, but also helps generate foreign exchange reserves for the country.
“Sindh has a different climate and the indigenous varieties of chilli are suspected to have run into problems because of the hybrid seeds,” Kumbhar said.
Furthermore, politics over water distribution in canals and small watercourses is also worsening the situation for growers all over Sindh province. In order to keep the country’s agrarian economy green, the government has to depoliticise the distribution and ensure the water reaches the tail-end farmers without delay.