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Delayed cane crushing a threat to wheat crop




  • News from the cane crushing and wheat cultivation front – the two have to be mentioned in one breath because they are inextricably linked at this point in time, are negative; they cast a dark shadow over the next wheat crop and suggest shortage of staple food of Pakistan’s people during the next year.
    The Sindh government appeared to have prevailed upon sugar mill owners of the province but that proved a false impression. The date for commencement of crushing remains undecided. The only conclusion to be drawn from the situation is delayed sowing in Sindh.
    The view of cane fields and sugar mills is no different in Punjab as sugar mill owners of the province, who were required to undertake cane crushing from November 1, have been insisting on November 30 for starting crushing. As the Punjab wheat crop covers, for obvious reasons, a much larger area than Sindh, this has the making of a serious setback for wheat produce in the coming season.
    The latest reports inform that the situation has been resolved and crushing would commence from November 1 but one would have to wait for strict adherence to this date by mill owners who have been evasive and not exactly reliable in the past.
    The federal government’s target of a 20.15 million ton wheat crop for the 2004-05 season seemed achievable even though high in view of the acute position of water availability. However, close and purposeful coordination between the federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (Minfal) and Sindh and Punjab governments for boosting the crop, promised fair results.
    But, the controversy regarding the date of commencement of cane crushing has jeopardized that possibility. Failure to resolve the issue in the two provinces seems set to undermine efforts to produce sufficient quantity of wheat for domestic consumption.
    Sugar mill owners of Sindh resisted meeting the revised deadline fixed by the government for the commencement of crushing, citing a host of reasons for their stand. That amounted to damaging the next wheat crop even before it was sown.
    The original arrangement between the provincial administration, Abadgar (growers) Board and Chamber of Agriculture was for starting crushing early, that is, by October 1, to “save water for the rabi crop and ensure timely sowing of wheat” but mill owner unilaterally changed the agreed schedule, reportedly because of ‘financial and technical constraints’.
    October 15 was fixed as the new point for cane crushing in Sindh but that too was not followed. Punjab was to begin crushing by November 1. Mill owners of the province proved no different from their counterparts in Sindh.
    Considering that the cultivation cycle in Sindh is ahead of Punjab by over a month, even the commencement of cane crushing by October 15 meant delayed sowing of wheat. Punjab’s mill owners insisted on November 30 for starting crushing, a date well past the right time for wheat cultivation.
    The situation is most unfortunate, indeed a script for disaster. The government had gone out of the way to help the sugar industry by instructing the Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) to purchase excess stocks with mill owners. This was certainly not the government’s responsibility and the move was seen as extending special patronage to the sugar industry.
    This support has not been reciprocated. If anything, the industry has become more demanding and seems to believe that it can continue pressurizing authorities to gain more concessions, knowing that the government was concerned about the wheat crop. One could even call it a case of planned collective black mail of the government by the sugar production sector.
    In view of the grave implications of delay in wheat sowing, the federal government tried to avert the looming crises but the result has been more controversy. The move by the federal ministry for Food, Agriculture and Livestock (Minfal) to resolve issues and get crushing started in Punjab by November 1produced mixed to negative signals.
    Following a meeting between the federal Food Minister and the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA) in Islamabad on October 19, the minister announced that PSMA had ‘agreed to uphold its commitment of entering in to crushing season from November 1, without conditions’.
    However, the PSMA representatives maintained that the date was agreed to in response to the government’s acceptance of its position on buffer sugar stocks with TCP that the release of these stocks formed a serious threat to the industry and stood in the way of starting crushing from November 1.
    The latest reports inform that PSMA has agreed to the government’s deadline but one should keep fingers crossed till the information proves correct, mill owners settle their affairs with growers and cane crushing is effectively started, as against academic implementation of the fixed date.
    The PSMA has been demanding that buffer stocks should only be sold in case of shortage of sugar and that too at a higher price. It also wants a lower support price for sugar cane. Earlier, the association’s Sindh chapter cited technical reasons and financial constraints were for its inability to start crushing as per agreed schedule. These demands are in the nature of taking undue advantage of the government’s need to ensure early sowing of wheat and winning concessions from the authorities.
    Some of the excuses, such as the need to conduct maintenance of machinery were totally untenable and see through because this is a routine activity for any industry and sugar mills have sufficient time in the off season to prepare for crushing.
    The Sindh association had previously asserted that the grower’s dues had been ‘almost fully cleared’ following the lifting of 400,000 tons of sugar by TCP from the zone’s mills. This position needs to be verified in view of the association’s admission that one percent growers may not have been paid due to some ‘genuine reasons’.
    This is vague and suggests that the possibility of the number of growers falling in this category could be much higher than just ‘one per cent’. The record of sugar millers with regard to paying growers’ does not inspire confidence, particularly as delayed payments to farmers has been an issue for many years. It is doubtful if the mill owners have resolved it within the space of one year. Growers of Punjab may turn out to be hit worse than those in Sindh on this count.
    Actually, instead of succumbing to the pressure tactics of mill owners, the government should check the position Vis a Vis payment to growers and put pressure on them to clear their financial decks. The dues of grower’s amount to huge sums and, according to some estimates and reports, run in to billions of rupees
    The sum total of the situation seems that wheat cultivation has already been considerably delayed in Sindh as it is over one month ahead of Punjab and NWFP in its sowing and harvesting cycle and the other two wheat producing provinces may be headed for delayed cultivation.
    The PSMA’s stance has been a prescription for undermining the next wheat crop just as its tactics have caused lower produce during previous years. That wheat starts losing yield if sown after a certain date is no secret to people associated with the agriculture sector.
    The loss is not insignificant as it is estimated to be about one percent per day. One of the reasons for higher produce in India’s wheat-lands is timely sowing; it is regarded as the starting point for enhancing output. The PSMA cannot be unaware of this basic fact about the wheat crop.
    All of its arguments for delaying crushing are palpably counterfeit. There is just no justification for its position. It should actually be grateful to the government for introducing TCP to the sugar sector and bailing the industry out of problems essentially of its own creation.
    The government had no responsibility whatsoever for intervening if sugar millers were overproducing and failed to market their produce. What the industry needs to do is plan in precise manner instead of forcing the government to rescue it.
    Influential segments with in the government have been clearly patronizing the sugar industry and investing the state’s financial resources in it that could be used more rewardingly in other areas of life. This policy must be changed if Pakistan is to try to meet the national wheat consumption requirements from indigenous production.
    Continuation of the present policy of surrendering to the sugar sector means supporting sugar mill owners by spending foreign exchange resources on the import of wheat. This policy is certain to make the existing wheat crises deeper, more acute and a bigger burden on the national exchequer.
    The sugar industry has also not taken any positive measures for improving conditions in its own sector. It complains of low sugar yield from the local crop but, except for one or two mills, one does not know of any member organization of PSMA that has invested in research for improving the sugar content of the cane crop, an effort that would not merely the farmer’s interest but would benefit the millers far more. It is in this area that PSMA should concentrate and instead of milking farmers, help them produce better quality cane, reduce cane cultivation area to play a positive role in the development of the agriculture sector.

    Courtesy: The DAWN

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