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Not long ago one of the best introductions of Pakistan used to be its cloth industry, nay, more precisely, its cotton clothing.

Some of the finest finery of the world relied on imports from Pakistan as hundreds of thousands of growers, ginners, weavers, cloth makers and exporters created a supply chain that brought the country compliments and foreign exchange.

Then the cotton belt — essentially the south of the largest province of Pakistan, the Punjab, and several districts of adjoining Sindh — also wielded enormous political clout, typified by white shalwar-qameez wearing millionaires who sat in the assemblies and through family connections directed the nature and course of national politics beyond party lines.

Those days now seem so far away. This year cotton has seen its worst decline in decades in terms of production. Consider a small comparison. About 25 years ago the total bales available for processing and export neared 24 million. A decade later these got reduced to almost 14 million.

Recent by Syed Talat Hussain

This year they have dwindled to 5.5 million bales. To illustrate the point further, just last year these figures were 8.8 million — a loss of 3 million in a year. This is no less than carnage for a crop that is the country’s pride and joy. Worse there is no hope that the crop will reclaim its lost share in the market and become the focus of the businessmen again.

What has gone wrong? Several things including the preferences of the rich growers. They have now shifted to the more lucrative sugar cane. In a country where diabetes is touching national outbreak levels this switch to the deadly sweetness of the sugar may seem odd, but considering how sugar cane can be harnessed in different ways to fill individual coffers this shifting of the production base makes sense.

Cotton kings to sugar sultans

Now cotton kings have become sugar sultans and using their old connections control the market as a monopoly. In the last four years per kg sugar price has increased from Rs56 to Rs106. One rupee increase generally yields a profit margin of rupees 1 billion for the major industrialists.

The Imran government’s last year’s effort to take on what the prime minister himself called “sugar mafia” met a rather unspectacular fate as many inquiries and forensic reports later the network continues to survive and thrive. Inevitably, cotton growing area has shrunk drastically and the land available is now pressed into the service of the sugar industry.

The less talked about factors contributing to the slow but steady collapse of cotton relate to radical changes in the climate. Researchers believe that traditional patterns of sowing have become unproductive because these no longer match the patterns of rainfall.

There is a shift of almost 33 days between how the farmers have for centuries been operating and the new climatic realities of the areas under cultivation. Since no significant research is carried out on these aspects and their impact on the cotton crop. There is little advice available to the ordinary tiller of the land on how to cope with these changes. Now cotton production faces decline since much of its seed sowing timing is amiss.

Not that the seeds are great shakes. Most cotton growers agree that the seeds are inherently problematic since their newer varieties are few and far between and the ones that are available are not strong enough to bear with the new climatic situation, enhance per acre yield, and remain resilient. Pest attacks and other generic problems also plague the crop and the cumulative result is its regression.

Interestingly, a large labour force is still connected with the textile industry which is still considered to be one of the strongest planks of the country’s economy. The reason the cotton crash has not sent shock waves to the textile industry is because the door to import raw cotton always remains open.

However, this is an unsustainable situation because this raises the input costs or forces the textile tycoons to either shift the base of their business to other countries or simply become suppliers of unbranded material that is marked and marketed by other countries as their own.

None of this has any positivity to it. To allow a natural economic and agriculture advantage to drift and dissipate like this isn’t a wise course. In a shrinking job market, a traditional crop going down means more unemployed. Import means more strain on precariously placed foreign exchange reserves.

Cotton cannot compete with sugar and other high money-producing crops but its decline can be halted by affirmative actions. Pakistan has much to learn from other cotton producing countries that have braved global recessions and environmental challenges to keep the white flag flying.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain1