Thursday November 30, 2023

From sown to husk, isbagol takes less and gives more

December 27, 2018

HYDERABAD: Baboo Azim Bhanbhro, possessing 300 acres of land in Khipro's Dolatabad neighbourhood, recalling the glorious bygone days, said they had more water in the irrigation system some 20 years back and they used to cultivate major and traditional crops, including wheat, cotton, sugarcane, chilli, mustard, fennel seeds, isabgol and others. But now out of 300 acres, he has cultivated fennel seeds and isabgol (Psyllium seed) on 30 acres.

The reason is that these crops need only two waters from sowing to harvesting. Among these two, isabgol is a rare crop, which only selected farmers in lower parts of the province cultivate to keep the tradition alive as there is no market mechanism and government support to promote this valuable winter cash crop.

“We, being wealthy landlords long ago, never imagined there will ever be a situation we are facing now,” responds Bhanbhro, a landlord-turned shopkeeper. He belongs to Dolatabad village in Khipro tehsil, Sanghar district, once a famous market of cotton, fennel seeds, isabgol and mustard.

Traveling from Khipro town to Dolatabad village by a dilapidated road someone may observe that the farmers face the similar miserable situation in terms of water scarcity, poverty, and joblessness because of shrinking traditional sources of livelihoods, mainly agriculture and livestock.

Declining agriculture has impacted badly on livestock. Now majority of people are unable to feed their cattle heads, except some families, who can afford to manage the problems. There are small pieces of lands covered with wheat, mustard, fennel, and isabgol all around. Cotton, chili and sugarcane now have become rare crops in the area. Only those farmers who have access to water can produce cotton and sugarcane. The situation has changed after water phenomenon. Farmers believe these traditional crops especially fennel seeds and isabgol consume less water, hardly two times.

The information, gathered from farmers, shows that parts of Dolatabad are the most favourable areas for producing herbal crops like isabgol and fennel seeds. There is no authentic data about isabgol crop, but reports show that this crop can be found in Umerkot, Mirpurkhas and parts of Sanghar district in Sindh province.

Some farmers said they had been growing it in the area as a cash crop for generations. Water shortage is also the reason that farmers cultivate isabgol, as the crop consumes less water. Farmers do not need chemical input or cultivation cost, except seed. Isabgol is a short-period crop and stands in the field for four months in winter season.

According to reports there is an ever-increasing demand of isabgol husk in the country. Pakistan imports a large quantity of isabgol from different countries despite the fact the country has a great potential to produce this crop more to meet the domestic need.

Despite significant economic importance of isabgol in Sindh, its full potential has not been realised at the government level because of lack of required technology and investment in this valuable herbal crop production, processing, and value-addition.

Unfortunately, despite its importance there are no mechanical threshing and cleaning units near the plantation areas to attract farmers and traders.

According to local farmers, Isabgol yield depends on variety, climate, soil and other crop management practices. It is a winter crop and needs cold and dry weather during growth period and its sowing season starts from November and December. Some farmers believe the first week of December is ideal for seeding.

The isabgol crop is very sensitive to extreme weather. Even dew, rainfall or frost can cause loss of yield. The cloudy weather is also very harmful to the seed formation. The ideal temperature for its cultivation is 20-30 degree Celsius, reports suggest.

The seed often used for treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, intestinal wounds, catarrh, kidney disease, etc. The seeds produce a husk with abundant mucilage, which is used in pharmaceutical preparations and as a food thickener. Historically, in the pre-partition days, this herb was grown as a garden crop in Sindh.

Now looking to miserable conditions, isabgol producers urge the government for incentives to promote this crop in the face of water scarcity, as it needs less water compared to other crops and have value and demand in local and urban markets.

The area farmers depend on Doso Minor, a distributary for irrigation water, which earlier had 52 watercourses to feed 18,000 acres. Now the same distributary has 72 watercourses to feed 36,000 acres of land.

Farmers link this new phenomenon to political maneuvering in which certain influential landlords, who have got separate watercourses, take more than their due share of water and deprive tail-end farmers.

Devan Kumar, a local activist from Kheemon Mal Menghwar near Dolatabad, sharing tales of hardships farmers are facing at the hands of emerging water scarcity in the area, said more than 500 youth belonging to the neighbouring villages alone have gone to Karachi to find labour.

Mostly, these young men have joined foreign construction firms, offering Rs800-Rs1000 daily. This is an attractive amount for them. They send some amount back home to their poor families to run domestic affairs.

During talks, some farmers tied this destruction to devastating rain-floods of 2011, which destroyed road networks and forced communities to stay out of villages for many days. Since then the people, mostly those, who were associated with agriculture for livelihoods are facing hardships.

Now when annual rotation period has been started in the province and water demand has increased further farmers in this particular area fear they may lose their standing wheat crop, which needs more water to mature grain.