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September 12, 2019

Despite producing 700,000 tons/year, Khairpur’s date industry remains outdated


September 12, 2019

As far as you can possibly shoot your sight you see nothing but date-palms standing tall like troops at attention with their rough-textured trunks running up to the crown where at the base of an umbrella of fronds hangs in bunches a nutrient-dense fruity treat dubbed as candies that grow on trees.

This is a ubiquitous scene from around the city of Khairpur, Sindh, that produces 700,000 tons of top-drawer dates annually, but a lot of global importers can't place this amazing source on their maps. The government's inside-the-box thinking and its utter disconnect with the farm-realities of this agriculturally gifted land are to be blamed for this huge exports gap.

It’s like a festival during the harvest time as tens and thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring districts of Sindh and as far as Punjab and Balochistan provinces end up in Khairpur to make seasonal living. Most of them work as pickers, movers, packers, etc.

Khairpur is home to as many as 45 different kinds of dates including Aseel, Karbalain, and others, grown for domestic and export markets. However, this date-growing hub is in a quandary as despite an increase in plantation, the production is on the decline because neither provincial nor federal government has ever bothered to motivate exporters to invest in Khairpur or establish a public sector facility for boosting the production as well as quality of dates.

On top of that growers need incentives, training, research, storage/packaging facilities, and state-sponsored promotional/marketing activities to translate this production into exports that will not only help improve the socioeconomics of the agrarian communities, but also close the country’s trade gap a bit.

Diseases, pests, and poor planning are the conundrums faced by the growers, who, owing to increasing cost of cultivation, upkeep, inputs, packaging, etc are always striving to stay in the business in the absence of any tangible long-term support from the government.

Lack of logistics, as railways and airlines are not ready to go an extra mile or two for the transportation of the bulk orders of dates, destined for other countries, deal massive losses to not only local exporters and growers, but also importers.

Sometimes thousands of tons of fresh dates miss the boats because freight trains don’t pull over at those small stations and the national flag carrier is un-accommodating. As a result those consignments are left to rot, too much to the chagrin of the parties that may never strike a deal again.

The government established date research centers but to no avail for the want of much-needed political commitment to boost exports through launching state-funded scouting missions to explore new markets.

Indonesia, Malaysia, China, USA, UK, Germany, Canada, and other European countries are the buyers of fresh dates, while India and Bangladesh import dry dates.

India buys 80 percent dry dates from Khairpur and Bangladesh 10 percent, while the rest is consumed domestically.

Around 60 percent of the fresh dates are supplied to the local market, while 40 percent is exported abroad; however Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) never bothered to develop or organise any national or international level Khajoor Mandi (date market) in Pakistan for the promotion of export of this fruit.

Sadderuddin Phulpoto, a representative of a date growers’ body, said, ” It’s a tragedy that out of total production of 700,000 tons, just 65,000 tons of dates are exported currently, earning the country around $30 million as foreign exchange and these poor numbers expose the level of commitment of the government and the TDAP”.

Phulpoto said a dates’ exhibition, recently organised by the government, was just a show, devoid of any promotional and marketing activities that could result in potential exports.

“Most of such seminars and exhibitions bear no fruit for this sector as organisers rarely take real date growers and exporters on board or encourage them to come up suggestions on how to improve production and exports,” he said.

The growers’ association leader said the Date Palm Research Institute (DPRI), a part of Shah Abdul Latif University, Kharipur, was formed to underpin date production, but it proved to a dud with no significant contribution.

“The whole idea behind spending millions to put a facility like DPRI in place that too in the heart of Khairpur was to give this sub-sector viable indigenous research-based solutions to deal with diseases, pests, and other issues to improve quality and production of dates and ultimately their exports, but it’s not happening the way it should,” said he.

He went on to say that production continues to be inversely proportional to the area under cultivation, which was increasing every year. “The output is not following the suit for obvious reasons like ill or zero planning, no or limited use of modern technology, scanty packaging plants, expensive and inadequate transportation facilities, etc, and the result is paltry exports,” he said.

“The TDAP and Sindh government should facilitate the growers by introducing state-of-the-art date processing (drying and dehydration) plants to improve quality of the produce,” he said adding that growers-based delegations should be sent abroad instead of exporters-based missions with ‘political affiliations’.

Phulpoto demanded of the government to ensure special cargo services in Pakistan International Airline and Pakistan Railways from September to December as to meet the export target.

Lamenting that public sector banks including Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited were reluctant in providing agriculture credit to date growers, he demanded 50 percent subsidy on exports of dates in cargo service.

He said exporters in dates producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, etc are bound to buy this fruit from the growers at government-set rates, but here in Pakistan no such mechanism was in place.

Mujeeb-ure-Rehman, General Secretary Khairpur Khajoor Mnadi, said, “There are only 40 exporters and the quality/size of dates is decreasing day by day, while the established research institutes are not making any serious efforts to find the reasons behind this deterioration”.

Rehman said the government was not interested in establishing Khairpur Khajoor Mandi as an international-level platform despite the fact that the district was contributing millions in revenue.

“There was no public sector date factory in Khairpur, which was an injustice to the locals,” he said. According to Rehman among reasons that discourage foreign importers from coming down here are security issues and lack of decent guest houses and hotels. “As far as the security risks are concerned, the government, through diplomatic business development activities, needs to bring the foreign importers round by assuring them of their safety during their stay in Pakistan,” he said.

There are just 11 date processing factories operating in Therhi town of Khairpur, Rehman said adding but a tsunami of taxes, i.e., labour tax, social tax, old age tax, income tax, property tax, etc, was making it impossible for them stay in business.

A case in point is Lipton Dates Factory, which in its heyday was a source of subsistence for near ten thousand workers, but excessive cost of doing business snuffed it out. The Khajoor Mandi official said the exports of fresh and dry dates were decreasing at an alarming rate, but for the tunnel-visioned TDAP it was business as usual. “The authorities will have to realise that a lot is at stake here,” he said.

If the government is really interested in boosting domestic economy, then it will have to make good on its commitments of modernising Khairpur’s date industry, the growers said. They appealed to Prime Minister Imran Khan and his economic team to take into account the immense prospects of this industry that if fully tapped could make a serious dent in the trade deficit of the country.