Between 2006-16, 10 sugar mills came online in Sindh. During this period, sugarcane crushing by mills in the province increased by over 135 percent – as did white sugar produced. Half of these mills were sick units revived by the democratic government after taking power in 2008, five of these were new units installed by private investors.
Revival of sick units across province has created an impression that cane has become the most important crops across the length of the region. This is coupled with a popular perception that the influential members of the party in power own units in almost all sugarcane cultivating regions of the project, leading to the conclusion that the politicos are responsible for pushing cultivation of the crop, despite crop’s high water requirement and unsuitability due to Sindh’s water shortage.
The perception is at best, half-truth. While it is true that Sindh’s sugarcane production has increased significantly during the past decade – almost 60 percent between 2006 and 2016– area under cultivation increased by a marginal 1 percent (or 8 percent by 2018). However, almost all this growth has taken place in one region alone; district Ghotki on the northern Sindh-Punjab border.
Sugarcane has traditionally primarily been cultivated in the southern region of the province – in the Badin-Thatta-Mirpurkhas-Hyderabad region. In fact, until 2008, more than two-thirds of cultivation took place in the region, where most of the small- and medium-scale milling units were also concentrated.
One-fourth of the provincial crop acreage was concentrated in central districts of Nawabshah, Khairpur and Dadu – with less than ten percent of area in the northern districts such as Sukkur.
However, what escapes attention of most followers of the sector is that ex of Ghotki; the province has in fact seen a decline in acreage under sugarcane between 2006 and 2016, with greatest quantum decline in southern region. Even as more milling capacity has come online in this region, average sugarcane crushed by each unit in the region has either plateau or decline.
During the same period, Ghotki district has emerged to lead the province both in sugarcane output, and its crushing. Four of top eight crushing capacities in the region were installed in the district beginning 2007 and have since been responsible from transforming the landscape of the region.
From less than three percent of total cane cultivated, growers in the region produce over 16 percent of all cane produced by the province. Share of these mills in province sugar output averages at one-third of total.
Increasing cane cultivation in the upper riparian Ghotki region has implication for water availability in the southern areas. As sugarcane acreage in the province decreases by 20 percent in the current year due to intermittent water shortage, it will be interesting to see whether it has had similar impact on crop cultivation in both northern and southern region of the province.