A flock of egrets descended on the water collected in depression pockets of Indus’s riverbed in the riverine area. The riverine area in Ghora Bari taluka Thatta looked picturesque as the flows moved calmly. Sheds of betel vine (paan) dot the katcha area on the right side of the mighty Indus. Flows from the sea, however, intrude into Indus in the absence of adequate flows from the Kotri barrage downstream that are necessary to keep sea intrusion in check.
Betel vine is chewed by many, irrespective of community background, as a mouth freshener or for mild intoxication.
It is grown mainly in the riverine belt downstream of Kotri Barrage, the last one on Indus, in the Thatta district. A recent visit to the coastal district’s riverine area in Ghora Bari taluka revealed that growers are paying serious attention to paan cultivation to make Thatta home to betel vine cultivation, a high-value cash crop.
Climatic conditions in the coastal strip are favourable for it. Its cultivation was mostly seen in the union council Girnar of Thatta and areas like Keti Bundar, Ghora Bari, Dhandari, Udasi, Dhandari, Mor Chaddhai and Pabiyo etc.
Through a partnership of landowners and contractors, betel vine is grown in Sindh, which earns up to Rs20m in three years after the plants start giving yields
“The Arabian Sea is hardly 35km away from this point, which is downstream of Kotri barrage in Ghora Bari where we are standing,” says Ali Nawaz Lakho. “We are increasing our acreage of paan cultivation as the katcha area climate suits it.”
Mr Lakho said that he had raised private bunds, locally known as zamindari bunds, around his land where he had grown betel vine under sheds. “Our land is on high ground, so we were not affected during the floods of 2022 as they passed smoothly to sea, but the 2015 floods impacted us,” he said.
Growers like Mr Lakho have been involved in contractual farming for the last several years, pitching in their share by providing land while traders bear other expenses like structure and inputs costs. Interestingly, investors from areas like Dera Ismail Khan, a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are investing in business heavily and consistently.
Mohammad Iqbal alias Balo from Dera Ismail Khan is one of them, who has been associated with the business for 10 years and is Mr Lakho’s business partner. There were many other Lakho-Balo business duos in paan farming. “I am not alone in business, as others from his home district are connected with this trade as well,” said Balo, thick marks of betel vine chewing visible on his teeth.
Betel vine is grown in rows under sheds of varying sizes depending on the size of the investment. The sheds ensure a controlled environment as paan, a sensitive crop, needs sunlight and moderate temperature to grow.
Varieties of paan like saanchi, salon and Pakistani are grown. Growers believe one row has the potential of giving 10kg yields of paan and is sold for Rs2,000-Rs2500 per kg usually, but as low as Rs1500 during the offseason. The commercial value of the produce is determined in Nankwara mandi of Karachi.
According to Balo, shed preparation-related expenses are a one-time investment and last for three years. About Rs2.5 million is needed for one acre of investment, which includes inputs costs such as fertiliser, animal dung, seeds and flower pots. Other materials for the structure of sheds include wood that works as pillars, wire and palm mats. Around 300 pieces of palm mats are used in an acre. Ten pots can be used for seed cultivation in a row underneath the shed; roughly 2,000 pots are used in an acre.
“Contractors like us cover about 75pc of expenses or investment while the remaining 25pc comes from the Zamindar through land,” informs Balo. “You can earn up to Rs20m in three years after paan starts giving yields,” he discloses. Paan is usually grown in March and starts giving produce by October. By next spring, the plants look like a jungle.
Senior Vice President of Sindh Abadgar Board Mahmood Nawaz Shah recalls that paan cultivation was experimented with in Tando Allahyar, but it didn’t work for farmers who opted for it, perhaps due to weather conditions.
Mr Shah, himself a progressive grower of major crops, observed that “paan is a high value and intensive crop that involves higher investment.” However, the local pan does not have properties like the size and flavour of the imported pan,” remarked Mr Shah.
Traders or commission agents note that local pan’s price has increased lately as its imports were affected due to the recent appreciation in the dollar’s rate. Sindh’s pan was sold for Rs3,500 to Rs4,000 kg in Karachi’s market.
According to Thatta-based trader Abdul Aziz Memon, pan’s crop was affected due to flooding last year and the quantum that remained unaffected fetched higher prices in the market.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 10th, 2023