Pakistan’s Cotton Industry, and its small farmers and workers are not happy. Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI), a farmer association which styles itself as the voice of millions of small farmers and villagers, has issued a warning to launch protest movement if the government allowed import of cotton from Afghanistan or India.

The warning comes about as a response to the Imran Khan’s meeting with a delegation of All Pakistan Textile Association (APTMA), where it is speculated that the APTMA and the Premier discussed import of cotton from Torkham and Wagha Borders at lower prices. The PKI has sent a clear signal that it will boycott any agreement of import of cotton on lower prices occurring.

While PKI gives many reasons why importing cotton will be harmful for Pakistan, including introduction of diseases and pests from the possibility of non-fumigated cotton, there is one obvious reason why local farmers do not want ease of import - it will cripple their livelihood and the local cotton industry. India pays high subsidies to its cotton producers - if prices of the import were relaxed, then local cotton would find it impossible to compete with the prices of the imports. Cheap imports are taken advantage of by Textile Industries - which according to PKI are increasingly underpaying or not buying from local farmers anymore, as “they are enjoying cheap imported cotton and benefiting growers abroad”.

Cotton production in Pakistan is integral to the economic development of the country. In respect of exports of raw cotton, Pakistan holds third position, and is the fourth in consumption. Yet, the agricultural sector’s share in the economy has been on a sharp decline, without being compensated by industrial growth-led job-creation.

PTI ran its campaign on promises to reinvigorate the agricultural sector, and so far, it is taking some initiatives by lining up foreign investment in agriculture. However, the real problems that the sector is facing are focused around the realm of protection of local industry, job creation, increasing of export and import substitution - problems that cannot merely be solved by foreign investment or international trade.

The recent increases in gas prices have jacked up the prices of fertilisers and pesticides - this inflation has hit hardest on local small farmers. Before finalising any ease of import policy, the government needs to remember its promise to protect small farmers and local industry, and provide some kind of safe hold before signing on any deal.