From childhood memories, which refresh themselves from time to time, is the sale of bananas at different railway stations in Sindh as soon as trains passed through the Sukkur-Rohri section on the way to Karachi, or during the journey back from Karachi to Lahore. Young men with shopping bags in their hands containing mostly six to eight bananas, entered coaches as soon as trains would stop at these railway stations, especially in the months of October-November. The bananas were always small in size, though good in taste sometimes.
Recently, Justice (retd) Khawaja Naveed Ahmed, an advocate for Sindh rights and development, also pointed out the issue while speaking to a private news channel. He said banana was grown in various districts and on thousands of acres of land but little attention had ever been paid to improve its produce and quality. Comparing Sindh bananas with those being produced in Mumbai and Dhaka, he said if a bunch of six bananas was kept in a room, their fragrance would spread all around. But bananas being grown in Sindh are not only inferior in size but also in quality and nutrition value.
As far as its importance as a fruit in the world is concerned, banana is the premier fruit of Asia and the Pacific. It is one of the most cultivated fruits in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh, the South Pacific island countries, India and Pakistan. Banana also occupies an important position in the agricultural economy of Australia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Southern China. According to official statistics, bananas are a major fruit crop of Pakistan. It is grown on 34,800 hectares with production of 154,800 tonnes per annum. It is mainly grown in Sindh where soil and climatic conditions are favourable for its cultivation. The total share of Sindh alone in its cultivation is 87 per cent.
According to a research report, banana is cultivated over an area of 80,000 acres in Pakistan and as per FAO statistics, its per acre yield is less than India and China which produce more than 10 tonnes per acre. The reasons behind this low yield are the unavailability of high-yielding varieties and certified disease-free planting materials.
The conventional variety of banana grown in Sindh is Cavendish Dwarf (98%), which is locally called Barsai. There are also tissue culture varieties being grown in Sindh. These include Grand naine and William hybrid. Work is also underway on three Chinese varieties at the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), including Pishang, B-10 and W-11. The weather conditions are generally conducive to growing bananas in Sindh. However, the annual rainfall in the province is not sufficient to meet the requirements of banana plants (50 to 200mm per annum), whereas an excellent quality crop needs average rainfalls from 1,200 to 2,500mm/annum. Banana is mainly grown in the Indus Delta zone of Sindh and it grows extremely well in the coastal belts. Recently, its cultivation has expanded up to the much warmer north. There should not have been more than three months of a dry season for its better produce. Cool weather and prolonged drought retard its growth. Banana plants produce only one leaf per month in the winter and four per month in the summer, and maximum in May.
There are other factors too which hinder its better yield. If a low temperature (at 13 degree C) in winter occurs, the bunch may not be able to emerge from the centre of crown, which is called “Choke Throating,” a typical character of “Dwarf Cavendish” and the bud may not be able to emerge from the stem. This will have a major impact on the yield and quality. If the temperature falls even lower than 13 degree C, the leaves and new suckers start to burn. Smudging, by burning dry trash covered with green leaves to create smoke, can raise the temperature 2 to 4 degrees.
As banana is a long-duration crop, the total water requirements are high. Water requirements per year vary from 1,200mm in the humid tropics to 2,200mm in the dry tropics. For rain-fed production, average rainfall of 2,000mm to 2,500mm per year, well-distributed, is desirable, but banana often grows under less rainfall.
Ghulam Shabbir Mirza, in-charge of a section at the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), has good news to share with banana lovers in the country. He tells Cutting Edge by telephone that the country has developed two banana varieties, NIGAB-1 and NIGAB-2, recently which are suitable for good yields. The new varieties were approved for commercial cultivation by the Sindh Seed Council in its 34th meeting on Nov 17, 2020, in the Sindh Assembly under the chairmanship of Minister of Agriculture and Supplies Ismail Rahu.
The PARC chairman tells Cutting Edge that NIGAB-1 and NIGAB-2 are the first-ever banana varieties registered in the country. The varieties are high-yielding and have more shelf life which is a key requirement for exports, he says.
Dr. Azeem, while appreciating the efforts of PSO NIGAB, NARC, Dr. Aish Muhammad and his team, said the cultivation of the banana varieties would boost its production which would not only fulfil its local demand but also increase its export.