Pakistan is one of the world's top cotton producers. With one out of every five Pakistani farmers growing the crop, supplying millions of spindles and looms and hundreds of mills, the cotton industry is the country's largest economic sector, not counting the service industry. But Pakistan is not able to raise all the cotton it needs. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman visited the Karachi Cotton Exchange to find out why.

The voices of excited traders no longer bellow through the marble-lined Cotton Ring inside the Karachi Cotton Exchange. Trading has gone electronic. But at mid-day a few men still huddle around a small table in a room of the Karachi Cotton Association to set the official spot rate for what is called base grade three cotton.

Pakistani fiber is greatly desired around the world because it is considered the strongest cotton grown anywhere, able to withstand pressure of 90,000 pounds per square inch.

But few overseas can get their hands on the country's cotton these days. Domestic demand outstrips supply. And a nation which exported 4.5 million bales as recently as 1989 has seen those lucrative overseas shipments reduced to a relatively thin strand.

Since the 1980s when Indian and Pakistani cotton production were at parity - about 10 million bales per year - India's output has tripled while Pakistan's has stagnated.

One of the country's cotton barons says "do not blame the farmers." Pakistan Cotton Association former chairman Akbar Ali Hashwani puts the blame on practically everybody else in the business.

"Mismanagement, corruption - whether it is in the formation of the seeds, as well as the fertilizer is concerned, the pesticide is concerned [and] admixture," he said. "So in every sector you find there is dishonesty. So farmers are always at the mercy of these people."

To keep up with demand for its domestic mills, Pakistan finds itself in the unenviable position of importing cotton from rival India next door, which sends two-thirds of its exports to China.

Former cotton association chairman Hashwani, who heads one of Pakistan's biggest trading companies, tells VOA he is not ready to throw in the towel on cotton, despite the frustrations.

"We have diversified," he said. "We are in textiles. We are in the mining business. Rice, we are the biggest exporter from here. This something, you know, it is inbuilt in your blood that you are a cotton man. We always want to have the hope, you live on hopes."

That hope is based on Pakistan already possessing the land, water and manpower that could allow production to double in the next several years. But Hashwani and others say that will only happen if the industry gets adequate support from the incoming democratically-elected government and works to root out corruption. If that happens, Pakistan may again be a top exporter for a domestic product still in high demand.