It’s hot, excruciatingly and unbearably hot here in Khairpur. Just when everything melts under the scorching sun, it’s that time of the year again when people from across neighbouring districts throng Khairpur.
Khairpur, in Sindh province, 461 km from the southern port city of Karachi is literally splitting from its seams to accommodate a deluge of people.
The reason – it’s time the dates are ready to be plucked, dried, processed and sold. From the basket weavers, who come in droves and are seen camping on the roadside with their entire families, to the nomad labourers who find ready work in whichever field they fancy, Khairpur welcomes them all.
According to the Pakistan Agricultural and research Council, 4.9 million tonnes of dates are grown per year in more than 40 countries around the world. Iran is the biggest in terms of production at 60 per cent, followed by Egypt at 12 per cent, Iraq at 11 per cent, Saudi Arabia at nine per cent with Pakistan at 7 per cent taking the fifth position in the world date production.
The total annual production of dates in Pakistan is about 0.54 million tons with contribution of at Sindh 0.28 million tonnes, Balochistan 0.175 million tonnes, NWFP 0.05 million tonnes and Punjab 0.039 million tonnes, respectively.
For as long as 32-year old Nazim Ali, can recall, he has been a date palm tree climber. “I must’ve been 13 when I started,” says the young Baloch.
One of the most sought after persons, Ali charges between Rs 60,000 to 70,000 for the 25 days of climbing from one tree to the other, axing away bunches of dates one after another till the tree is stripped. “In a day I can do as many as 30 trees,” he says, adding “It does not require strength as much as skill and precision. One wrong step and you can come down breaking your neck.”
“His is a difficult job,” agrees Shaukat Ali, a contractor, who has hired two tree climbers to bare the 2,000 trees he has bought from the grower this year. On an average a tree bears about 60 kg of khajji (raw dates) and he is able to gather about 3,000 kg of dates every day that needs to be then dried or it would go bad. “We have about 250 labourers, (including about a dozen women) working for us. The work starts after Fajr prayers and continues much after sun down till the day’s work is done,” says Shaukat Ali, who has been in the business since the last 15 years.
Under the scorching sun men go about doing different chores. Some are seen thrashing the freshly plucked bunches on a mammoth wooden comb-like stand separating the dates from the branches; another team, which includes women are seen patiently sorting out the good ones in a pile which are then taken for washing. Once cleaned, they are put in a burning cauldron of water mixed with a yellow dye (Sodium Formaldehyde Sulfoxylate - Rongolite) and boiled for 20 minutes. From there, these are then put out on straw mats and left exposed to the sun to dry.
“It takes about a week before these dates turn into chuhara (dried hard dates) after which they are put in gunny bags and taken to the date market and sold,” explains Shaukat Ali.
The date variety predominantly found in Khairpur is called Aseel. According to Dr Ghulam Sarwar Markhand, director of the Date Palm Research Institute (DPRI), 85 per cent of these dates are dried and turned into chuhara a majority of which is exported to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
While a date properly ripened on the tree is of better quality than one picked prematurely, Markhand admits that “because there is always the imminent danger of sudden monsoon showers, the growers take them down prematurely, often three weeks before they are ripe and cure and process them into chuhara. Rain can completely destroy the fruit,” he says.
According to DPRI director, there is a technique to save the fruit from moisture while still on the tree by covering them with plastic bags. His institute has tried this out on an experimental level with “very promising results” but he acknowledges that it is an expensive undertaking if carried out on a mass scale. “Every tree has, on an average, a cluster of 20 and to cover each one takes time, effort and those many bags!"
Unbeknown to the growers of Khairpur, DPRI has quietly been working on growing these trees in a lab through tissue culture. In its lab, you see hundreds of test tubes and jars at various stages of this mammoth experiment.
“It takes between three to five years to grow a date palm plant in a lab, then transfer it to the greenhouse (that DPRI has), let it get acclimatised there for another year or so before it can be taken outside and planted,” explains Markhand. The director aims at mass propagation and turning this into a commercial lab.
At the same time, he finds the age-old method of sun-drying dates extremely “unhygienic” as the fruit is peppered with dust and insects all through the day. Solar dryer, he says is the way forward showing befitting and quick results when tried on an experimental level. “But till these contraptions are made cost-effective, these won’t be accepted or adopted by the growers,” he says, adding the new modern method would enhance quality of the products and the fruit would be able to compete in the international market.
Date palm trees are spread over 98,000 hectares across Pakistan making it the fifth largest date producer in the world at 0.7million metric tonnes, with most orchards found in Balochistan. Yet, says Markhand, Sindh leads in production. He also explains that the tree is one of the most resilient plants and a rise in temperature or climate change will not be able to have any adverse affect on it, “not for another 200 years at least” he says confidently. But dates grow best where the temperatures are hot so that ripening period is short. The date palm tree, says Markhand, becomes fully fertile in nine years and bears fruit for over 80 years.
Unfortunately, as with other crops, while all the hardwork is done by the farmer, from harvesting to ripening, maturation and dehydrating, the biggest beneficiaries are still those sitting in the date mandi. “We are squeezed from all sides and don’t get our fair share of profits,” he laments.
For this reason, says Anwar Rashid of Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), back in 2004, it worked with 15 growers and formed a Khajji Cooperative Society in Hussainabad, in Khairpur, providing loans worth Rs152,000. Today the cooperative has 2,500 members and the credit disbursed is over Rs 60 million.
“We help them book the yellow colour much earlier in the year, say around December, at a price of Rs 2,500 to 3,000 a drum compared to the Rs 6000 it rises to in July. This is a big saving for them,” says Rashid.
In addition, the OPP has helped growers develop direct linkages with the mandi in Lahore, thereby saving as much as 14 per cent that was otherwise taken by the wholesellers in Khairpur and Sukkur.
While Rashid acknowledges the use of solar dryers introduced was not very successful, because of the cost, he says the Pakistan Agricultural and Research Council is trying to come up a ‘greenhouse’ that would maintain the kind of temperature ideal for ripening dates.
According to Shaukat Ali, a tree is bought for anywhere between Rs 1,000 to 1,600. He employs a battalion of labourers that include the tree climbers to thrashers, to sifters and those tasked in all the different steps from maturation to curing and drying. A lot of investment goes into this. “We usually take credit from the loan sharks in the date mandi.” These are also the marketers to whom they are bound to sell their dates and thus keep their own rates. “These are big business people who have contacts in India to whom they sell,” he says.
Agreeing to the woes of the growers, Markhand says unlike countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where their governments fix the rates at which dates are sold, here it is on the whim and fancy of exporters.
But he adds, for every tree that these contractors buy, they make a profit of not less than fifty per cent. “If he buys a tree for Rs 1500, he should easily make a profit of Rs 3,000 on it.”
Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist.