The land around village Kabir Panhwar, a few kilometres from Johi in Dadu district, has remained unirrigated and uncultivated for centuries. Only hardy desert trees can grow in its sandy soil. Amid the prosopis and acacia, the thorny mesquite provides rich and poor alike with excellent fuelwood. The only patches of cultivation that one sees are owned by landowners who have their own tubewells. The landless of Kabir Panhwar and nearby villages can either work on the farms of the rich or, if they are free-spirited, can be wood cutters. The remarkable Laalan Khatoon used to be among the latter.
Every two or three days, Laalan would hire a donkey cart, spend the whole day hacking away at the mesquite even as the thorns cut her skin and tore her clothing to make a cartload of firewood. In Johi she would sell the load for 1,000 rupees. Paying cart rental at 200 rupees per day she would share the rest of the profit with whoever partnered with her, each person ending up with, on average, a little under 300 rupees per day.
With seven children to fend for and her eldest son helping with his own income as labourer, this was just about enough to keep the younger ones fed and going to school. Life was hard and, even as Laalan laboured in the thorn patches, she felt there was little hope of it ever turning any sweeter.
Laalan Khatoon turned her life around with just three and a half acres and a lot of hard work and persistence
Unbeknownst to her, a scheme named after the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was maturing in faraway Karachi, which would turn her life around. It would grant agricultural land to landless women. And so one day in 2010, Laalan received a deed for three and a half acres right outside her home. Although there was no irrigation channel within dozens of kilometres, Laalan nonetheless prepared the land and sowed wheat the first season. That was December 2010.
Not far from her holding was the landlord’s spread with its own tubewell. Laalan struck a deal with this man: he would sell her water at 300 rupees per hour and would take one-fourth of her produce as well. It was a hard bargain, but a darn sight better than just waiting for the merciless blue Sindhi skies to irrigate her winter wheat. Laalan agreed to the terms and dug the channel to bring water to her fields with her own hands.
The water supply was erratic; it was never there just when she needed it the most. And it took almost forever to water her full holding, then under young wheat. Inevitably, her first wheat harvest was small and did not even last her family three months. For the rest of the year Laalan had to return to mesquite harvesting to feed her family.
Meanwhile, Laalan discovered the method behind the landlord’s erratic water supply: he tried to persuade her to sell him the land. Since it was hardly paying for her toil, he told her, Laalan would be better off taking some money and being done with it. She refused the man’s offer and remained steadfast behind her plough.
"Every two or three days, Laalan would hire a donkey cart, spend the whole day hacking away at the mesquite even as the thorns cut her skin and tore her clothing to make a cartload of firewood. In Johi she would sell the load for 1,000 rupees. Paying cart rental at 200 rupees per day she would share the rest of the profit with whoever partnered with her, each person ending up with, on average, a little under 300 rupees per day.
Five years went by in the same way. Then one day, late in October 2015, field workers from Hyderabad-based Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organisation (Safwco) turned up at her door. They offered a small irrigation facility with a bore and electric motor. Unbelievably, this was gratis.
It was too good to be true. But sure enough, the tubewell arrived in good time in December, just as Laalan was preparing her land for wheat-sowing. Despite an erratic electricity supply, Laalan made the system work. Depending upon the power supply, she would be up in the dead of cold winter nights or under blazing sunshine to irrigate her wheat.
The harvest of April 2016 was the best she had yet had: not only was there enough to feed her family for the whole year, there was some left over for seed for the next sowing. That put Laalan in top gear. She planted squash on one acre and jantar (Sesbania bispinosa) — which is a good source for fodder and firewood — on another. Three months later, her net earnings from the vegetable stood at 20,000 rupees. Another three months and the jantar, now full grown trees — was harvested for good sales even as she kept the best ones to redo the roof of her own home.
In March 2017 when I met her, her wheat was again waiting to be threshed and she had over two acres under okra, spinach, cilantro and squash in various stages of ripening. Her eldest would sell the harvest in Johi or even in Dadu, she said. But she was not willing to speak of the projected income. “A boast always brings on the evil eye,” she said.
While she recounted her struggles, Laalan never mentioned her husband. When I asked about him, she told me with a wry smile that he lived and worked in Johi. When I pestered her further, she eventually revealed that having bequeathed her seven children, he had wed another woman in town many years ago and disappeared from her life. But since she got her land grant and is now a successful farmer, the man makes an appearance from time to time.
“And these times are always harvest times,” she said with a laugh, adding how he wheedled her for handouts.
Being who she is, the good woman was planning to give the useless man 50 kilogrammes of wheat that had been grown by the sweat of her brow alone. Here was a woman to admire and I could not keep myself from expressing it. She was a lion woman, I told her.
“When the husband is not capable, it devolves upon the woman to be the lion in the family,” she laughed. “One has to fend for one’s brood.”
The writer is a travel writer and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017