THE air here is thick with the pungent smell of chilli peppers that triggers non-stop sneezing, makes one’s eyes water, and leaves a burning sensation across the face.
This four-acre walled compound comprising the wholesale bazaar, or mandi, was set up in the ’60s in Kunri, a small town in Umerkot district in Sindh. The area is famous for the rounded dundicut chillies, although now the longish hybrid variety is also being grown. Encircling the yard are the offices and godowns of traders, some four dozen or so. A man selling chilled glasses of a sugary drink provides welcome respite from the scorching sun. Next to him is a food stall with rickety wooden benches.
Gulzar Baloch is darning used jute bags, as he has been doing for 14 years. He can repair up to 300 of these sacks and takes home Rs500 by the end of the day. By mid-morning, the inspecting, auctioning and buying has already taken place. Today, a 40kg sack of dundicut sold for Rs13,000 while the hybrid did for Rs10,000. “Last year, the highest we paid for was Rs8,000 and Rs5,000 for dundicut and hybrid respectively,” says Yudhister Maheshwari, a chilli trader. The reason is lower production and higher demand.
A dozen or so men, each carrying a sack on his back, reach a fellow standing on a chair (who opens it deftly with a stroke of his knife). They then climb a narrow plank placed at an angle to reach the peak of the heap where they empty out their sacks before running back for more. No time can be wasted as they get paid by the number of bags they carry. “They are paid Rs15 per bag to fill and empty,” explains grower Maheshwari.
Till last year, says Mohammad Saeed, president of the Red Chillies Merchants’ Association, they were able to shift between 15,000 and 20,000 sacks a day; this year, it’s hardly 2,000 to 3,000 bags.
A 15-minute drive away is the dehydration plant. Set up in 2014 by the Sindh government on a two-acre plot at the cost of Rs 244 million, it was operational in 2016 and 2017. Now, because of the low crop levels (except for one small consignment here of 32 tonnes, dried to weigh just eight tonnes), it has not been run.
Abdul Jabbar, the plant’s 28-year-old operational manager, who is doing his Master’s in Food Technology from the Sindh Agriculture University, Tando Jam, says that the two-unit plant can dry up to 32 tonnes of fresh chillies in 24 hours, and bring the moisture down to eight per cent, which is an almost accepted international standard. Sun-dried pods, however, retain 20pc moisture, leading to a loss of colour (they are kept in the sun for up to 12 days) and catch dust. Unexpected rain can wet the pods leading to microbial contamination. Although innovation is being practised in the traditional sun-drying method through the use of geo-textile material, not everyone uses it and drying on the ground continues. For years, local chilli export was banned in the EU because of contamination issues, until 2010 when growers managed to bring the levels down. At the plant, the dehydrated chillies are then put in a gas sanitizer and, when packed and sealed, are micro-organism free. There is a chilli slicer as well as a grinder. The client is charged Rs15/kg. A 40kg sack of fresh chillies weighs just 10kg when dried.
But the cost of running this huge plant that uses wood (3.6 tonnes of wood for running the boiler for 12 hours) for fuel is immense. Kunri does not have gas supply, and the boiler has no arrangement to run on electricity from the grid which is erratic in any case. Unless there are enough chillies, it makes little sense to run the plant.
While there is no accurate assessment of the number of chilli growers in Pakistan, the Market Development Facility, a multi-country private-sector development programme funded by the Australian government, puts the number in Kunri alone to be approximately 160,000. “Every year the produce would be as much as 0.15 million tonnes, but this year, the production will not be more than 55 tonnes,” estimates Mian Salim, president of the Red Chilli Growers’ Association.
Both Salim and Saeed blame the inequitable distribution of water for the decrease in chilli production. Both Mirpurkhas and Umerkot are dependent on the Nara canal for the supply of drinking as well as irrigation water. These are tail-end districts, and due to the rotational water supply, the resource did not get to the chilli farmers till the end of the third week of March; the crop wilted and died before fruition.
The farmers say there is enough water for everyone, if only influential landlords would stop stealing it. According to the Red Chilli Growers’ Association, 650 pumps have been installed unlawfully in Nara that takes water directly to the fields of these powerful farmers.
Requesting anonymity, a Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority official responded in the affirmative saying the powerful landlords pay heavy bribes to people at SIDA, who then turn a blind eye. Lower production impacts the sharecroppers the most. “For chilli farming, a family takes up an acre or two of land and carries out preparation, weeding, transplanting, and harvesting. They get daily wages for tending the farm but to meet other expenses, especially if there is an emergency — illness, death, a wedding — sharecroppers take loans from the landowner. When the time for sharing the profits comes, the sharecropper is already in so much debt that he ends up getting almost nothing,” Salim explains. Low production means less work for the family, and less work means they cannot earn enough in a day to eat. The hands that till the land go hungry.
Published in Dawn, October 30th , 2018