No truckloads of labour from Punjab in sight as mangoes ripen in Sindh

Updated May 11, 2020

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PERCHED on a tree, two workers are busy plucking mangoes.—Photo courtesy of Research and Development Foundation
PERCHED on a tree, two workers are busy plucking mangoes.—Photo courtesy of Research and Development Foundation

KARACHI: “Talk, talk, talk is all that is happening between the mango growers and the government officials. We are running out of time and before they develop a mechanism, the mangoes will ripen,” said a desperate contractor, Irshad Jiskani, over phone from Tando Allah Yar, a major mango growing district in Sindh.

He is getting sleepless nights as the mango plucking season draws closer and he is without the farmhands from southern Punjab needed to pack the mangoes over the 300 acres land that he bought for nearly Rs40 million. He had also paid an advance of Rs250,000 “to book” some 85 workers earlier in March before the lockdown had been announced.

But if you ask Mahmood Nawaz Shah, vice president of the Sindh Abadgar Board (SAB), a farmer organisation, “It’s already too late”. The government should have thought about some solution back in March. “There will be huge loss to the mango growers this year,” he said.

Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, he estimated the loss due to labour alone could be 20 per cent or as much as Rs2 billion to the growers. But the loss to the economy will be far graver. “A reduction of even say Rs10/kilo can mean a loss of Rs3.8 billion to growers due to reduced demand, logistics and exports,” said Mr Shah.

Every year of the nearly 700,000 workers needed for the mango orchards, up to 100,000 seasonal labourers come from Punjab to work in the nearly 100,000 acres of mango orchards of Sindh, according to SAB.

These migrant workers stay on the land for two or three months. “They are provided three meals, soap water and oil, and their transport. Before they arrive they are paid a month’s salary in advance and the rest of the money is paid when they leave which varies from Rs1,3000 to Rs18,000/month. The team leader, also known as chairman organises the workers and ensures they work diligently makes as much as Rs500,000 in a season,” farmer Ghulam Sarwar Abro explained the modus operandi.

Local workers lack skills

But with the pandemic crises and no sign of life getting back to normal, Jiskani is worried. “Who will do all the work?” he said, insisting the local workers cannot do the work of those coming from Punjab which included making crates from the raw material procured from Punjab, sorting mangoes, grading, packing the crates, and finally nailing them to be transported.

Abro, who grows mangoes over 300 acres in Kotri, fears if there is a ban on the labour movement “60% of the mango harvest will perish”. But unlike Jiskani, he remains unperturbed as he had been training 200 local workers on his banana farm, to work on mango orchards, for just such a day, it seems. “I have three teams of 50 people each ready to work in the orchards,” he said.

The SAB had issued a press note back in March to draw the attention of the government to the problem and suggested it come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs) for facilitating the movement of workers from Punjab. “It has been two months now but nothing has happened!” said Mr Shah.

Coronavirus testing issue

When the Sindh government was approached, and asked how it was going to facilitate those labourers its spokesperson Murtaza Wahab, responded with a brief: “We are working on it, no decision yet!” over a Whatsapp exchange.

Mr Shah said he understood the government’s dilemma. “With little capacity and funds, it cannot just let the workers come into the province; the danger of infection getting viral is real,” he said.

“The government insists if we want the labourers to come from Punjab we should get them tested,” said Mr Jiskani adding that not only are there not enough testing kits but being expensive, he cannot afford to get all the migrant workers tested.

Dr Waqar Ahmed, director, Agriculture Technologies with the USAID, has an easy solution. “Only allow the skilled workers, which would be 25% of the entire labour, to enter Sindh. The growers should provide a list of these workers to the government so that if something untoward happens they can be traced,” he said.

Dr Ahmed has developed different SOPs for maintaining social distancing, work, living for the migrant workers. Meanwhile, he said, the local workers can also get trained by the workers from Punjab. He said he would particularly encourage women to come into this field. “In my experience, they learn faster when it comes to grading, sorting and packing, considered complex tasks by men,” he said.

However, growers believe the workers will show up on their doorstep come what may. “They may not come in truckloads, but will trickle in using different means of transport, in threes and fives,” said Jiskani. “It will mean greasing the palms of a few en route!” he added.

A business opportunity

Mustafa Nangraj, at the Sindh agriculture department extension services, in Hyderabad, said young agriculture graduates looking for work could start a labour contracting business. “It will require coming up with a model whereby the workers from nearby villages can be organised and trained for various skills and then sent to that area. Even for this season of mango plucking and packing, it was not too late. “The villagers from nearby farms can be given a two-day training and put to work; it is a matter of organising labour and is no rocket science!” he said.

It was also time, said Mr Shah to seriously take up processing of fruits and vegetables into value-added products. “We need to convert natural pulp, make dried and candied fruit, etc,” he said.

A chance of boosting export

Agreeing that value addition was now of utmost importance, Sualeh Faruqui, secretary at the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) said other structural issues also needed to be looked into. “Both the state and the businesses need to work towards developing cold chains which are almost non-existent,” he said.

In Sindh, the crop gets ready for plucking by the middle of May in Sindh, while in Punjab it is July. Of the 1.5 million tonnes produced last year, 25 per cent was from Sindh 75 per cent from Punjab. But Sindh is able to export 45% of total export of mangoes.

However, this year with Iran and Afghanistan borders closed, air routes and sea routes not fully functional and skyrocketing freight rates, Shah, feared very little will be exported. There was a way out if the government could schedule charter cargo planes and ask exporters to pay a more reasonable freight, he said.

The government is already thinking in those same lines, said Mr Faruqui. “We are looking at the possibility of air-lifting the mangoes to countries where lockdown has eased. We are talking to both traders and exporters to facilitate them and at the same time we have to ensure not only the airports but the market is also open to accepting our goods,” he said.

In addition, the government, through its trade missions, was pushing more aggressively to find alternative markets and find this as an “opportunity to explore newer ways of trading”.

To that Shah suggested “to push our mangoes onto the shelves of supermarkets in the UK and Europe since this year Indian mango has been delisted and the Thai and Peruvian ones are also absent”. But he had little confidence in the government. “They do not have the vision to use this window of opportunity.”

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2020