It’s a season of mangoes and Covid-19

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UNRIPE mangoes being packed in a fruit market in Hyderabad. — Umair Ali
UNRIPE mangoes being packed in a fruit market in Hyderabad. — Umair Ali

THE season of the king of fruits — mangoes — has started. But this year, it starts amidst serious concerns of coronavirus spreading in Sindh’s rural areas since thousands of labourers arrive from South Punjab, mainly Muzaffargarh. Under the current circumstances, allowing them to enter Sindh is risky since this may allow the contagion to spread in rural areas which, by and large, have remained safe compared with urban areas.

To harvest mangoes, big orchard owners let out their farms to contractors. Punjab’s labourers – hired by the orchard contractors – have begun to arrive in Sindh’s mango farms, which are larger, through different means of transport, while consignments from these farms have started reaching Punjab.

Till May 7, the Sindh government was debating standard operating procedures (SOPs) to let these workers enter the province. Draft SOPs have been presented to the Sindh government by Sharjeel Inam Memon, an orchard owner who is a Sindh Assembly member from Hyderabad’s rural area. He had raised this issue of Punjab’s labourers with the government as they turned up in thousands.

“I have discussed SOPs with the Sindh chief minister and he has not yet finalised them. We are trying to see the situation is handled adroitly,” says Mr Memon, an influential member of Sindh’s ruling party.

Among other measures, the 11-point draft recommends that growers/contractors provide a list of workers from other provinces. It also states enrollment forms will have to be filled and submitted before revenue officials within five working days of labourers commencing work. Items such as gloves, masks and hand sanitisers have to be provided to those working along the entire mango value chain.

Every grower has to try to engage the maximum number of local labourers and minimise hiring from elsewhere for plucking and packing purposes. If a worker develops Covid-19 symptoms, he has to be sent for a checkup. A proforma has to be filled by each worker for tracking and tracing purposes.

‘There is no rocket science involved which would prevent local labour from learning to pluck or pack mangoes. Previously, nobody thought of departing from the conventional practice of labour coming in from Punjab to Sindh because there was no reason for it’

The Sindh government is continuously resisting pressure from the PTI-led federal government, as well as the business community, to ease the lockdown. The chief minister had even differed, rightly so, with the 20-point SOPs mutually agreed between the ulema and President Arif Alvi on Taraweeh prayers in Ramazan to stem the spread of the contagion. He feared the SOPs will not be implementable therefore sought to restrict prayer congregations.

Currently, Sindh health officials dealing with the Covid-19 situation and pandemic trajectory believe May is going to be tough from the point of view of a spike in the number of cases. “We are bracing for an exponential rise in cases if the lockdown is eased,” observes a Sindh health official associated with monitoring the Covid-19 situation. “The impact of the decision taken for opening up of businesses will be seen after a fortnight,” he asserted.

Labourers have already started to arrive unchecked in Sindh from Punjab where an upward trend in the number of cases can be seen, and more are on their way. It is a foregone conclusion that the SOPs specific to mango workers will not be doable, any more than those that were drafted for prayer congregations.

“I think this is an opportunity that can bring local labourers forward and help overcome unemployment currently seen in the pandemic’s backdrop,” says Sindh agriculture minister Ismail Rahu, who is the son of hari leader Fazil Rahu. The real issue, he opines, pertains to big farms that are let out to contractors who hire workers from Punjab. “One expert worker brought from Punjab for each farm should be enough, the rest should be purely local labourers to handle the mango crop this season. This is how they will get trained as well,” he remarks.

The issue of workers from Punjab coming to Sindh has surfaced for the first time because of the pandemic, otherwise, it was conventional practice for orchard owners and contractors. Locally known as bharawa and thukawa, labour from Punjab has picked, sorted and packed mangoes with dexterity for years.

The contractors’ argument is since available local labour is not trained, engaging them would cause mango wastage and result in monetary losses. Therefore, this issue is more of contractors than of orchard owners.

Labour from Punjab arrives in groups of 40-50 people. Depending on the size of an orchard, multiple teams work together, switching from one farm to another if need be. They stay at farms and leave once the season is finished, awaiting the arrival of kinnow season in Punjab.

“There is no rocket science involved which would prevent local labour from learning to pluck or pack mangoes. Nobody thought of departing from conventional practice before because there was no reason for it,” remarks Sindh Abadgar Board vice president Mahmood Nawaz Shah, who is also an owner of mango orchards and an exporter. To quote a medium-sized mango grower Nadeem Shah, Punjab’s labour is cheap as well as trained.

The Sindh government remained worried till all the men from Tableeghi Jamaat – who became virus carriers in the province in March – recovered and were repatriated home. The government’s efforts to ensure safe transportation was praised. Given its lockdown policy, it is unlikely that the Murad Shah-led government will have two different standards relating to the same emergency.

While things are challenging this year, it is an opportunity to engage local labour so that they get trained and there is less reliance on workers from another province next season. It would not be difficult for the locals to learn the art of sorting and plucking since they work in the fields all year round. Is saving mangoes more important than saving lives?

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 11th , 2020