Footprints: NO AAM HARVEST

Published June 4, 2022
workers fill boxes with mangoes.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
workers fill boxes with mangoes.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

“Achhay, achhay (take it, take it),” Tharu Jaskani, one of the workers in the 27-acre orchard plucking unripe mangoes by hand, shouts from atop an around 30-foot-high tree. He adroitly maintains his balance, with no safety gear, while hopping from one branch to the other to pick the fruit expertly and swiftly, then drops it for the young Amjad, his fellow labourer, to catch.

Entering the orchard around 11am, an all-pervading sweet smell of unripe mangoes welcomes you from every corner. The labourers here — mostly young or middle-aged men — are busy with pattaee (the Sindhi word for mango harvesting) since morning.

We meet four to five workers who are engaged in this activity. Mounds of sweet-smelling unripe mangoes are lying under the canopy of every tree. Their co-workers at the farm wait for the fruit to pile up before shifting it to another section of the orchard. That is when the sorting, grading and packaging of the fruit starts.

For Amjad, trying to get hold of falling mangoes is risky business.—Umair Ali
For Amjad, trying to get hold of falling mangoes is risky business.—Umair Ali

Around 50 men from the Jaskani community live in a village a mere few paces from the orchard. Amjad and his fellows carry bags stitched to wooden sticks, catching the unripe fruit dropped by their mates in the trees. The fruit hits the bag at near terminal velocity, producing a loud thud; like a batsman facing a fast bowler’s deliveries. This pantomime-ish technique prevents the fruit from hitting the ground and getting damaged.

The young Amjad, who is at the receiving end, points out the occupational hazards: “It can hit me also if I don’t keep an eye on the fruit,” he cautions, pointing towards Jaskani, who is camouflaged in the midst of branches and thick leaves.

The first week of June marks the arrival of the Sindhri variety, which is preceded by Saroli, Dasehri and Langra, followed then by Chaunsa and Anwar Ratol. The mango season in Pakistan usually begins with harvesting in Sindh, followed by Punjab.

For any visitor to the orchard, it is hard to resist the temptation of sampling the fruit whose intoxicating smell is wafting all around. Tasting one of the year’s first mango shakh kay aam yields a honey-like sweetness.

But Jaskani says he is finding less and less fruit in the trees this season and has to pluck it from branches and stems deep inside the tree. “Until last year, trees used to be laden with the fruit, inside and out,” he recalls.

In another section of the farm, workers sort unripe mangoes and fill wooden boxes, applying calcium carbide and covering the produce with old newspapers after for artificial ripening of the fruit. Some of the mangoes — known as shakh ka aam (ripened enough before being plucked) — are supplied to market sans the ripening agent carbide. Besides local labour, workers from south Punjab areas like Muzaffargarh and Multan also work in these orchards of Sindh. They arrive in batches and stay until the harvest is over. These Seraiki-speaking workers are dexterous in ‘bharawa’ and ‘thukawa’ (the process of packing) of mango crates — a skill that local labourers mostly lack.

Usman Jaskani, the supervisor of the local labourers tells us that his year, despite the inflation, their wages remain unchanged. “Given the price hike, wages should have been increased,” he asserts.

“Of course, there is a considerable decline in mango production this year,” remarks orchard owner Rasool Bux Memon. He attributes this to the water shortage plaguing the province, which has also hit the orchards badly. “Besides, disease is also a factor,” the burly orchard owner says.

“The drop in production this year will be around 50pc as compared to last year’s figures,” maintains Ghulam Sarwar Abro, who owns a 350-acre modern and scientific orchard in Thatta district on the right bank of Kalri Baghar feeder that feeds the metropolitan city of Karachi.

“Water availability is key at the time of maturity of the fruit, but there wasn’t any available in many orchards this year due to the Sindh-wide shortage. I am among the lucky ones whose orchard has sweet groundwater reserves, so I was able to irrigate trees at the crucial time,” he says while also attributing the decline in fruit production to temperature variations.

“The temperature in January varied between 30 and 32 degrees Celsius during the daytime, which should have been around 18 to 20 degrees. That is a time when buds start developing, but temperature fluctuations affected the flowering in Jan-Feb, and eventually the fruit setting.”

Unlike other orchard owners, who let out farms to contractors, the elderly Abro manages his farm himself.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2022

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