Tuesday, July 12, 2005

10 Mouths to feed on Rp 35 (58 cents) per day

10 mouths to feed on Rs35 a day: Rural profile

How are the rural areas coping with the current economic pressures? Naween A. Mangi went to the interior of Sindh to find out. Her first report:

FROM a distance, all that’s visible is a mass of darkened, bare-backed bodies bobbing up and down, up and down, up and down. The sound of water sloshing between cakes of mud swishes out and above the field. An old man cries out and tosses one bundle after the other of what looks like bunches of tall green grass onto the water where it floats, waiting.
Down the narrow mud path, young girls sway past, balancing on their heads baskets full of rotis made from rice flour and spicy fried potatoes for their mothers and fathers working in the fields. Their whispers and giggles are almost brighter than the orange-red, and purple-yellow embroidery they wear.
They slide past herds of glistening black buffaloes trundling back home, sleepily content after a refreshing dip in a cool water channel. Little shepherd boys, of seven or eight, unshod in the heat, tap them with tree branches, herding them in the right direction.
They pass a lotus pond where pink and yellow flowers sit serenely on their leaves, shaded by thick, fragrant mango trees. One boy scrambles in to pull out the lotus fruit, known by the locals as dodi. If he’s lucky enough, a car will rumble through the village this afternoon and he could score big by charging the passer by Rs10 for the stem of fruit.
Across on the other side, beyond the shade of an ancient peepal (Ficus) tree, three young men shout in rejoice as one of them pulls out a long, fleshy fish from a fish pond long thought to be barren. A row of long tubular nests spun laboriously by the weaver hang low by the edge of the pond. Up above, a flock of big, white fish catchers, known by the locals as bugh, crowd together in a small Acacia tree, dotting it with life.
This is the village of Khairo Dero, located about 30 kilometres north of the city of Larkana, where in the searing month of June, with temperatures climbing past 50 degrees Celsius, the rice sowing season is in full swing.
The village is home to about 2,500 people and 200 homes, almost all of them dependent on a combination of the wheat and rice crops and livestock farming of mostly buffaloes. The lifeblood of the village is the Waraih Canal which originates from the Sukkur Barrage and runs around Khairo Dero’s easterly border distributing water to the channels which feed the fields.At the other end of the village, next to the muddy, sun-parched graveyard, is an ancient, crumbling tomb which the locals say is the resting place of a historic saint after whom the village is named. The village is joined to the highway from a link road that goes through the nearby villages of Bungel Dero and Lashari as well.
Khairo Dero has one primary school each for girls and boys from nursery till fifth grade and one middle school for boys. There is one basic health unit with two dispensers, five lady health workers and one physician. Four small stores selling flour and a few sweets, three crumbling tea shops and one tiny, poorly stocked medical store make up the trading business of the village.
Khairo Dero is known to be one of the economically better off villages in the district of Larkana. It received electricity connections as early as 1964, when none of the surrounding villages had power. It’s another thing that today nine out of ten residents can’t afford to pay their bills and the entire village then has electricity cut off from Wapda as has been the case this June. By the end of the month, donations had been collected throughout the village to pay off Wapda’s workers who then restored power for a bribe of Rs2000.
Luckily, the village is also not starved for water. Although fights over water do break out in the rice sowing season when demand is high, villagers have access to clean water through hand pumps that provide well water.
Water and power are considered luxuries in several other villages in rural Sindh. In Jumay Jo Goth in the Aamri Deh in District Dadu, for example, some 50 gypsies have inhabited land some 45 kilometers south of Sewan Sharif having abandoned their barren farm land some five years ago.
Now, the men and women of this settlement—which has no power, water or gas— work as labour on lands picking phutti or chillies, for Rs40 per day. They live in a few thatched huts, eating rotis made from wheat bought on loan from the land owners they work for.
“We just eat rotis,” says Ameenat, the matriarch of the family. “Sometimes we have onions and on good days, we have red chillies too.” When there is no work on the fields, they skip meals. The only source of water is from a still water pond nearby from where women fill their two or three pans with grayish brown water. They wash their dishes with mud to save the water to drink.
“I don’t know who the Prime Minister is,” says Allah Dino, 45. “The President is someone called Mushriq. But we get nothing from them. We are just starving here.”In some cases, the proximity to towns and cities has improved the fortunes of some rural dwellers who have been able to get jobs earning Rs3000 or Rs4000 a month. But even then, the fortunate are few in number while the majority remain trapped in debt and poverty.In Dooro MirBahar Goth, some three kilometers north of the town of Matiari near Hyderabad, while a few residents manage to earn a few thousand rupees a month selling fish or working as drivers in the city, most of the 1,200 residents continue to work the fields picking cotton and bananas and harvesting wheat for Rs50 per day.
Women in the village contribute to the farm labour income by picking the leaves from falsa trees once the fruit has been picked and sold for Rs3 per kilogram. The leaves are dried, strung onto thread and then sold for Rs2 or Rs3 per 200 leaves to biri makers who will roll the leaves into hand-made cigarettes.
One woman can string about 2,000 leaves a day. Saloo, a mother of eight, for example, spends most of her time off the fields stringing falsa leaves. “We have to do this because no one will help us,” she says. “The politicians come to take our votes and make us fill out zakat forms and then eat everything up themselves and don’t even recognize us after the elections.”
The village has no schools, no health facilities and no telephone or gas connections. “What has the government given us?” asks Sanghar, a middle aged woman who looks several years older than she is “Five years ago we were better off. Today we sometimes eat and sometimes we just sit quiet.”
Even though Khairo Dero is more fortunate with sufficient water most of the year and power when it works, little has really changed here for decades, maybe even longer. Most residents have no access to information, laugh when asked about rising prosperity in the country and cannot name the heads of state.
All the hallmarks of poverty are firmly entrenched in the sights, smells and sounds of daily life in this village. Almost all the women have received no education. At best, the drainage system comprises of open drains in some of the more developed lanes.
In the small, poorer villages that are part of the deh of Khairo Dero, there are no latrines at all and no system of sanitation. Every family has several children, ten seems to be an average number. Common illnesses like gastroenteritis and malaria run rampant.
The major source of fuel for cooking is still patties of cow dung dried on the walls of houses. And kitchens in most households are little more than a corner of the compound where a small pile of aluminium dishes lie just a few feet from the open area designated as a lavatory.
Buffaloes still live alongside their owners in the same compound. Children still run through the muddy lanes, chasing the occasional car, their hair matted, their clothes torn and stained, their feet cracked and bare. They’ll spend all day in the sun playing with twigs in the dirt, helping in the field and then come home to a dinner of bhat (a podgy version of poor quality rice) which will stick to their chins when they sleep.
With a couple of exceptions, most houses in the village are made either of mud plaster or loose bricks. Some, especially those in the smaller villages surrounding Khairo Dero, are made simply of tree branches pushed into the ground and covered with hay and scraps of old cloth.
Those who can’t afford even walls of mud plaster use rings of dried bush to create privacy. If the economic concept of a trickle-down effect is at play in Pakistan, it is not even remotely evident in this part of the country.
Rising economic growth, record growth in agriculture and falling levels of poverty as promoted by the government, seem like foreign concepts in this impoverished land.
For now, though, the hope brought by the sowing of yet another crop is bringing fresh life to the village. Rice sowing is a labour intensive process. Once the wheat crop has been harvested and fire set to the fields to burn down the land, preparations begin in the month of May for the sowing of the Irri-6 variety of rice.
First, the seed is sprinkled over small patches of heavily watered land, where within three weeks time, foot-long blades of bright green grass or paddy seedlings will grow. Then, larger pieces of land are first ploughed mostly using tractors but bullock carts are still occasionally seen in the field.
Once water availability is ascertained, the ploughed fields are swamped with water, about calf-deep. Then, agriculture workers get to work, pulling out the paddy seedlings from the roots. They sit in the mud, submerged waist deep in water, pulling the seedlings out using both hands, bare. These are tied in bunches and collected till the entire field is plucked. The bundles are then transported to the ploughed fields which have been filled with water. Then begins the rombho (Sindhi for sowing).
Groups of men and women work in separate fields. Each worker clutches a bundle of grass, standing in the calf-deep water and separates each blade of grass and pushes it into the mud. The paddy seedlings are planted a few inches apart in symmetrical lines. They work the first shift from 7am to noon and if they’re lucky they’ll get work in the second shift from 4pm to 7pm as well.
In a five-hour shift, some 16 workers will sow over one acre of land. On average, this will yield 20 maunds (one maund is 40 kilograms) of rice which will sell for Rs 225 to Rs 300 per maund.
Traditionally, the haris worked the land with their entire families in Khairo Dero. Seeds and water were the responsibility of the land owner, the costs of fertilizer were shared half and half and the responsibility of ploughing, cutting, cleaning, sowing and harvesting fell on the haris. At the end, the produce would be shared half and half between the haris and land owners.
Today, in the hope of working at a quicker pace and picking up extra work elsewhere as well, haris bring on labour to help with the sowing. The cost of the labour, half the cost of the fertilizer and the cost of ploughing is deducted from the haris 50 per cent share.
Since tractors have replaced bullock carts, costs for the haris have risen as tractors are rented out for Rs250 per hour this season, up from Rs200 last year. To feed their families until the crop is harvested, the haris also borrow money for grain from the land owners. This is also deducted from their share of the produce. At the end of the season, their share of crop is not even enough to pay back the debts which they carry forward to the next season.
Nazir Aman is one of the few haris left in Khairo Dero. In his faded loin cloth and shirt that is ripped across the shoulder, and his skin charred in the sun, he looks far older than his 50 years. His feet and ankles are caked in dried mud from working on the fields.
He’s wrapped his head in an old, damp tea cloth to keep cool “This work takes strength,” he says. “How can I work powerfully when I can’t eat enough? In this heat, after work, I come out of the water and just fall over.” He says he’s been taking loans every year to feed his seven children and buy animal feed. And every year, he has sunk deeper into debt.
The agriculture labour is probably even worse off than the haris. Men typically work for Rs45 or Rs50 per five-hour morning shift and Rs25 per three-hour afternoon shift if they’re lucky enough to get work twice. The women get Rs35 for the morning shift and many travel from far away to ensure that income.
Maingul is over 80 years old. Her sunken, watery eyes look lifeless. Her skin clings to her bones. She stumbles out of the water, her ragged clothes hanging on her slight frame, and presses my hand to her chest. “Feel my heart beat,” she gasps, breathless. “I can barely breathe. I live far from here in the village of Mazar Khan but I come everyday and I reach home panting and limping. And even then, onions are too expensive for me to buy. You ask me if I’m taking medicine? Should I buy medicine or feed my family?”
The sizzling heat aside, haris and labourers alike work in the most primitive circumstances. The concept of protective clothing does not exist. Most workers do not own more than two pairs of tattered clothes which they wear during work, baring hands and feet not just to the heat but to insects, even snakes in the murky water.
Gul Mohammed, for example, is a 34-year old worker with five children. He lifts his threadbare shirt to show a back covered in red blotches; insect bites, he says, from working in the water. He considers himself lucky that he’s escaped snakes this season. “We have to sweat so our kids can eat,” he says. “Five years ago we were better off because our income was the same but food was not that expensive.”
Most workers suffer from chronic back pain from spending five hours at stretch bent over deeply at the waist sowing the paddy seedlings. Several women who come out from the fields press their fingers into my lower spine to show me where it hurts.”

10 mouths to feed on Rs35 a day: Rural profile-II
Naween A. Mangi, who recently went to the interior of Sindh, concludes her two-part series on rural profile.TO substitute their agricultural income, almost all the villagers rear buffaloes. Haris and labourers acquire buffaloes financed by the land owners they work for. Salma, for example, has nine buffaloes. She got her first one when the land owner she works for purchased it for Rs9,000.
The agreement is standard: Salma will rear the buffalo, paying for her feed and upkeep. When she grows up and becomes pregnant, Salma can sell the milk and keep the proceeds. Then, the buffalo is sold. If she is a few years old, she will sell for about Rs60,000. At the time of sale, Salma will pay her land owner half the sale proceeds, (i.e. Rs 30,000) plus half the original cost of the buffalo (i.e. Rs 4500).
Typically, buffaloes are bought as income-producing assets since their milk becomes a source of daily income and at the time of weddings or illnesses, when larger sums of cash are required, the buffalo can be sold. It also provides dung which is the primary source of fuel in the absence of gas.
But buffaloes have also given the disillusioned, depressed young men of the village a means to resort to theft. They beg for biris and sit at roadside cafes all day while their parents work the fields. At night, they steal goats and buffaloes from their neighbours’ houses. “Earlier, they used to give them back if the owner woke up but now they say pay us Rs25000 and then we’ll give it back,” says one resident who recently had a buffalo stolen “They have guns now so we have to pay up.”
Some communities see theft as the only means left for survival. In the Bhil Village (deh of Khairo Dero), for example, the Hindus who speak a different dialect, probably originating in Thar, say they live off what they earn from labouring in the agricultural fields. But women from the community are known for their day trips to the town of Rato Dero, a few kilometers away, where they beg in the streets and steal when they can.
Some say they use money begged and stolen to lend out at high rates of interest to others in surrounding villages. Yet the poverty they live in appears stark. Most of them sleep on manjos, beds made by pushing branches of trees into the ground and placing old cloths and hay on top. Inside one hut, despite the stark afternoon heat, an old man wrapped tightly in a rilli, lays dying. Near by, a woman in her thirties is pale from fever. Between the two charpais, two children, no older than three or four sit with an aluminium dish of , watery rice between them eating off their hands. Bhana, about 35, collects her nine children around her. “I would have nineteen kids if the government would give us power here,” she says fanning herself with a hand-held straw fan.
Aasha, a 16-year old girl with gleaming black eyes offers her opinion on the state of the country’s leadership: “We only believe in Quaid-e-Azam,” she asserts. “Does Musharraf give us anything that we should believe in him? He hasn’t given us anything except higher expenses and no jobs.” Aasha is one of the only villagers familiar with the President’s name although she has never been to school. Her husband has been unemployed for four years.
Traditional handicrafts fail to deliverWomen in Khairo Dero also spend several hours a day working on traditional handmade handicrafts the art of which have been passed on from one generation to the next. The two most commonly made are Sindhi topis, hand embroidered with silver and gold thread and mirror work and patchwork bedspreads, or rillis, stitched together piece by piece by groups of four or five women.
Typically, one woman can embroider four topis a month which she sells to middlemen from the city for Rs125 each. After deducting costs, she saves about Rs25 per cap. Rillis take several days to piece together by hand and sell for Rs135 each.
In the small town of Hala, about 55 kilometers north of Hyderabad, the same rillis retail for Rs1,500 each. Efforts to formalize micro-enterprise through the provision of micro-credit have so far failed to have a positive effect in Khairo Dero. A sales representative of Khushali Bank did pass through the village earlier in the year and made a handful of loans, but without the training and regular monitoring that goes hand in hand with micro loans, the attempt failed.
Ghulam Haider, for example, is a primary school teacher earning Rs6,000 a month. He applied for a loan of Rs10,000 from the Khushali Bank which he hoped to spend preparing his small piece of land for the sowing of rice. The loan took six months to be processed. By the time it was approved, it was too late to use for sowing costs but Haider took the money and within days it evaporated on household expenses. No one from the bank ever contacted Haider about follow up meetings, he says.
Education an unnecessary evilThe village of Khairo Dero has 200 girls enrolled in a primary school but even if girls are sent there to study, they rarely go beyond the fifth grade which would require travel to another village or the nearest town.Boys can study up to the middle school level in Khairo Dero or travel the few kilometers to the neighbouring village of Bungel Dero as well. Even very brief discussions with teachers at the schools in Khairo Dero indicate clearly the abjectly inadequate level of education provided by these government schools. But increasingly, kids are staying away for more complex reasons.Take Noor Khatoon, a middle-aged mother of four from Misri Khan Goth in the deh of Khairo Dero. She always believed that education was the only way to lift her family out of its endless cycle of poverty. She wanted her children to escape the back-breaking labour in the fields that makes up her daily life. So she put her eldest through school, sacrificing his potential income and even borrowing when she could to provide for him. Today, he’s passed the intermediate exams but has been jobless for the last year.“When we tried to get him a job, they said give us Rs20,000 as a bribe,” she explains. “If I borrow the money for this bribe and then he doesn’t get the job, what will we eat? The air? So I’ve learned my lesson and won’t let my other kids study. My grandchildren will also work the fields to fill their stomachs.”Azizah, another mother from the nearby village of Usman Unar agrees wholeheartedly. Her eldest son recently completed matriculation but has been unable to find work. “What’s the point of making them study?” she asks. “They then become arrogant and they don’t work in the fields.”This seems typical of all the young men who have studied up to matriculation or intermediate. They consider field work demeaning and unable to find jobs, simply while away their time. Azizah’s son Munir takes a different view.“What’s the point of working in the field for so little?” he questions. So instead, he sells kulfis and makes Rs70 a day, enough only to pay for his own expenses. “In poverty, your heart breaks and when you know you will miss a meal, your enthusiasm for studying dies. So now maybe I will join the army.”Deedar Ali, 23, knows the feeling. He studied till matriculation but when he couldn’t get a job and didn’t get accepted by the army, he started working for a landowning family’s fruit farm in the village. He gets about Rs5000 for the whole year for tending the mango trees and guava plants but considers the work to be a step above agriculture labour.The problem, of course, is that even if young students shun agriculture labour, no environment has been created to foster successful trade. When Abdul Sattar, 23, finished intermediate a few years ago, he decided to open a small provisions store in the village. He used a room at the front of his parents’ house, decorating the walls with posters of Indian film stars and stocking up on essentials.But over the years, Sattar has grown disillusioned. Inside the dark, airless store, Sattar’s vest sticks to his body as he irritably shoos away the kids who linger at his counter eyeing the few jars of sweets and biscuits. “I sell things worth Rs1000 a day but my profit is just Rs50 a day,” he says. “The journey of life is just ongoing. That’s all.”Health indicators worseningThe village of Khairo Dero has one basic health unit set up by the government employing five lady health workers, two dispensers and one doctor. The nearest hospital is over 30 kilometers away in the city of Larkana. The seven rooms of the health unit, which cost Rs400,000 to build, are mostly barren with the exception of a few wooden benches.The dispensary’s supplies are limited to a cardboard box filled with oral rehydration salts and another of Calpol syrup. There are no antibiotics on site and just 100 disposable syringes are allocated to the unit every month compared to the need of 400.Dispenser Hafiz Siraj says an average of 35 patients visit the health unit every day and the most common complaints are malaria, gastroenteritis and chest infections. “If we have medicines, we give them to the patients but most of the time we tell them to buy their own,” he says.The five lady health workers who earn Rs1700 per month, distribute contraceptives door-to-door and aim to educate the women about family planning. “The men don’t listen but we try to talk to the women,” says Zamira. So far, their work has shown no results.Poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation makes health problems worse. And when the local doctor is unable to diagnose or treat a condition, he can do little but advise patients to travel to Larkana for treatment. Most of them can’t afford the bus fare or the working hours lost.Zareena, for example, rocks her two month old baby restlessly in her arms. He hardly seems to have the strength to cry and she shows me what appears to be several small holes in his scalp. “Our children are dying, we are getting poorer everyday, how will things get better for us?” she sobs into her dupatta.In the Sher Village (located in the deh of Sharhi, union council in Bungel Dero, Taluka Rato Dero, district Larkana), Arbab, the middle-aged mother of eight lifts her shirt to show me a hernia, the size of a small football sticking out on her upper abdomen. “I have had this since my third child and it makes it very hard for me to breathe, especially when I am bent over in the field all day,” she says. “The doctor here told me it needs an operation but how can I travel to Larkana for an operation? How will my kids eat if I don’t earn?”Most villagers here seem to be losing the strength to continue their struggle. Zahida, the wife of a hari is worried her thatched house will fall. “People pray for rains but we can’t even do that because then we worry about where we will take our kids if the roof falls,” she says. “Where is the prosperity you speak off? The prosperity in Pakistan must be for the leaders themselves.”Yet many still hold on to their aspirations. Sheherbano, a young mother of seven, shows me the lavatory in her home, with no roof and a frayed cloth as a door. “How can my young daughters live like this?” she says quietly. “I don’t even have walls or money to make walls. So do you think I will be eating fish and mangoes? We eat onions and potatoes on good days. Sometimes we eat one day and then not the next. But I am a mother and like others, I also wish my daughters could wear good clothes and study so they can become teachers.”But many of the old residents see little hope ahead. One old dweller and a medium sized land owner of Khairo Dero remembers better times. “There used to be picnics in the mango season, boys shouting to one another and playing in the fruit farms,” he recalls sadly. “Now the humour is gone, everyone is desperate and fed up.”But not jaded enough yet to forget their traditional welcome for visitors. Every visit to every home is met with a generous spreading of the cleanest, newest rilli onto a charpai and enthusiastic fanning with hand-held fans by several young girls to cool you off in the sweltering heat. Maybe it’s the paddy sowing season that has these villagers hoping, yet again, for better times ahead.


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