On a bright, sunny summer morning, middle-aged Manjhi Kohli struggles to harvest his cotton crop which has been inundated by rainwater in Digri Taluka of Mirpurkhas — a district of lower Sindh severely hit by heavy monsoon rains this year. Besides the worry of making ends meet after nature’s wrath and the government’s failure to mitigate its effects, Kohli’s fears include falling prey to snake bite in the fields, besides facing residual impacts of pesticides used in cotton crop by growers.
After heavy rains in August, up until the end of September, the rainwater has still not been drained from large swathes of the rich agricultural lands in Mirpurkhas. Other districts have not been spared either — peasant families of Badin, Sujawal, Sanghar and Umerkot, who toil on farmland daily from sunrise to sunset, have suffered their share.
While rainwater caused colossal losses to the summer crops, mainly cotton, as well as vegetables including onions and chillies, it has also put the native marginalised communities — mostly from religious minorities — in an extremely vulnerable position. They are now exposed to all kind of hazards including insecurity, road accidents and health issues amid the looming threat of the novel coronavirus. Living under the open sky for two months, these communities endeavour to make both ends meet through their daily chores in the fields.
Following the devastating rains, they had to shift to high lands such as the banks of various saline water drains, irrigation canals or roadside spaces. Here, they face a host of new problems, many of which are civic in nature. Mud houses of many peasants collapsed as their villages were located on farmlands, owned by landowners who failed to compensate them afterwards as they have no land proprietary rights in the first place.
“Some people from the nearby cities provide us cooked rice once a day which enables us to fill our bellies,” said Marwa, a Kohli woman, while standing near her makeshift ‘home’. She had put together some empty sacks and pieces of clothes around the cot to make it look like an improvised tent. “We have been sitting here for around half a month. We go to the fields to pick the remainder of the cotton crop so we can earn something,” she explained. A male or female peasant such as Marwa gets between Rs300 to Rs400 per 40kg of cotton by landowners.
While sharing details of her visit to the rain-affected farmlands, Chairperson Sindh Commission on Status of Women Nuzhat Shireen lamented the conditions under which the “poor women farmers are suffering”.
“They defecate after dark in the nearby fields when the male family members are asleep, thus exposing themselves to various risks. They don’t have any other options,” she said while speaking at a women empowerment programme in Hyderabad recently, adding that this is the worst kind of “psychologically trauma” which they have to bear with.
Members of this already vulnerable community now look forward to the winter crops, provided the water is drained out.
“Where should we go from here? Our villages have been inundated and the disposal of rainwater seems a far cry despite the efforts by landowners. We have to stay here and can only return to our village once the rainwater recedes,” said a dejected Marwa Kohli while explaining the predicament of nearly all of Sindh’s affected farm workers.