Everything is in perfect order at the Sindh Horticulture Research Institute, Mirpurkhas, as Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and his elaborate entourage are expected any minute. The convention hall is painted in the bright red and yellow hues of a mango variety called Gulab Khas.
At the entrance, young girls clad in traditional Sindhi dresses and caked in make-up have been made to stand in the oppressive heat holding welcome bouquets. Inside, 50-odd stalls, decorated with flashy confetti, paper buntings and panaflexes, exhibit over 150 varieties of mangoes.
The June 11, 2017 event marks the third and final day of the National Mango and Summer Fruits Festival, now in its 52nd year.
“We … treat our employees with dignity … providing safe, secure and healthy work environments,” reads a poster at a stall by Gondal Farms. Police officers throng the place not to verify this claim but because the cubicle has a room cooler. The owner, Tanvir Gondal, is a 44-year-old mechanical engineer who left a high-paying job in the automobile sector to join his late father Anwar Gondal’s agribusiness. His 925-acre estate is located along Khipro Road, 25 kilometres outside Mirpurkhas city. He grows 16 varieties of mangoes on 220 acres.
Mango farmers take the process of naming new varieties as seriously as they take the technique of grafting to create those varieties. Gondal points towards one variety, Begum Pasand — named so because the inventor’s wife loved it.
At a nearby stall, Abdul Hafeez Khaskheli poses for a selfie with his friends in front of a banner bearing the name of his farm. In his forties, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Sindh Agriculture University, Tandojam, and is the proprietor of a 50-acre orchard in Sindhri taluka of Mirpurkhas. A fourth-generation farmer, he was trained in mango cultivation by his late uncle after whom his farm is named: Raja Khaskheli Fruit Farm.
Standing close to a misting fan, he tries to explain in layman terms the difference between all 14 varieties on display at his stall. He seems pessimistic about the chances of his mangoes winning any award at the festival. “For people like us, water is a big problem. Those with bigger orchards … people of influence steal our water and that affects our yield,” he says softly. For him, participating in the event is less about winning or networking with industry bigwigs and more about carrying forward the legacy of his uncle who first brought him here in 2003.
The awards have already been decided by a panel of 15 agriculture experts based on the size, smell and taste of the fruits. When the chief minister finally arrives to deliver the awards, it creates a mini storm in the small convention hall, leaving the Kachelo Fruit Farms stall in tatters. In his speech delivered in Sindhi, Shah mouths clichés on how mangoes form the economic and cultural lifeline in this part of the world.
That is only partially true.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Pakistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of mangoes. A sector brief by the Sindh Board of Investment states that Sindh produces 390,486 tonnes of mangoes a year — out of a total of 1.73 million tonnes produced in Pakistan as a whole. Almost all the rest are grown in Punjab.
When Elizabeth II was crowned as Queen of the United Kingdom on June 2, 1953 at London’s Westminster Abbey, Pakistan sent her mangoes as a coronation present. These were chosen from the farm of one Abdul Samad Kachelo in Mirpurkhas. The queen appreciated the gesture and, for several subsequent years, kept requesting for the same mangoes.
The story of Kachelo Fruit Farms predates this royal acknowledgment.
Sometime in the 19th century, Abdul Samad Kachelo’s father Haji Mohammad Kachelo laid the foundations of the family’s farm in Kot Ghulam Muhammad taluka of Mirpurkhas district. Over the next century, Abdul Samad Kachelo brought plants in trains from Lucknow, Indore and the former Indian state of Madras to put together a commercially viable mango orchard.
By the 1980s, the approximately 2,500-acre orchard was producing some 350 varieties.
This was also the time when celebrity chefs such as Michel Roux and Marco Pierre White would fly in to Karachi to cook for such families as the Kachelos. At Roux’s Le Gavroche, the UK’s first restaurant to win three Michelin stars, mangoes for dessert came from the Kachelo orchard.
As is the case with most of Pakistan’s landed elite, the Kachelo farmland has been split between Abdul Samad Kachelo’s descendants, dividing the orchard into smaller farms owned by many of his heirs. One of them, Zulfiqar Ali Kachelo, an enterprising 39-year-old farmer, grows mangoes on approximately 300 acres of land, situated along the 28-mile long Puran distributary, a water channel originating from Jamrao canal.
He relies heavily on corporate clientele for selling his premium quality mangoes — six-kilogramme boxes of Sindhri and Anwar Ratol mangoes from his farm are priced at 1,600 and 2,000 rupees, respectively. The protocols in place at his farm make his produce worth the premium pricing, he claims.
Yet there are certain elements that he cannot control. His mangoes received only two complete rounds of irrigation this year as opposed to the five they should have. Of late, he has ventured into medium-density plantation and is setting up a central pivot irrigation system to address the problem of water shortage.
Zulfiqar Ali Kachelo has also cut out the middlemen by reaching his consumers directly through social media, supermarkets and online delivery services; he has not exported mangoes since 2001. He employs 60-70 local farmers all year round for pruning, cleaning and irrigation of the orchard while as many as 150 seasonal labourers are brought in from Multan during the harvest season.
One of the labourers, Muhammad Ashiq, is wrapping the farm’s last consignment of Sindhri mangoes on a hot day in the middle of June. The consignment will go to the market in 12.5-kilogramme crates that, by rule, are not lined with carbide. Every crate carries its packing date, packer’s number, fruit’s grade and the orchard’s number.
Ashiq, along with his fellow labourers, has been travelling over 850 kilometres down south from a village in Multan to work at Kachelo Fruit Farms for the last 35 years. For approximately a month-long harvest, they are paid between 11,000 and 14,000 rupees per person, over and above the expense of food, transport, accommodation and even cigarettes.
On their return journey, they work at different estates till October before moving down south again in winter — this time to Hala Naka, near Hyderabad, to harvest bananas.
Zulfiqar Ali Kachelo’s orchard, like many others in Sindh, is at risk of sudden death — an unexplained disease that kills a tree within days. A dead tree impacts an entire orchard’s ecosystem as its neighbouring trees begin to receive more sunlight and wind than they had for decades, directly affecting their produce.
Cooling his heels under the shade of a jamun tree, 50-year-old Ghulam Muhammad draws unintelligible patterns on the soil with a stick. A manual labourer employed at the government-owned Sindh Horticulture Research Institute’s seed farm in Mirpurkhas, he does not have much to do these days other than keeping an eye on lifeless tree trunks that lie in the open close to where he is resting.
Muhammad grew up playing under the protective shade of gigantic fruit trees at the farm. His family has been working here for three generations.
The approximately 280-acre farm comprises several orchards, small farms and research facilities. Though it withstood the devastation of the 2011 floods, many of its age-old mango, jamun and sapodilla trees could not withstand the Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Township Scheme, a residential neighbourhood being set up by Sindh government for “the poorest of the poor”.
Trees are being removed from nearly 78 acres of land, which a 2012 summary – signed by the then chief minister Qaim Ali Shah and finance minister Murad Ali Shah – declared as “barren and unattended”. Felling of trees – being done with powerful excavators – has been punctuated with small protests by local farmers and agriculture department employees. Fruit can still be seen hanging onto some of the mango trees set to be removed for the township to be built.
Suleman Baloch, an ageing farmer with a henna-dyed beard, takes out a crumpled handwritten ‘contract’ from his pocket. The paper gives him the right to cultivate a part of the land allocated for the township. The contract is valid till 2018.
This was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.