Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shops Shut for Tajik Harvest

Trade grinds to a halt in parts of southern Tajikistan as local officials order markets and shops to close so the workers can help bring in the cotton harvest.
By Saidrahmon Nazriev
People in cotton-growing areas of southern Tajikistan complain they have been finding it hard to buy food and other essentials since the local authorities began closing shops and markets so that staff could be sent to help gather in the cotton crop.

Following a decision by a special committee called “Cotton-2007” set up to manage the harvest in Khatlon region, which covers the south of the country, markets have been closed in the districts of Kumsangir, Kolkhozobad, Panj, Khuroson, Qabodiyon and Jami, and the traders sent out to the cotton fields to help the farmers.

According to a representative of Tajikmatlubot, an association of trading firms – market stalls are kept closed all day until four or five in the afternoon so that traders can be sent to the fields to gather cotton.

“If traders can’t work and can’t sell their seasonal goods on time, and if the rent isn’t collected on their stalls… the losses will be serious,” said the Tajikmatlubot official, who did not want to be named.

“If they aren’t working, how will it be possible to tax them? This will have a negative effect on government revenues.”

Local officials deny giving any such orders and insist people are volunteering to help farmers.

During the Soviet era, it was common practice to close workplaces during the harvest so everyone could be despatched to the fields. Since independence, attempts to organise adult volunteers systematically have been less successful. The widespread use of child labour, with pupils taken of school en masse to work long hours in the field, remains a concern, as IWPR reported recently (Tajik Prosecutors Investigate Child Labour Claims, (RCA No. 501, 13-Jul-07).

Last year, the provincial governor of Khatlon, Amizsho Miraliev, slammed the Kumsangir district administration for closing markets during the cotton harvest season, and ordered the decision to be reversed. He has since been replaced.

The practice has been revived, as regional officials face continued pressure from above to meet high production targets. Although farms in Tajikistan are privately owned, the land they work is still leased from the state. As a result, farmers are more or less obliged to grow the amount of cotton they instructed to produce, and to sell it to the state at artificially low prices. Local government is roped into ensuring Soviet-style plans are fulfilled.

IWPR contributors visited two southern districts, Panj and Vose, to see how widespread the market closures were.

Towards 1 pm on September 13, when the central market in Panj district should have been bustling, the stalls were closed, with a just few owners wandering around aimlessly.

Several women selling carrots were approached by a policeman who asked them to gather up their goods and move on.

“Wait until 4 pm,” he advised them. “My boss might come along, and if he sees you, he’ll punish me. You can start selling again later.”

IWPR was unable to speak to anyone in the market’s management – it transpired that they had been sent off to pick cotton like everyone else.

Mahliko had travelled from a remote village to buy food supplies for the night-time meals of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which began that day, and was upset to find the market closed.

“If I have to wait until [trading starts at] 4 pm, I’ll miss the bus and probably won’t find any other way of getting home,” she complained.

Another disappointed shopper had come in from the Jami district to buy school uniforms for her children. “Since the markets are closed, we’ll have to go to Qurghon-Teppa [a bigger town] but that’ll cost a lot,” she said.

Mansur, a resident of Kumsangir district, said it had become hard to buy bread. Although the markets reopen at around six in the evening, there are long queues and arguments break out between frustrated shoppers, he said.

“They’ve banned the use of taxis in this district,” he said. “We give some money to drivers we know are going to Dushanbe or Qurghon-Teppa so that they’ll buy bread for us there,” he said. “We’ve even written to the president’s website about this.”

People in other areas complained of being corralled into taking part in the harvest.

For the last couple of years, the local authorities have closed two large markets in the Vose district at harvest time. This year, they have even recruited Muslim clerics to drum up volunteers. IWPR observed one mullah instructing mosque-goers to help on the farms and then provide documentary evidence of this to their local cleric, who would then report to the authorities.

Local farmers confirm that armies of people are turning up to help pick cotton.

The overseer at one private farm told IWPR that every day, 200 “volunteers” arrived to help his team, although in his view they contributed little.

“To be quite honest, they just come and pass the time. They only gather four or five kilos, some of them maybe ten. So 200 people won’t even gather a ton of cotton in the course of a day,” he said.

A local government official in Panj district acknowledged that people had mobilised for action, “In most organisations and offices in the district, there is only one person on duty, and the rest are away gathering cotton.”

But he was adamant that market traders and other “volunteers” were going of their own free will.

Over in Vose district, local government chief head Alimurod Tagaimurodov denied any threat had been made to close mosques.

“We did not give such orders, nor did we warn that we would close the mosques,” he said. “We simply asked representatives of the jamoats [lowest tier of local government] and the mullahs in the district to go around the mosques and tell people to go out into the fields and help our farmers during the cotton harvest.”

Higher up the chain of authority, officials in the Khatlon regional government issued similar denials. “Staff members [here] gave no formal order to close down the markets,” said departmental chief Davlatkhuja Mirzoev said.

Finally, at national level, the head of a government agricultural department, Jumakhon Safarov said he was unaware of any decision by the Khatlon administration to close markets and shops, although he said he was aware of market closures in some parts of the region.

“I personally am against forced labour - everyone has his or her own job to do,” he said.

There is, however, little financial incentive for anyone to go and pick cotton voluntarily. According to an analyst who did not want to be named, pickers are paid the equivalent of three US cents per kilo of cotton, and each person will on average gather about 40 kilos in a day, which means earnings of just over a dollar – four somonis in the local currency.

“That’s why people don’t want to work in the fields. The work is back-breaking and the pay miniscule,” said the analyst.

Salim, a businessman in Panj, asked why he should be going off to do the farmers’ job for them.

“We’re under no obligation to close our shops and go to gather cotton,” he said. “These private farms are businesses just like ours and have their own shareholders… They should get them involved in gathering their harvest,” he said.

“Why is no one looking out for us? Who will compensate us for the losses we incur by closing our shops?”

Saidrahmon Nazriev, Biloli Shams and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva are IWPR contributors in Tajikistan.

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