By Ulugbek Khaydarov in Jizak and Kamol Khalmuradov in Karshi (RCA No. 165, 29-Nov-02)
Uzbekistan's cotton harvest has once again failed to live up to expectations, despite large swathes of the population being forced to toil in the fields and much official "massaging" of statistics.
Spring rains washed away a significant part of the crop soon after it was planted - leaving the government goal of 3,750,000 tons of raw fibre a very hard one to meet.
Just one week before the official end of harvest, only around 85 per cent of the target had been collected.
With severe punishment threatened for those not living up to quotas, officials and farmers have reverted to the old Soviet-era tactics of trickery and corruption to inflate the figures.
Cotton is a vital crop in Uzbekistan and accounts for around half of the republic's total export revenue, with around one million tons of fibre netting 1.5 billion dollars annually. Farmers in what is the world's fifth largest cotton growing state have been hit badly by drought in recent years. This year, however, it was quite the opposite that caused them problems.
"As the spring was rainy, the crops died under the water," said Rasuljon Kholmatjonov, a specialist in the agriculture and water ministry's cotton-growing department. "As it was already late, we did not manage to re-sow the crop everywhere."
According to the chairman of Jizak's economic court, Komiljon Sindarov, 8,000 hectares of his region's cotton plants were washed away in the downpour.
But, 11 years after independence, Soviet-style inflexibility in the country's centralised agricultural system meant that there was no corresponding reduction in Jizak's 250,000-ton fibre target to compensate for this loss.
Indeed, insiders at a meeting held between cotton-growers and the regional governor Ubaydulla Yamonkulov have claimed that those who failed to measure up were threatened with massive fines and even arrest.
Faced with such sanctions, many farmers have resorted to bribing officials at harvest collection points. At one of the latter, a laboratory assistant, who did not want to be named, said farmers there had paid officials over 10 million sums - 8,000 dollars - to record non-existent cotton consignments on one night alone.
Yields are also inflated as a result of cotton laboratories passing inferior quality crops. "We are ordered to accept substandard cotton or face the sack," said Nortoji Mamatove, director of the Zarbdar laboratory.
Picking cotton is a labour-intensive process, which is still done by hand. The annual harvest has long been a massive national effort, with everybody from villagers, government workers to students being roped in to help. Many complain of ill-treatment, according to the Samarkand Human Rights Centre.
"Adults and children alike are transported to the fields and made to live in temporary barracks by the cotton fields," said centre head Kamildjon Ashurov. "They have poor living conditions, no heat, no hot water and no normal food."
Ismat Khamdamov told IWPR that he was one of 120 people from the collective farm Samarkand, in the region of the same name, forced to work for two days.
"We were told that we would sleep in the buses, but the drivers left so we had to make to with the bare ground. As we didn't have warm clothes or blankets, we were awake for the whole night, and the next day had to pick cotton again."
Others have been pressed into service in different ways. Driver Shavkat Nasimov contacted Ashurov to complain that police had confiscated his documents and would only return them after he had transported people - free of charge - to the cotton fields.
There's particular concern over the use of the children to harvest the crop. "Children catch cold in the fields, get sick and tired - and they cannot study. What is more important - cotton or children?" said high school teacher Sarbiya Bakhromova.
Ulugbek Khaydarov in Djizak and Kamol Khalmuradov are independent journalists in Uzbekistan.