Just an hour before sunset in Kaak, a village in Achhro Thar (White Desert), 12-year-old Meena tries to pull her mule towards the water source from a reservoir, one of many built at various points in the region following the inauguration of the 242km-long Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Fresh Water Project on March 31.
Comprised of 107 small villages, Achhro Thar in District Sanghar has a population between 30,000 and 50,000 because the residents often migrate from one area to another. The project that took three years to complete can help Shazia Marri, a former member of the National Assembly affiliated with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), win the NA-216 constituency in the July 25 general elections.
“When I was running in the polls from the constituency, I realised that access to potable water was the biggest problem faced by the people. We need to understand that these people depend on their livestock for their income, and their livestock also perishes due to absence of water,” said Shazia, who is once again contesting from NA-216 (earlier NA-235) in Sanghar.
The scheme that was inaugurated by PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari receives its water from the Lower Nara Canal and distributes it to as far as the last village touching the Rajasthan border, including the Rangers’ checkpoints. Recounting her trips to Achhro Thar, after she had won a by-election in the constituency, Shazia said she requested for a glass of water from the residents, but, to her shock, they refused to give her any.
“They told me that I would not be able to consume it, but when I persisted, they gave in. Given that I drank their water, I knew the gravity of their problems: the water was undrinkable. They showed me the water source, which they had dug in the ground to retain rainwater to be used for as long as six months.”
She said that some of the residents, who hail from Chor, were able to get some water from the Rangers’ checkpoints, which got their water from tankers. “I tried to ask the Rangers to share their water with the residents, but it wasn’t a viable solution because it would always require an intermediary. Later, I sat with the irrigation department to work out a solution to this problem, and we were able to place the water pipeline to the last village in the region.”
She said it was easier to work in Khipro than Achhro Thar because of communication and logistics issues. “However, the hardest part was to reassure the people, because they would often fall into disputes over land and placement of the pipe. So we spent a lot of time in breaking down information for them and telling them that they will reap the benefits of the project. I can safely say that the people are now at peace and they had worked alongside the administration to make the project a reality.”
The pipeline has provided a route in the area, because reservoirs are placed at different locations, which give a sense of navigation to the people who are not from the area.
Rife with rigging
Shazia feels that it was unbelievable for the dwellers to see a public representative approaching them for dialogue because they are not used to seeing them.
“The culture of Peer-Mureedi is rife in the area, which has been the stronghold of Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F). A khalifa comes with a message notifying them who they are supposed to vote for and, worse, the votes would already be cast for them. Imagine that an area like Khipro has a voter turnout between 30 and 35 per cent, and here in Achhro Thar, it is 100 per cent or even more, which shows massive rigging in the electoral process.”
Speaking some more on the voting process, especially in Achhro Thar, she said the conditions prevalent in the region have been a deliberate attempt at curtailing political awareness among the locals.
“I can confidently say that I was able to deliver on my word regarding access to water, and now I want to focus on electricity and roads. I aim to build another road of 55km to 60km in the area, because I saw the effectiveness of the 40km road that leads to Achhro Thar. It was a difficult journey otherwise, because the road was uneven, and it took me two hours to reach from one PS to another PS.”
Shazia also believes that providing electricity will go a long way in helping the locals. “Three villages, including Tar Hashim, near the border, are already benefitting from the solar units we installed. I realised this disparity during my campaign because I could see lights across Rajasthan, over the border, which also helps give light to the villages at our end. We have come a long way in dealing with the water issue and my next target is to provide them with electricity. Owing to the obstacles in connecting to the national grid, we have opted for solar units.”
She said 2,000 solar units were sent to Thar again for various villages around three to four months ago, and she would make sure that there is transparency and accountability in the entire process. She added that while health and education are also the right of the people, the villages are scattered at a distance of 20km to 30km, so since it would be an uphill task to make one single hospital for all, she is focusing on smaller medical units.
‘Hold onto your right to vote’
The previous general elections saw Shazia emerge victorious following a by-election for NA-235, which she had earlier lost to Pir Sadruddin Shah Rashdi in Sanghar.
“Many villages, including the first one to get water, support the PML-F solely because of their strong association with the concept of Peer-Mureedi. If the voters refuse to vote for them, they are told they won’t get any blessings. However, times are changing. Many locals have come to me and admitted that they didn’t vote for me the last time, but they are now ready to support me because of the access to water,” she said.
“Many people from the Hindu community living on the lands of owners supporting the PML-F were asked to vacate the lands overnight when they refused to give up their identity cards. I asked them for three things: not to give up their cards, to go out and cast their votes and the third was canvassing them to vote for me.”
Shazia pointed out that last time, the PML-F’s Nusrat Sehar Abbasi tried to make it impossible for women to vote by shutting down the polling station, and the women from the Hindu community tried to reach out to her to tell her that 200 were out in the heat to vote but were not being allowed to. “Now people are far braver than before. They complained about candidates from the PPP as well, but I motivated them to come out despite the threats,” she said with confidence.
“Earlier, they didn’t accept a woman in that role and would talk to other members, but my work led to a 360-degree turn. I think they won’t bring any harm to the scheme because, despite the political affiliation of the locals, they own the project. Plus, the irrigation department is also monitoring it closely to avert any unforeseen situation.”
Speaking about her own safety, Shazia said her family does worry, but she will not back down in contesting for NA-216 of Sanghar, the area which hosts large parts of the desert areas of Thar. “Achhro Thar is no more a rigging den, nor is it a no-go area. I will go to my constituency at least once on the big day to encourage the people to vote.”