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Opinion

January 20, 2015

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In Thar: no praying for the dying

I’m in conversation with Pritamdaz Rathi, an economist who hails from the Chelhar village of Tharparkar and from whom I have the benefit of a first-hand account of Tharparkar or Mithi district, one of the 23 districts of Sindh.
Rathi served the government of Pakistan in the Ministry of Finance and then the Planning Development and Reform Commission for 29 years before his retirement in 2002. As he recounts this tale of neglect of Thar, his customary serene and stoic expression is tinctured today with the sadness that reflects the pervasive helplessness of a woebegone people, in the sight of the wilful abandonment of their province and particularly their 20,000 km district – home to some 1.3 million people – by the governments, political parties and military dictators of Pakistan.
“Tell me sir about the problems of Tharparkar”, Iask him. He chuckles and responds with a shake of his head: “Where do I begin son? There are after all only problems in Tharparkar; nothing else has ever thrived or survived. Only our problems endure. Tharparkar or Mithi district is an arid and desert wasteland, a cornucopia of backwardness, malnutrition, poverty, hunger, unemployment and now, growing religious intolerance. Its economy is basically dependent on agriculture and livestock, and both these sectors are in turn dependent on rainfall.
“Ours is a rain-fed district and there are no canals for irrigation. If we are lucky to receive 3-4 rainfalls during the monsoon season then it is a good year; crops and grass can be grown and there is pasture for our animals. Otherwise we endure in most times a killing drought that has persisted throughout this year and which may continue for at least a few more as is customary in the region”.
“About 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. As a result there is widespread under-nourishment. Like most of Pakistan ours is a male-dominated society. Therefore, it is no small wonder that the prime

victims of food scarcity are our women, which means the children of Mithi are also resultantly severely undernourished. With what little food the people of Mithi can manage to get their hands on there is still no possibility of them ever achieving a balanced diet. The infant mortality rate is therefore shockingly high; and Tharparkar has the lowest Human Development Index of all districts in Sindh.
“If you ever wish to experience what hunger truly means and what it does to a human being; what desperation, what selfishness, what despair, what madness it can inspire, then you ought to see what a single family in Tharparkar endures when it searches in vain for one square meal for just one person on any given day. Similarly potable drinking water is only available at a depth of 300 to 400 feet and is also brackish. You would imagine that the inhabitants of Tharparkar would have accustomed themselves to the near sea-water level brine quality of this water, but they have not and digestive disorders leading ultimately to fatalities are quite common. People drink because they must after all”.
“Tharparkar is the only district in Pakistan with a significant 40 percent Hindu population, with Muslims constituting the remaining 60 percent. Till five years back relations between Hindus and Muslims were peaceful. And then religious seminaries started appearing out of nowhere. With their mass proselytising of an agenda of hatred based on religious difference, the hitherto secular Muslim populace began to be incited into hatred of their native Hindu neighbours of the last 67 years.
“While thankfully there is still no outright violence against the Hindu populace there is an increasing incidence of vandalism of Hindu businesses, and like in upper Sindh, a growing level of abductions and forced marriages of Hindu girls. More damagingly Hindus are gradually being squeezed out of what little economic space is available in Tharparkar, thus rendering their survival in an already inhospitable and God forsaken land impossible”.
Things are perhaps still better in Tharparkar for Hindus; Rathi, who was served an eviction notice from his landlord in Islamabad only a few weeks ago, has been denied residence by successive home owners as he desperately searches for new accommodation. “They simply close their doors when they hear your name and infer you are Hindu. It doesn’t matter to them that I have invested my life and my youth in serving this country, which I claim is equally my country and I am as much a loyal Pakistani as my Muslim brethren”.
“The literacy rate of Tharparkar is about 25 percent. There is no industry or any other source of employment, therefore the unemployment rate is – about 85 percent. In the district there are about 222 thousand housing units of which only seven percent are pukka (cemented) houses and the remaining 93 percent are kacha houses made from mud, wood and grass. For the inhabitants of Tharparkar this means that in addition to not having access to economic means of survival, there is the double jeopardy of being perennially at the mercy of Mother Nature. When the winter cold arrives it freezes the life out of the inhabitants with night temperatures dipping to as low as minus one degree celsius. You can only imagine the daytime temperatures in the summer”.
“What then is the solution”, I ask him? “Before the government even begins to think of solutions they would have to develop the interest and the will to do so. It is convenient to forget the desert rural backwater of Pakistan for no voices will ever emanate from it that are loud enough to capture the imagination of our political leadership, to nudge them out of their criminal somnolence. If they do find time out of their political squabbles, their dharnas, their elections and their meaningless projects of big infrastructure then perhaps they could take time out and fly over on their private jets to Mithi and talk to the people there.
“Then perhaps they could consider the following essential measures: road infrastructure, telephone and communications for rapid economic and social development; cultivation of dry crop and grass on brackish water to change the ecosystem of the area making more rainfall possible; wheat storages at strategic points in the district; subsidised supplies of wheat and vegetable oil in times of good harvest and free of cost in times of drought; warehouses for animal fodder; establishment of cattle farms, dairy farms, sheep and goat farms all of which will generate revenue for the Sindh government; incentives and promotion of the carpet-making handlooms already working in the area and the enhancement of the small cottage handicrafts industry of Tharparkar, through standardisation, dyeing, cutting and printing on modern lines to make their products fit for export”.
The wars that need to be fought in Pakistan are not only those that require the military’s engagement with terrorists. There are wars to be waged against famine and drought, ignorance and poverty. There are wars to be waged against the apathy and selfishness that derives from an evolutionary psychology, which favours only the powerful, the capable and the affluent. There are wars to be waged against hatred and bigotry that derives from the adulteration of religion, from its fashioning by immoral minds into a tool of exclusion and of violence, both physical and structural.
Thus far the powers that be have approached all these problems on a wing and a prayer. For the unfortunate inhabitants of Tharparkar who today stand all but forgotten, our national conscience will forever remain guilt-ridden, unless positive and immediate measures are taken to provide their calamitous lives the much-needed succour they demand.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kmushir

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