Time to act

March 16, 2014

Time to act

"Everyday there is news of children dying. My beloved Thar is in trouble," says Roshan Rahmo, 35, a cook in Karachi’s suburb Gulshan-e-Maymar who looks devastated; he hasn’t slept for the last one week now. Every morning when he reads Sindhi daily Kawish, he breaks down in tears. The reason for his condition is the news coming down from his hometown Thar, the desert area that has been hit by famine.

Thar saw chaotic activity during last week which included Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit and repeated inspections by Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and other dignitaries. Relief goods including food items have been dispatched to the area and media teams are on the move.

Ironically, all this frenzy is at the cost of lives of over 160 children who breathed their last due to malnutrition at district headquarter hospital Mithi.

The figures so far are taken from the record of the district headquarters, statistics of the children who died at home or at private clinics are yet to be known. Official sources say 175,000 households are still at risk.

No doubt Thar has attracted unprecedented attention of the authorities -- government of Sindh, federal government, relief organisations including military’s relief wing and philanthropists during the last two weeks. But had the government acted in time and realised its responsibility many lives could have been saved.

Local newspapers highlighted the issue ensuing drought in Thar in September-October 2013 as there was below average rainfall in many areas of the desert. But the Sindh Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) took three months to write a letter to the Chief Minister indicating drought in Thar in December 2013.

Government should come up with a short-term plan to ensure relief as next four months will be crucial.

The CM secretariat took another two months to process the letter, declaring Thar a calamity-hit area in February 2014. The provincial government dispatched 60,000 bags of wheat to Mithi in February, this too without releasing transportation funds for further distribution. The wheat remained in godowns till media reported death of over 100 children in the first week of March.

"This suggests that the government wasn’t ready for the catastrophe. It seems like formal governance systems are dysfunctional as they only woke up after media reported death and devastation," says Dr Sono Khanghrani, former CEO of Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP).

Besides death of over 100 children it is reported that over 500,000-800,000 cattle heads have been killed in the area due to starvation. "People were selling a sheep at Rs500 after diseases became widespread. The animal would have fetched them Rs10,000 otherwise.

According to a Sustainable Development Policy Institute report, Tharparkar has the highest poverty index in Sindh as 47 per cent households are below poverty line with caloric poverty level even worst as two-thirds of the population is unable to consume food required for mere survival. In Tharparkar, majority of children are underweight which is higher than Sindh’s average of 40 per cent children being underweight.

In healthcare figures are worst, as there is only one bed for 4,135 in the Tharparkar region. For over three million population of the Thar region there are only 171 Basic Health Units, 11 Rural Health Centres and 7 hospitals, many of them in poor conditions in terms of human resources, equipment and infrastructure.

Availability of clean water is another issue: Thar Desert is totally dependent on rainfall as there is no formal river irrigation system in the area. Though piped water supply for drinking purposes has been laid down during the last decade till Mithi town, it is supplying water to only some parts of Thar, leaving a large population without water.

The people of Thar have no regular source of income as cultivation takes place only when it rains. In the absence of rain, a large number of people migrate to irrigated area only to get trapped in bonded labour.

The population profile is another disadvantage. About 45 per cent of Thar’s population is religious minority. Of the total scheduled caste (Dalit) population of Sindh province (90 per cent) lives in Thar. "The socioeconomic condition of Dalit is very bad," says Malji Rathor, Convenor of Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN).

He says that an assessment done by the network reveals that the illiteracy among Dalit is as high as 74 per cent in Thar. Of the 26 per cent who claim to be literate, 15 per cent have just received primary education, followed by only 4 per cent with middleclass education and another 4 per cent are matric pass. Only one per cent of scheduled castes are graduates with only a few lucky ones having post-graduate degrees.

"In many instances scheduled castes houses are separated and they fall victims of discrimination both in public and private life," Rathor tells.

A brief browsing of political and policy decisions make the breakdown of governance and state’s apathy towards its citizens especially in marginalised regions such as Thar more obvious.

In the last general elections PPP gave one seat of the Sindh provincial assembly to Makhdoom Naimatullah, son of Makhdoom Amin Fahim of Hala, whose other son Makhdoom Shakil Zaman was already posted as Deputy Commissioner in Mithi since the last several years. Unfortunately, another brother Makhddom Jamil Zaman was minister for relief at the time when severe famine had hit the area, resulting in death of several children.

"There is no doubt that the death of such a large number of children in a few months is a complete governance failure," says Iqbal Detho, Manager Advocacy at Save the Children, UK. "Had there been better governance and official representation, many lives could have been saved," he says.

Obviously at the time of disaster and death everybody is talking about relief. The Prime Minister announced one billion rupees for relief and compensation and an equal amount has been announced together by provincial governments and other organisations.

However, there is little talk about permanent solution, which would require a complete overhaul of current policy being pursued by different tiers of government and political leadership.

"Government should establish big centres, where people can bring their cattle in case of drought and get free fodder and water. This needs to be a permanent arrangement," suggests Dr Sono.

Karamat Ali, a veteran labour leader in Karachi says state should ensure citizens’ basic right to food. "To make it practical rationing system like the one in India should be implemented. Every citizen of Thar should have card entitling him/her to basic food supply," he says.

Legal experts suggest that right to compensation and accountability would be equally important to lessen the miseries of affected population and ensure that such disasters did not get repeated again.

"Accountability of those who committed negligence resulting in the death of several children is a must," says Faisal Sidiqui, a lawyer at Sindh High Court who has filed a petition in the court seeking prosecution of those guilty of negligence.

In his view heirs of victim children are entitled to compensation as their right, and he would urge the high court to issue clear directives in this regard. "We are not talking about charity but compensation as right that would mean the state committed negligence and is liable to pay compensation."

In his view government should come up with a short-term plan to ensure relief as next four months will be crucial, and announce a long-term five year plan to address poverty and marginalisation in the area.

Unfortunately, Thar has been crying for a policy intervention for decades. Even when the Prime Minister and former President Zardari had visited the area just two weeks before death of children, they failed to give any road map for rehabilitation of the population. One can just hope they will listen after this huge loss already occurred.

Time to act