Shifting sands

May 9, 2021

In his book Mithi: Whispers in the Sand, Salman Rashid documents shifts in the lifestyle of the people

Mithi, the main town of Tharparkar district, is located in south-east Sindh. Situated in Tharparkar’s arid zone, its population is around fifty thousand, of which approximately eighty percent are Hindu. The rest are Muslim. Salman Rashid, in his book Mithi: Whispers in the Sand, documents shifts in the lifestyle of the people of the town and Tharparkar in general, from colonial times to the age of the internet and modern facilities. The economy slowly transformed from the barter system to wage labour and monetary transactions. The livestock are not considered part of the family any more, as the milkman makes the rounds daily. The women do not churn milk daily or fetch water from wells. People send and receive money using mobile phones and pay fees for private schooling.

Thar’s past was very different. In terms of trade, it was connected with Kutch before Partition. The locals would export calves to pull carts and churn clarified butter and import silver and tobacco leaves to make beeri cigarettes. Students had to go to Hyderabad to appear in the matric examinations. The only transport available was camels and horses. Grain merchants would sell less than 50 percent of their stock and store the rest for domestic use in the future in case of drought. There was a tradition for blacksmiths and carpenters to cease their work when people were feeding peacocks, as the noise would disturb the birds. There is a folk legend, based on a true story, of a Hindu Rajput who gave gold worth four million rupees to a Muslim woman during uncertain times and got it back forty years later. The school and hospital buildings in the town are about 100 years old. In older times, the school library would receive the daily Sindh Observer by mail from Karachi.

The area acquired refurbished trucks for transport in the fifties. But the major shift occurred in the eighties, when the district got modern facilities, such as roads and electricity. This is when the transformation started, albeit slowly. This transformation is well-documented in Salman Rashid’s book. There are two thousand villages in Tharparkar. Forty percent of those have access to roads, electricity, mobile phone service and internet connectivity. Now, there is a primary school in almost every village and more than two hundred dispensaries. Snake bite and childbirth were once the two major medical emergencies in which patients would lose their lives. But now, the risk of mortality has been somewhat mitigated because c-section operation facilities are available at the taluka level, along with treatments for snake-bites. This development is thanks to Thardeep, a local NGO, which established a pool of snake-venom resources through public-private partnership in the nineties, and hired gynaecologists and support teams in Mithi. The government adopted the idea in 2014 and replicated it at the tehsil level. Ambulance facilities became available in Tharparkar in the late nineties. Before then, it was difficult to shift patients to tertiary care facilities or to transport the dead.

A major problem in Tharparkar is water scarcity. Fodder and food crops can only be irrigated with rain water, which the area only gets in sufficient quantity once in three years

Another major change in the lifestyle of the Tharis is the new trend in men to leave home in search of livelihoods and send remittances to their families. Almost half of the district’s population survives on remittances. Livestock is now transported by asphalt roads or by trucks, so losses are almost negligible. The construction of houses goes on throughout the year, aided by remittances. This activity sustains masons, electricians, plumbers and carpenters. As many as one million agro-pastoralists still wait for rain every year and the question is how to mitigate their suffering. There is only one viable solution: a public private partnership for skills training. The area also needs Cambridge system schools, so that the young can reach the corridors of power that determine where the resources are allocated. The people of Thar hope that due to huge coal deposits, the area will get railway and water pipelines. Another option is to introduce saline agriculture.

A major problem in Tharparkar is water scarcity. Fodder and food crops can only be irrigated with rain water, which the area gets in sufficient quantity once in three years. The sources of drinking water for 90 percent of the population are wells, which are 50-300 feet deep, depending on the soil type. Most of these wells are several kilometres away from people’s homes. Every family assigns a family member to fetch water. Millions of livestock animals, especially sheep and goats, have died due to dehydration, particularly during seasonal migrations. The only solution is making canal water available through pipelines – a facility currently available to only 10 percent of the population. The metalled road has pushed the arid zone towards modernisation and in the towns, people get water through tankers. But a significant majority of the people rely on donkeys to carry water. During and after the monsoon rains, the workload of women increases because they help the men plough the fields and harvest the produce. Most of the agricultural produce is used by the growers. Another important source of nutrition is uncultivated vegetables, which provide vitamins and minerals. The sheep and goats compensate for losses during dry years. In a wet year the area got more than one hundred millimetres of rain.

A major social problem is caste-based discrimination, especially among the Hindus. Before the asphalt roads were made, people did not share crockery and shaking hands was unthinkable. They did not invite people from other castes and communities to their weddings and funerals, as serving food in one’s own crockery to a member of a different caste was not acceptable. But now people rent crockery for the purpose so that the centuries old discrimination has abated. A major development has been the opening of schools in every village by the government. This has made the lower castes upwardly mobile. They are gradually venturing beyond menial labour and some of them have reached power corridors through civil service and election. English medium private schools are a further breakthrough. Some of the cultural myths are being shattered by exposure to big cities.

The writer is a social worker based in Tharparkar

Shifting sands