Surviving the pangs of misery

The dismal reality of exploitation of the downtrodden

Harkhu Kolhi, 63, returned to his straw hut situated close to a brick kiln near Digri city in southern Sindh after burying his 34-year-old wife, Dheeman Kolhi, in a Hindu graveyard of district Badin. She had died of some unknown disease a day before we first spoke.

“I shifted my family here to save my wife’s life, but unfortunately, I could not save her,” Harkhu said dolefully. He took a long breath, looked at the sky, and said, “My family was settled in Matari, a village in Ghorabari taluka, of Thatta district for 45 years. We worked as peasants on a local landlord’s farm. A month ago, when my wife got seriously ill, we begged him for some money, but he refused. I then went to some moneylenders for help. They all declined my request as nobody wanted to be my guarantor.”

Whatever Harkhu had except for two goats that were very dear to his wife, he sold for her treatment. But no doctor could diagnose Dheeman’s illness. Harkhu added, “We went to Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas for her treatment but nothing helped. Finally, someone told us to come to a hospital in Digri city where the doctor asked me to deposit Rs 60,000 for Dheeman’s treatment. I had no other option except to enter into a three-month labour contract with the brick kiln owner. He agreed to pay me Rs 60,000, and I agreed to work as brick kiln labour with my family for three months in exchange.”

The next day Harkhu called up his four married sons and their wives from village Matari to Digri to work at the brick kiln.

Harkhu’s sons Partu, Gulab, Achar and Soomro, around a year ago, had worked in a private garment manufacturing factory on daily wage basis in Karachi. When the factory shut down due to the Covid pandemic, they took up cutting/collecting Devi trees (mesquite) from nearby forests and selling wood to a collection centre to put food on the table. Achar said, “Some days our children sleep without eating anything because we cannot always find buyers for mesquite we cut that day. With the support of a person close to my father, we secured a job in Karachi, and everything was going well, but then the pandemic hit”.

Harkhu’s ancestors belonged to a remote village of Nagarparkar taluka in Tharparkar district. They migrated to Badin district following a drought in Tharparkar in the 1960s. His father got 10 acres of land from the government during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s agricultural reforms and started living happily with his family. Soon after his father’s death, neighbouring people of Nohani clan occupied their land and forced them to migrate. They took their possessions and relocated to Ghorabari in Thatta district.

This is not the first time Harkhu Kolhi and his family find themselves in bonded labour. Moneylenders often exploit extreme financial circumstances of families like Harkhu’s.

Harkhu says his uncle, Leemon Kolhi looked after them and arranged his marriage with Dheeman. Dheeman’s family had lived in Piru Lashari village of Badin district, where her father Heero Kolhi was a peasant on a landlord’s agricultural lands. “Dheeman was about 12 years old when we tied the knot. She brought her dolls and mud toys when she came to my house. She gave birth to our first child when she was 14 years old. We had six sons and three daughters during the eighteen years of marriage. My wife never fell ill. She used to work in the fields from dawn to dusk in all kinds of weather.”

This is not the first time Harkhu Kolhi and his family find themselves in bonded labour. Moneylenders often exploit extreme financial circumstances of families like Harkhu’s. When their son Partu got seriously sick due to a snake bite, Harkhu’s family temporarily migrated to Kaloi – a small settlement at the boundary between Badin and Tharparkar districts, where they worked at a brick kiln for six months. “Manager of that brick kiln sexually molested my daughters and a daughter-in-law,” told Harkhu. Everyone around pretended to be deaf because the manager was an influential man in the area.

So how did he and his family manage to escape? Harkhu says, “Luckily, one day, some people from an NGO - (Mandhar Development Society) came over and asked to hear my story. I told them everything, including the ill-treatment that my daughters and daughters-in-law had endured. They took action and, with the support of local police, freed us from the captivity of that cruel manager.”

Harkhu says life has always been hard for them. His 16-year-old daughter Kavita – mother of a child, committed suicide two years ago after her husband, Somji, failed to provide new clothes for the Diwali festival. A year later, his young son, Prem hanged himself from a tree and died after his father did not allow him to go to the city to study in a private school. Harkhu, said, “Those two back-to-back shocks were enough to break my spirit. With these old hands, I took the dead bodies of my children and buried them in the graveyard. I am guilt-ridden. I could not provide them with what they asked for.”

He owns nothing now, not even a charpoy. “I do not know what will happen to us. There is no end in sight to our misery and pain. We are unsure whether the straw huts we left behind in the Matari village are still unoccupied. The last time we went on such labour for six months, our huts were set on fire by an influential local landlord, who then allotted that piece of land to another family. We remained homeless for many days. Finally we built new huts at another place.”

Kohli was troubled by the thought of how he will manage to invite all his relatives to the teeja ritual for his deceased wife. He lamented, “when Dheeman was alive and unwell, I requested her to permit me to sell her two goats for her treatment. She refused as goats were a giftfrom her mother. Now that she is no more with us, I will have to sell her beloved goats and arrange a meal for the guest who will come on her teeja.”

The writer is a   freelance journalist. He can be reached at abbaskhaskheli110

Surviving the pangs of misery