For people of Sibhani and several other villages of Thar lacking basic facilities life is a daily struggle
I thought she was around 40 years of age. It was a shock to hear her tell me that she was 20. She had a dry, flaky skin, sunken eyes, a weak stature and trembling hands. And it was not just Radha, every woman in the abandoned village looked much older than their years.
The malnourished children played no games and did not run around for the sake of being active and busy. Instead, they lay in their Thari huts (chaunras) all day, hoping that shortly before sunset, the men would return home after working all day and bring them something to eat.
I asked Chandra, 8, if she went to school. She shook her head in the negative and hid behind her mother. Her mother said, “If only there was a school in the village, the children could go there.” No one can understand the impact of a lack of basic facilities - food and shelter, education and opportunities - than those living in this village.
The life one is accustomed to is nowhere to be found in Sibhani, a village of 55 Bheel [Hindu] families located 35 kilometres east of Umerkot town. There are sand dunes in every direction and a blue sky above. The women of the village have to walk daily to another village three kilometres away to get drinking water.
34-year-old Mantri says that the women of the village are accustomed to the daily journey for water. “We wake up early in the morning and go out to get water because it is difficult to walk barefoot on hot sand in the afternoon hours,” she says.
The water they use is contaminated. As a result, stomach ailments are frequent, especially among the children. Moori, a female resident of the village, describes this unclean water as a blessing. She says hardly any water is available anywhere else in the area. She says, “we do get sick, but at least we are alive. If we don’t get this water, how will we survive?”
No paved roads lead to the village and many other villages in Thar. A mini-bus operating once a day is the only means of making a journey to the next village. It leaves every morning at seven. It returns to the dunes at six in the evening. Anyone who has to visit the city must use the vehicle. If they miss the chance to hop aboard in the morning literally nothing can be done except the wait until the next morning.
“There are sand dunes and miserable people everywhere. The government should take notice of these people and provide them with facilities needed to lead a good life,” says the teacher.
Harchand, a villager, says if there is an emergency at night, they have to get a special vehicle that charges Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 to make a roundtrip to Umerkot city. “Many patients, including pregnant women and people bitten by a snake did not get transport on time and died,” he says.
Muhammad Raheem Samejo, a social worker, is vocal about the need for providing assistance to the people of this desert village. “These are some of the most neglected communities. Even NGOs working in Umerkot and Tharparker have difficulty reaching them because these communities are located far from their project interventions.”
“Their only connection to their elected representatives has been through votes. They [candidates for MPA and MNA seats] never come to these villages and see for themselves how miserable the situation is. They send their managers and assistants, who come and order these villagers to vote for their candidates. That’s all,” he says.
These forgotten folks are forced to live a life disconnected from the world. The shrine of Aalam Shah, on a dune several kilometres away, is their only source of solace. According to Dhanu, a resident of the village, whenever someone has a problem, they go to the dargah and find a solution (or so she believes).
No one knows who this saint was and how long he has been buried here. All they know is that the shrine has been here at least since the 1971 Indo-Pak war when they started living in the area. Dharmoon guesses, “He is a Muslim saint, but we believe that he listens to the sufferings of all. My wife was seriously ill. When she did not recover even after a lot of treatment, I started taking her there daily. Now she is fine.“ The villagers’ belief in the blessed shrine is a lifeline to them.
Khanu Bheel hails from Chhor town of Umerkot district. He is a teacher. He says that the only source of livelihood for the people of the area is manual labour which men render in the surrounding small towns. In the evening, they return home with a little food for their hungry wives and children. “There are no facilities in these villages. There are sand dunes as far as you can see and miserable people everywhere. The government should take notice of the difficulties these people face and provide them with facilities needed to lead a good life,” says the teacher.
Sibhani is not the only village of the kind in Thar. The people living in these villages are not aware of the possibility of a better life. Those who are, must take it upon themselves to give these people something to live for and something to look forward to.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com