Pakistan: Life in a Desert

Tharparkar district in Pakistan suffers from a man-made disaster that stems from government apathy.

Posted on 08/15/15
By Sher Ali Khalti | Via Himal Southasian
Thar desert, Pakistan. (Photo by Ellma Shaikh, via Pinterest)
Thar desert, Pakistan. (Photo by Ellma Shaikh, via Pinterest)

The curious case of the famine-like situation in the heart of the Thar Desert has largely gone unexamined by international media. Having faced three consecutive years of failed monsoon, people of the Tharparkar district, in the south-east of Pakistan’s Sindh province, are desperate for sustained access to food, water and medicine. And yet the condition there is not technically a ‘famine’ but a man-made socio-economic disaster, aggravated by decades of marginalization and government apathy.


Since 1965, there have been five severe, eight moderate and 11 mild droughts in the desert of Thar. Infants are the worst casualties and often fall victim to severe malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhea, among other preventable illnesses. According to a government report submitted to the Sindh High Court, in December 2014, 118 children had died within the first day of being born, 82 children died within a month and 57 died within a year. Inter Press Services reports that over 650 children died in 2014. What makes matters worse is the ambivalent and insensitive response by local, state and federal authorities to this crisis. The state government’s immediate response reflected its confusion about the circumstances in the affected district. The Sindh government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, had previously claimed that there had been an improvement in the situation in Thar, while, simultaneously, members of the same party denied that hunger and malnutrition had anything to do with the death of hundreds of infants. Instead, they attribute these deaths to maternity and medical complications.


The bureaucracy too has shown unreliable resolve in providing assistance and is implicated in the siphoning off of relief and food supplies meant for famine victims. In November 2014, the Sindh government was supposed to deliver 50 kilogram wheat bags to each family in the affected district, but many families allege they did not receive any of it. In January 2015, when police raided Tar Ahmad village in Tharparkar, 166 bags of wheat were recovered from the house of a local feudal.


But besides the immediate shock of corruption, questions about the nature of development and prejudices of the provisional and central government need to be raised: Why does Tharparkar have the lowest nutrition rate in Sindh; why is it ranked lowest on the Human Development Index in Pakistan; when and how will economic benefits from the coal mines located in the area be channelled back into the district, and why hasn’t the government provided adequate avenue of earning a livelihood?


Selling the ox and eating the seed
Successive governments in Sindh have generally failed to deliver on promises made to Tharpakar. Access to roads, electricity, education and even water is limited and often determined by economic and social status. In my conversation with activists and some Hindu leaders working in the region, they claimed that the area has been deliberately neglected.


The fortunes of this district dramatically changed in the few decades following the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. While Tharis have traditionally relied on subsistence agriculture and worked as herdsmen, before partition, they also traded with the Bombay State and various principalities that populate the present day Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Even today, a large section of the population speaks Dhatki, a language related to Rajasthani and Marwari. Tharis exported ghee, clarified butter, and cattle to areas in present day Gujarat, and purchased silver and tea from Kutch. But after partition, there was little access to the Indian market and once commerce began to decline, so did economic prosperity. As dependence on subsistence agriculture and cattle rearing grew, fewer people remained engaged in alternative sources of income, including tanneries, shoe making and carpet weaving. Eventually, given the structural changes in the local economy, demography and ecology – the entry of city middleman, migration of Hindus to India and the encroachment of pasture lands and desertification – dependence on the land alone became difficult.


This loss of economic certainty was reflected in the loss of culture. For the first few decades after partition, readers had access to newspapers, including Sind Observer, from Karachi and Bombay. The first school in the district established in Mithi (Tharparkar headquarters) about 100 years ago, and would host a variety of religious and social theatre until the late 1980s. Ram Leela was performed every Diwali along with plays by Mirza Qaleech Beg, a renowned Sindhi scholar. Now there is little space for the arts and entertainment.


Due to the lack of canals and an efficient irrigation system, Thar heavily depends on the annual rain from June to September for its water supply. And when the monsoon fails, there is little crop or fodder. Scant access to water, fodder and proper medical treatment also kills livestock, a major source of income and milk for Tharis. Even when it does rain, its quantity and duration are unpredictable. When the area receives more than 200-300 millimeter rain during the monsoon, it’s considered a good year. As a saying in Gujarati goes, if there is drizzle, thunder and lightning in the beginning of the monsoon season then keep the ox and seed close to you, or else, sell the ox and eat the seed. Good years, however, are few and far between, and the bad years have taken a toll. The groundwater table in the district has been severely depleted and much of what remains is saline or high in fluoride.


According to a study by Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) and the Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), only around five percent of the population of Tharpakar have access to clean and disease-free potable water. The study adds that around 80 percent of water resources in the district is not suitable for human consumption. In February 2015, the Sindh provincial government had set up 150 Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology-based plants in the Thar and planned to increase the number to 750 by June. According to News Lens Pakistan, by 16 June, only 345 plants had been installed. The government claims that this multi-billion-rupee project will be Asia’s largest solar powered RO plant and will have a capacity of 2 MGD (million gallons per day). Given that Thar’s elevation is higher than that of Indus, canal water for irrigation manages to reach only some of the Tharparkar’s union councils. Only in the last few years has drinking water from the Indus River begun to reach selected towns in Thar through pipes, prompting Tharis to lament that the bountiful Indus had earlier treated them like unloved ‘step children’.


The availability of water also dictates migration patterns. In ‘good’ years, there are no major movements of people and livestock, but in bad years many families migrate to nearby canal areas as soon as the monsoon ends. This seasonal migration forces many children to drop out of schools. Even if the families return, many children do not resume studies, contributing to the district’s abysmally low literacy rate (18 percent for men and 7 percent for women).


Kathau Jani, a Sindh-based journalist, who has closely followed the events at Tharparkar, told me that the desert becomes “like a cobra snake” which devours its own children. One of the reasons he says people are suffering is the underlying economic structures that don’t allow trade and commerce. He adds, regions like Tharpakar have been handicapped and continue to feel the pain of partition that took place over six decades ago.


Biased disaster
In the report submitted to the Sindh High Court in December 2014, after the approval of Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, the provincial government minimized its responsibility towards Tharis even further. Instead, it blamed women for not being aware of health concerns and Tharis for their eating habits – including their excessive consumption of chilies. It further stated that a large number of people living in Thar are dying because as Hindus, who follow their religion, they do not eat protein rich red meat, fish, and chicken and rely only on vegetables.


Indeed, this seems to be a common perception in the region. Jani too believes that Hindus are malnourished because they are vegetarian and vegetables cannot be grown in the absence of water. Some Hindus, he says, rely on eating natural herbs which only grow during rain. Earlier, Hindus would sell milk but now, with most of their cattle dead, they have been forced to find new sources of livelihood. A large number of Hindus have migrated to the districts of Ghotki, Sukkur and Umerkot in Sindh and other areas of Punjab, where they struggle to find employment as cotton-pickers and farm hands. Haji Muhammad Dal, a social worker and caretaker of Jamia Mosque in Tharparkar, echoes the claim that children born in Hindu families have a higher mortality rate than Muslims. Hindus from ‘lower castes’ communities like Kohli and Bheel often live as nomads, and during migration many mothers do not have access to resources to provide their children with adequate food or medicine. It is these children, from the most marginalized and poorest of communities, who die from malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhoea.


The dire situation in Thar has prompted a number of ‘cultural and social’ organizations to step in and provide aid. One of the most active organizations is Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), the social welfare wing of Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD). Yahya Mujahid, spokesperson for JuD and FIF, insists that both Muslims and Hindus suffer equally from this drought and are victims of the state’s neglect. He says that Hindu women are treated like animals and have to fetch water from muddy ponds – also frequented by animals – miles away from where they live, even during the final days of their pregnancy. FIF, Mujahid claims, has stepped up to help both Hindus and Muslims and has been digging wells in Thar for over a decade to provide drinking water to the locals.


However, critics of JuD and leaders of the Hindu community allege that Islamic groups, like JuD, are misusing its network and presence in the region to convert Hindus under the garb of social work. According to a 2011 report in the Express Tribune, after floods in Pakistan, JuD was encouraging Hindus to read the Quran and perform namaz, even as they provided meals. Reports of Hindu girls being abducted and forced into marriage and conversion are common in Sindh and a source of constant fear for Hindus. However, in my conversation with the FIF spokesperson, he denied these claims and said it was serving the masses without any discrimination.


Water woes
Dominic Stephen of Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), a locally registered humanitarian organization in Tharparkar, says, deaths due to hunger and malnutrition are not a new phenomenon. But only now have these begun to be noticed and reported. Before the discovery of coal in the region, people used to die in their houses. But now a network of roads has been developed to transport coal so people can die on the roads and in hospitals, he says.


There is a perennial shortage of medical doctors and veterinary staff who are willing to serve in this remote area. In March 2014, the Sindh government sought to appoint 49 doctors and 43 paramedics on contract to serve in the drought-hit district, but found only few takers. Most who join hardly ever step out of the precincts of the hospital in Mithi. A year later, in a bid to attract doctors to the district, the government raised the salary for doctors willing to serve on a contract basis for a period of 24 months, from PKR 75,000 (USD 737) to PKR 100,000 (USD 983) per month – an incentive whose effectiveness is yet to be seen.


In this context, preparedness and response to the crisis assumes great importance. The international community has been largely detached from the happenings in Thar. Perhaps struggling with donor fatigue in Pakistan, they have only made limited interventions. One reason for this could be that the Pakistani state is constantly apprehensive about giving clearance to INGOs. It claims many international organizations have a vested interest and are working against the country. However, Tharpakar’s District Coordination Officer (DCO) Mohammad Asif Jameel tells me that the government has no problems with NGO and international donors coming into the district. He says, these organizations were given security clearance but they themselves choose to stay away because of reports that their staff were being looted or kidnapped for ransom. However, contradicting himself, he adds, “They try to come in the garb of development workers and keep an eye on Thar Coal. There may be others who are not comfortable with the idea of Hindus and Muslims living here peacefully for centuries.”


Amid all this, the government of Sindh has refused all allegations of deliberate negligence leveled against it. Senator Taj Haider, coordinator of Tharparkar Relief Committee (TRC) formed by the Sindh government, told me that the criticism of the government’s work in the region is a conspiracy against the PPP. He claims infant mortality rate in Tharpakar is less than that in many other regions in the country and blames the media for blowing things out of proportion. He points to the fact that the Sindh government is installing 750 reverse osmosis (RO) plants here to cater to its water woes and this proves that the region is not neglected. While at the district level, Jameel insists, in his conversation with me, that Thari women are at fault for the high number of infant mortality. Underweight women, he says, give birth to one child after the other without maintaining proper time-gap between childbirths; quite often they have two successful pregnancies within a year – a major cause of high incidence of deaths among newborns.


As the plight of the Tharis continues to be reported there is a growing pressure on the government and international donors to put up a concerted effort to counter human deaths and loss of livelihood in Thar. According to seasonal weather forecast by the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the 2015 monsoon season is expected to be weaker than usual, which means the situation in Thar is unlikely to improve. The short-term solution would be ensuring people, especially children, have immediate, adequate and sustained emergency relief. But in the long term the government needs to invest in digging canals. Access to water can be made easy if there is a focus on building new canals and revitalizing older canals. Existing water pipelines also need to be improved and extended further.


In May and June 2015, a deadly heat wave wreaked havoc in Pakistan and India, and with the monsoon expected to provide little relief, Tharis need immediate attention. But whether the international community will rise to this occasion and help the under-resourced Pakistan government find a permanent solution to Thar’s problems is a question that yet needs an answer.


~ Sher Ali Khalti is based in Lahore, Pakistan and works for the News (Jang Group). He writes on human rights violations, women’s issues, agitational politics, resistance poetry, crime, and religious extremism. He can be reached at

This article first appeared in the Himal Southasian. Click here to go to the original.

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