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September 30, 2018

The tragedy of Thar

Opinion

September 30, 2018

“The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”– Sir Charles Trevelyan (1807-1886), a British civil servant who served in Calcutta, India.

Among the 29 districts of Sindh in Pakistan, Tharparkar is the largest, covering 19,638 square kilometres of land, with Mithi as its capital and a population of 1.65 million. Part of a larger desert area that extends into Rajasthan in India, this area principally consists of barren tracts of sand dunes covered with thorny bushes.

Annual rainfall is recorded at 245 millimeters. That is why there is extreme scarcity of water because of which cultivation is not possible. To add to these woes, the subsoil has extraordinary levels of salinity that makes potable water scarce.

The principal source of livelihood in Thar is based on livestock and agriculture. Millet is the chief crop. But due to a severe shortage of rain, the area suffers from occasional bouts of drought and famine because of which the people as well as cattle have to put up with extremely low supply of food. This problem has been recurring since 2012, with pastures and wells drying up, leaving Tharis with a dearth of food.

According to a 2017 report by the Joint UN Observation Mission On Tharparkar, Umerkot and Sanghar districts were said to fall under a humanitarian crisis, with the situation remaining unchanged despite the 2016 Sindh Drought Needs Assessment report.

In another report, submitted by the National Commission for Human Rights in May 2016, it was claimed that between 2014 and 2016, about 1,380 children died of malnutrition-related issues in Tharparkar. The most horrifying aspect of this report is that food scarcity has been declared as the root of the crisis, with 76 percent of the population having no food supplies at home.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards, if the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate among children and women is more than 15 percent, it is to be considered an emergency situation and the National Nutrition Survey of 2011 had estimated GAM in Thar at 22.7 percent while chronic malnutrition was 45.9 percent.

This state of affairs has been addressed by the government of Sindh by adopting the most apathetic attitude towards the people of Tharparkar. The thrice-elected government of the PPP has utterly failed to solve the overall problems faced by Sindh, let alone the drought-stricken Thar.

Interestingly, this political party has been in power since the 1970s and there are still no plans in the offing to uplift the rural areas. An example of the government’s indifference is visible from the Sehwan blast incident in February 2017 when the victims had to be taken to urban centres situated more than a hundred kilometres away from the site of the blast for medical treatment.

Under the circumstance, when a province is unable to grapple with managing its human rights, it becomes incumbent upon the federation to take matters into its own hands. It is not only a matter of shame for a province to have a population that is suffering from malnutrition and death on account food shortage, it is also a matter of shame for the entire country.

The president of Pakistan is the custodian of the constitution and also symbolises the unity of federation. To him, the interests of every person living in any part of the country should be a top priority. Since he is capable of approaching the chief ministers of all the provinces, there is no reason why he can’t direct some supplies to areas where there is a severe food shortage.

In a humanitarian move and as a goodwill gesture, our former prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, announced in April 2018, a gift of 40,000 tonnes of wheat with a price tag of Rs4 billion to drought-stricken Afghanistan, with the first consignment of 280 tonnes delivered around September 16, 2018. This is highly appreciated. At the same time, we can only express disappointment over the conveniently neglect shown towards the deprived sections in our own country.

Why is there no such gesture of goodwill for Tharis? Is it because such acts don’t always attract the attention of the media, which our politicians have an insatiable craving for?

According to some estimates, wheat supply that is lying at Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (PASCO) Ltd and the Punjab Food Department is to the tune of 13 million tonnes. This will probably go to waste if concrete measures aren’t taken to sell it locally, export it or utilise it to feed those who don’t have access to basic food items.

With the harvest of new crop of wheat in the coming season, there will be issues pertaining to additional storage facilities. Given the way things work at the government level, there is a strong likelihood that a large amount of precious food will be lost.

At this juncture, it is pertinent to mention the Engro Coal Power Project, which is being developed 25 km away from the town of Islamkot as part of CPEC by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company. This is a joint venture between the government of Sindh, Engro Corporation, and China Machinery Engineering Corporation and holds tremendous promise to uplift of this area and its people. Fulfilling their corporate social responsibility, much has been done to improve the lives of Tharis. However, these efforts are restricted to a limited area and population, which is understandable. Despite their best efforts, the fruits of these advancements cannot extend to every nook and cranny of the district.

Before introducing the people of Thar to the glamour of the world of WiFi and internet, there is dire need to provide them clean water, health facilities, skills to experiment with alternative methods of agriculture by using indigenous resources, and livestock management.

However, this can only be achieved when people have sufficient food to eat and don’t have to run from pillar to post in search of everyday meals and, when even that is not possible, silently starve to death in their mud houses, cursing the apathy of those who claim to be the rulers of this country.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and is on the adjunct faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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