RURAL Sindh is facing abject poverty, with the provincial planning and development department statistics pointing to a widening rural-urban income disparity.
The poverty head count ratio in the countryside is almost double that of urban areas. Rural Sindh has around 50 per cent of the population, and shares about 30 per cent of the province’s GDP.
The state of affairs is attributed to slow growth in the province’s hinterlands, which has led to widespread rural poverty. This is a serious concern not only for the welfare of the dwellers of the countryside, but also for the economic and social stability of the province.
The World Bank has observed a 0.5 per cent decline on average in per capita income in rural Sindh every year since 1999. The report also says that 50 per cent of the population of rural areas lives below the poverty line, and suffers from low per capita incomes and calorie intake, as well as unemployment and inadequate access to education, sanitation and health facilities, an unhygienic environment, and insecure access to natural resources.
The concentration of the poor is highest among households that have at their head an unpaid worker, share-cropper, or owner/cultivator with less than two hectares of land.
A major study recently conducted found that 36.3 per cent of the respondents in rural Sindh consumed less than 1,700 calories a day, while another 25 per cent consumed between 1,700 to 2,100 calories a day.
Rural inhabitants are mainly dependent on agriculture, with those in arid zones on animal rearing, and those along the coastal belt on fishing. But the constant shortage of water in Thatta, Badin, Umerkot, and parts of Sanghar, Mirpurkhas, Dadu districts, and surprisingly even in some pockets of the Rohri canal system in Khairpur district, is the main factor behind increased poverty.
This is due to the mismanagement of water. Independent economists and the World Bank have held both the draught and the policymakers responsible for low agricultural production. Recent devastating rains, which damaged crops in some areas, exposed lack of drainage facilities.
Official figures suggest that poverty is on the rise in Badin and Thatta districts due to sea intrusion, which is causing a permanent or seasonal submerging of irrigated cultivable lands. Lands that are not under direct threat of sea intrusion, but where there is a constant shortage of irrigation water, or an irregular supply of it since the last 10 years, have virtually ruined the agriculture.
Ground realities suggest that water shortage in Badin and Thatta districts, as well as in Umerkot and a major portion of the command area of Taluka Johi and Khairpur Nathanshah in Dadu district, will not improve, and actually further deteriorate.
While the availability of water in other parts of Sindh may be comparatively better, the crop yield is still low, mainly because of soil erosion and over-irrigation. Besides this, farm inputs are costly, quality seeds are not available, fertilisers are adulterated and pesticides spurious.
A World Bank report titled, Securing Sindh’s future prospects and challenges, noted that, “given its feudal traditions, progressive ideas and reforms have always taken more time to take roots in the interior of Sindh than in most other areas of Pakistan. Sindh has the highest incidence of absolute landlessness, highest share of tenancy and lowest share of land ownership in the country.
“Wealthy landlords with holdings in excess of 100 acres form less than one per cent of all farmers in province, and own 150 per cent more land than combined holdings of 62 per cent of small farmers with holdings less than five acres.”
The poor also suffer from low quality public services. They have relatively lower access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. For example, while 31 per cent of the rural population of the country is connected to the drainage system, the same is true for only 14 per cent of Sindh’s rural populace. Only 10 per cent of them have access to proper sanitation facilities.
In villages, excreta accumulations can be found outside homes, and this becomes a major source for spread of infectious and waterborne diseases. Women, children, the elderly, and those who are already suffering from diseases, are largely affected.
According to UN estimates, poor sanitation costs the country $4.2 billion, or 6.3 per cent of its GDP. According to estimates from the United States Agency for International Development, around 250,000 children die each year in Pakistan due to waterborne diseases. About 40 per cent of hospital beds in Sindh are occupied by patients suffering from water and sanitation diseases like typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis, which are responsible for one-third of total deaths as well.
Meanwhile, more than 55 per cent of public elementary schools do not have water connections or toilet facilities. Given that rural poverty in Sindh is higher than the country average, the rural poor suffer from an especially severe lack of critical facilities, which is likely to have a strong impact on their health. Therefore, sanitation and hygiene are fundamental to broader rural development.It is an irony that while Sindh produces almost 72 per cent of the country’s total oil and gas, its hinterland is still one of the more backward regions in the country, with soaring poverty, high unemployment, and widening rural-urban inequality. For instance, look at the plight of Badin district, which produces 60 per cent of the country’s oil, but ranks at 90 in the Human Development Index of districts of Pakistan.
Oil companies are not fulfilling their corporate responsibility, as they have to spend one per cent of their earnings on local development and establish schools, hospitals and construct roads. Nothing meaningful is happening.