THE widening gap between the rich and the poor in developing countries is not only causing resentment against the well-to-do, it is also weakening societal values, the binding force that allows communities to coexist.
Pakistan's rural community, as in any other under-developed country, is largely poor. Sindh is the second largest province of Pakistan in terms of population. Nearly 52 per cent of its population lives in the rural areas. The rural-urban poverty gap in Sindh is high compared to the other provinces. The bulk of the rural population is said to be living below the poverty line.
The rural inhabitants of Sindh are dependent on agriculture, in arid zones on animal rearing and in the coastal belt on fishing for livelihood. But the constant shortage of water in districts Thatta, Badin, Umerkot and in parts of districts Sanghar, Mirpurkhas and Dadu and surprisingly some pockets of the Rohri canal system in district Khairpur is the main factor behind raised poverty levels. This is due, of course, to the mismanagement of water.
Official figures suggest that poverty is on the rise in districts Badin and Thatta due to sea intrusion which is causing the permanent or seasonal submerging of irrigated cultivable lands. The lands, which are not under direct threat of sea intrusion but where there is a constant shortage of irrigation water or an irregular supply, since the last 10 years have a virtually ruined economy.
Ground realities suggest that the water shortage in districts Badin and Thatta as well as Umerkot, and a major portion of the command area of Taluka Johi and Khairpur Nathan Shah in district Dadu shall not improve and will, in fact, further deteriorate. In other parts of Sindh, the water availability position may be comparatively better, but the crop yield is still low, mainly because of soil erosion due to water-logging and over-irrigation. Besides agricultural material is costly, quality seeds are non-available, the fertilisers are adulterated and the pesticides spurious.
Employment opportunities in the public sector are limited. There are few chances of employment for the rural jobless in the private sector mainly due to the poor standard of education and substandard technical training. In the agriculture sector, the rising trend of mechanised farming has virtually closed the door on new entrants from the local farm workforce.
The irony is that sources of livelihood and employment opportunities for rural inhabitants are shrinking but there is no check on population growth in the countryside. The unemployed youth, therefore, move to cities for jobs but the urban employment market is already over-saturated.
In any civilised society, it is the government's duty to envisage and adopt strategies whereby all working hands are provided with opportunities to make a living, earning sufficiently so that they do not have to queue up outside charity institutions, run after the powerful for Rozgar cards or join criminals.
There is no doubt that poverty in lower Sindh will further grow. But the condition of the poorest of the poor in fertile areas with comparatively better water availability is equally bad. They are also victims of malnutrition. They are denied an education and have no access to potable water or other essentials including basic healthcare.
The government must understand the gravity of the situation and work hard on different strategies to check the growing poverty rate. Some strategies are at the stage of implementation. But will providing one or two buffaloes/cows, opening local handicrafts centres, installing hand pumps, constructing culverts or a few thousand houses for the poor in selected talukas satisfy overall hunger, let alone procure medicines, education and clothing for the poor? It will not. The pace at which the monster of poverty is growing cannot be checked with such government measures or even through public-private partnerships.
If one asks the poor as to which is their greatest problem, their reply would be the absence of livelihood. Here I would like to narrate a personal experience. During my posting as secretary, irrigation and power, Sindh in 2002, while touring the water-deficient areas at the tail-end of a rice canal in taluka Khairpur Nathan Shah, Dadu, I was stopped by villagers who were waiting for me. During our discussion, I remember a man in his 50s drew my attention towards the nearby under-construction metalled road and stated, “We do not want the road but provide us with water for irrigation”. He went on to say, “Yesterday passengers of a Suzuki pickup declined to take me to town because I was short of the fare by Rs1.”
This does not mean that the construction of roads should be stopped but the need is to prioritise programmes and projects that create employment activities. Hence the need to identify areas and develop strategies for alternative sources of livelihood which, in the case of rural Sindh, are livestock and fish farming.