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Lessons from Tharparkar

March 13, 2014


THE invasion of Tharparkar district by rich donors and relief convoys should not divert attention from the need for long-term answers to the grave problems faced, seasonally or permanently, by the people in the region.

The outrage that has been displayed at images of children in the throes of death is understandable but this outpouring of grief and anger will be meaningless if remedial action is not taken.

There is no doubt that the response to the humanitarian challenge from state agencies and civil society organisations both has been prompt and ample. The confusion caused by sensationalised reporting, ill-informed commentators, and attempts to make political capital out of people’s misery has been considerably dispelled by well-informed, non-state observers.

It is clearer than before that the population of parts of the Tharparkar district has had three misfortunes: first, the drought this year has been severer than in the past few years; secondly, the cold spell has been unusually long and intense; and third, arrangements for the access of affected communities to food and medical aid have been inadequate and dysfunctional.

Nature cannot be blamed for all these factors. That successive droughts cause an incremental increase in water scarcity may be a natural phenomenon but the people have traditionally overcome it by seasonal migration. The cold spell affected children because the health cover was inadequate, and the havoc caused by the administration’s failures is entirely man-made.

A large number of families in Thar dealt with the situation as they have always done — they moved to other parts of Sindh where they could find water, grazing fields for their cattle, and even opportunities for casual work. (Incidentally, media reports suggest that an equal number of families — 175,000 — migrated from Thar and Cholistan desert this year.) It seems those who did not have reason to migrate have suffered the most.

With the change of season the child mortality rate is likely to decline and migrants will return to their homes and, as Dr Khangharani, the doyen of Thar experts, says all stories of death and malnutrition will be forgotten.

The issue is whether the cycle of drought, migration and symptomatic, short-term relief will be allowed to continue. If the government has the requisite will it should not be impossible to address the causes of the people’s suffering year after year.

The first task is to overcome the ‘famine of facts’, to borrow an admirable phrase from Mr Javed Jabbar. We do not know to what extent the seasonal migration is documented but from now on it should be necessary to have authentic records of the exodus and return of drought-affected communities.

An important cause of the migration is lack of fodder for livestock that constitutes most of the affected people’s sole economic wealth. Will the supply of fodder from outside and an efficient network of veterinary services reduce the extent of dislocation?

In all disaster stories a lack of efficient communication, transport and monitoring systems has often been noted. Reports of an impending famine in Thar had started coming in December 2013. Were these reports shared with the authorities concerned? If they were, how did the disaster management agencies respond? Could the existence of local government institutions make a difference?

Common sense demands that measures to protect the population of Tharparkar (or Cholistan, for that matter) should be an integral part of the development plan for the region. The money spent on setting a national record for the highest number of school buildings (which is different from having functional schools) in the district could have been better used for promoting food security and healthcare.

Tharparkar and the adjoining districts need special attention of development and community welfare agencies in view of their sizeable non-Muslim population. Media reports are silent on how the non-Muslim citizens, particularly those still categorised as scheduled castes, have fared during the latest calamity but one should like to be reassured that they have suffered no more than their Muslim neighbours. The reason for this concern is the fact that non-Muslims do not have equal access to the medical services and income support facilities in the region.

While every effort should be made to streamline the existing administrative structure, two steps have become necessary to remove the causes of the disadvantaged community’s suffering. First, the people must be given their due share in the management of their affairs. All parts of Pakistan urgently need democratic and efficient local government, and Thar, Cholistan, Kalash, Fata and Pata need it more than others.

Secondly, in spite of the government’s irrational hostility to state-sponsored socio-economic development, a high-powered organisation must be created to undertake essential works in underdeveloped areas of the country. In Thar this body could build food and fodder reserves, remove infrastructure deficiencies, upgrade veterinary services and broaden the scope for people’s economic activity.

This will reduce poverty which is one of the basic causes of famine and high rates of child and female mortality and ill-health. It will be good if this body has a special department for the protection and promotion of the rights of the indigenous populations who at the moment figure nowhere on the development map.

It is not good politics to shed tears when children die and ignore how they live and dole out fat cheques when a calamity hits the poor. The only worthwhile action can be to give all children hope in their future. Time to begin doing that.