Poverty causing people to kill themselves in drought-hit Thar

September 02, 2014

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PATIENTS being treated at the Chhachhro government hospital.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
PATIENTS being treated at the Chhachhro government hospital.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

CHHACHHRO: Thirty-year-old Marubhat, a resident of Samo Bheel village — a two-hour drive from Chhachhro — decided to end her life on Aug 23 after she had failed to provide food for her children. Soon after her death, her home was visited by reporters and social workers where during interviews her family attributed the cause of her death to persistent financial problems. Now, the family has refused to speak to the media.

In previous years, 24 suicide cases were reported in 2011 and 35 in 2012. But this is the 31st death in Tharparkar district as a result of suicide within just seven months, officials say.

These suicides are largely attributed to a rise in cases of domestic violence and poverty in the area. A renowned social worker and CEO of Hisaar Foundation, Dr Sono Kangharani, says that the main reason behind the suicides is in fact poverty. “There are multiple factors, but poverty stands out as it points towards a need which continues to remain unfulfilled. This woman thought of taking her life as she found no way out of the dilemma she was faced with,” he adds.

According to data compiled by AWARE, an NGO working in Thar, suicide is a dilemma faced by both women and men. “We are pressurised to avoid giving exact figures,” says Ali Akbar Rahimoo, executive director at AWARE. “But these suicide cases cannot be looked at in isolation as they are part of a bigger problem which is poverty due to drought.”

In another case, a man left his home around afternoon after an argument with his wife over financial issues. By night, one of the locals found his body inside a well near Samo Bheel village and informed his wife. Explaining the gravity of the situation, Rahimoo says: “Chhachhro, which is one of the biggest out of the six talukas of Thar, has a single Rural Health Centre, which is called a Taluqa Hospital on paper.”

Every local or an NGO official whom Dawn spoke to asked to call on the public’s attention to the drought in Thar.

This year the drought is reported to be the worst than the previous ones that occurred in 1974 and 1986. A drought is a direct result of late monsoon or in case of Thar a lack of it. Usually, the period for monsoon is between June 15 and August 15, after which drought is declared. Dr Khangharani, while referring to a belief here says, “The festival of Thaddri — Raksha Bandhan — is an indicator that it won’t rain anymore in Thar. And this is exactly what happened here as the festival was celebrated in the month of August.” But he adds that such a drought is rare. “Rare because there is zero grass production and zero fodder which has a direct effect on the livestock and makes it difficult for the people to cope the aftermath of drought.”

For many months, the local NGOs and newspapers were up in arms with the provincial government over the number of deaths as a result of drought. A policy on drought was recently introduced by the provincial government but Dr Khangharani, who is among the committee members who worked on the policy, is not that hopeful. “Nothing will happen in the coming months. At present, we are waiting for the said policy to be passed in the assembly. The government will most probably end the topic of Thar by distributing wheat among the residents. Distributing wheat won’t resolve it. Similarly, vaccinating children won’t end their hunger. It is a question of saving the livestock in Thar which the Tharis depend on. It continues to die as we speak,” he says.

The ensuing migration in Thar as a result of drought includes two kinds of people, those who are moving temporarily and those who are moving permanently this time around. Those who migrate with their entire families for a year, move to the western and northern parts of Sindh, mostly near a barrage. These places include Umerkot (where people settle near the Nara canal), Mirpurkhas and Badin (where most migrants settle near the Kotri barrage).

The reason the entire family moves together is to look for a chance to work on the fields. “Cotton-picking and chilli-picking starts from Sept 15, for which these people migrate earlier and then come back a year later. Also, most people who migrated recently and continue to do so may stay back. Because they have to pay off loans taken for the crop and lack of opportunities in Thar,” explains Dr Khangharani.

Gautam Rathi, who is among the board of directors at Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) Chhachhro, says there is vulnerability in Thar due to a lack of comprehensive policy. “If we want to take into account the number of policies that are made then we don’t need to look anywhere else. But we are not questioning the policy rather its implementation.”

Suggesting solutions for the Thar drought, Dr Kangharani and Rathi are of the opinion that the livestock needs to be saved on an immediate basis. “Mobile health teams should be assigned for various places so that they can help those who can’t reach the taluka hospital or a dispensary. Also, clean drinking water for Thar will help a lot in saving the livestock and if they survive then it will be easier for the people to survive longer,” says Dr Khangharani.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2014