MEN, both young and elderly, are taking part energetically in the construction of a well in Surangho, a small village located around 18km from Islamkot — the Thar desert city with untapped coal reserves.
A 130-foot-deep well means that the villagers here, both Muslim and non-Muslim, will not have to trek the half a kilometre they currently do to fetch water. “We are highly indebted to him for making available all the finances and resources required for digging this well in these remote parts,” says Niaz Mohammad Chandio, pointing to a burly and bespectacled Khalid Saif who works for the banned Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) and its affiliate, the Falah-i-Insaniyat.
Also read: Thar drought
“We have created separate sections on the edge of such wells,” says Chandio. “The idea is to keep water for animals and birds so that every drop of water is fully utilised.” He explains how laborious the job of fetching water is in a desert.
The Falah-i-Insaniyat has been undertaking social, welfare and relief work in Thar for quite some time, as well as arranging frequent visits by mediapersons. The organisation is the charity face of the JuD; the latter was proscribed under a UN Security Council resolution declaring it a global terrorist organisation after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Falah-i-Insaniyat keeps the parent party’s social component intact.
“Our entry in Thar dates back to 2002 for water-related work,” explains Saif, who is wearing a sleeveless yellow jacket carrying the Falah-i-Insaniyat insignia. “The US did ban us but when the federal government proscribed the JuD, we challenged it and the Lahore High Court ruled against that ban, considering our huge welfare work.”
It costs the Falah-i-Insaniyat around Rs185,000 to construct one well in the Islamkot area. Expenditure increases for digging a well in the Chhachhro area, where groundwater is found at an average depth of between 275ft and 300ft. “A mason charges more in Chhachhro for a well’s work,” Saif tells me. “This is primarily because it requires strenuous effort on his part. He can’t keep working inside an incomplete well for more than a specified time — he will start getting asphyxia. The work has to be done with breathers.”
He adds that the number of cement bags also increases, besides other materials, which takes the overall cost to Rs300,000 for a well there.
The Thar desert, the largest in Pakistan, is prone to drought, which has currently set in for the third consecutive year.
The severity seems to be increasing. Now, with the onset of winter, things will get somewhat more difficult for malnourished children and expectant mothers who face poverty coupled with inadequate primary healthcare facilities and illiteracy.
The Falah-i-Insaniyat gets donations for building such wells wherever they are needed. Even the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, says Saif, donated money for building 30 such wells; in Kikari village, the well is now functional.
“Philanthropists just hand over money to us [for such activities] and then we utilise every rupee of it transparently,” he says.
Close to 50 per cent of the desert’s population is Hindu, mostly belonging to lower caste communities like the Kolhis, Bheels and Meghwars, who live in chaunras made of thatched straw that dot the desert right from Mithi to Nagarparkar.
Saif says that his organisation has made it a point to ensure 50 per cent of the water-related projects benefit non-Muslims.
The Falah-i-Insaniyat is conducting a dispenser course in Lahore that is being attended by 15 Thari boys, says Saif. The boys have been chosen from Diplo, Islamkot and Chhachhro. “They will look after dispensaries, the establishment of which is planned by our organisation in a radius of 40km to 50km each. Villagers will get some sort of medication at the nearest possible location,” he says.
The organisation maintains a big office in Hyderabad to monitor its social, relief and welfare work across Sindh and even Balochistan where it was recently involved in welfare work after the Awaran earthquake. But its activists from Punjab were not sent there, given the attacks on Punjabis in that troubled region. Workers from Sindh, particularly Hyderabad, took care of the relief work there.
“We have been organising medical camps across Thar for over a decade,” Saif tells. “Doctors of various specialities provide healthcare facilities to between 12,000 and 13,000 people, especially in the rural areas.”
Saif, who is going to Lahore after his Thar visit, will return with two ambulances out of the Falah-i-Insaniyat’s fleet.
According to Saif, one of the ambulances being brought here is a 4x4 vehicle that will easily ply across the desert. Many areas are yet to be connected with metalled roads, even though the current Sindh government claims that it is expanding the road network further across Thar. People here, along with their livestock, generally still travel in WWII trucks, though these are rapidly being replaced by long-chassis jeeps.
“We will create a central point in Mithi with a communication facility and the ambulance will transport patients from villages to the district headquarters, or to Hyderabad and even to Karachi, free of charge,” says Saif as we board an almost new 4x4 Vigo to head for another village, Kikari.
Published in Dawn, November 21th, 2014