Coastal belt of Sindh: Where only the saints provide solace

Published January 4, 2015
An informal market set up at the monthly urs. — Photos by the writer
An informal market set up at the monthly urs. — Photos by the writer

The long coastal belt of Sindh is shared by various communities, all with diverse cultural traditions and history, that in the past attracted tourists from both within and without the country.

Sadly these areas, despite being rich in natural beauty and resources are home to absolutely deprived populations.

While travelling from Badin to village Bhugra Memon (a small town a few kilometres away from the sea) we cross many villages where people are living in absolute poverty, with no basic health facility or well-constructed schools.

According to Muhammad Ramzan, a resident of village Deenar Talpur, U-C Bhugra Memon, “The cyclone of 1999 inundated homes in the entire village, destroying the whole infrastructure. Whenever the sea is in high tide we hold our breath because the people have still not recovered from the effects of the 1999 cyclone.”


Ignored by the government, the poverty-stricken villagers of the coastal areas find comfort in ritual


Devotees  entering the shrine of Syed Ahmed Shah Rajo
Devotees entering the shrine of Syed Ahmed Shah Rajo

“During the migratory season, various species of birds used to visit our coastal areas, and hunting was quite common. But now fewer birds come every year due to over-hunting and environmental pollution,” he added.

Despite the problems they have been experiencing, the people of U-C Ahmed Rajo look forward to the monthly Urs of Syed Ahmed Shah Rajo which is held on the first Sunday of every lunar month. On this occasion, locally known as Sao Aacha’ar (Green Sunday), at least six or seven buffaloes are slaughtered (which are often donated by devotees to the caretaker of the shrine) and the meat is distributed among the poor and needy villagers and devotees from different villages of the coastal belt and from other parts of the country. On Green Sunday, thousands of people from Ahmed Rajo and its surrounding areas reach there with their own cooking pots, rice and salt to prepare biryani, no other condiments are allowed.

Villagers selling their merchandise outside the shrine
Villagers selling their merchandise outside the shrine

Why not chillies, garam masala, oil, ghee, tomatoes, ginger, onion, garlic, etc, that are used in their regional recipe? Khan Muhammad, a local devotee of the saint, with explained that “It is the saint’s order to prepare the biryani in this way.” He also told us “the visitors must eat it within the premises of the shrine otherwise they will face some serious calamity in their life; in addition, the buffalo’s meat will lose its taste and would taste like donkey meat.”

Full of praise for the miracles of the saint, Jalal Khaskheli said, “Three years ago I was told that I had lung cancer. Then I heard about the saint, and along with my family I came here at the shrine and prayed at the shrine. Finally, doctors declared me cancer-free and now I even smoke. Now whenever I am ill I visit the saint’s shrine and I get better.”

NGOs come to help
NGOs come to help

Economic activity picks up at the time of the saint’s urs. Women clad in ghaghara choli and shalwar kameez display merchandise like crockery, hosiery items, cold drinks, sweets, and even chaddars to put on the saint’s shrine, on the ground outside the shrine; they are there to earn their bread and butter. Vendors from other villages also take part in the festival.

Ameer Mandhro of the Mandhar Development Society (MDS) Badin is vocal about the problems of the people of the coastal belt. “The people of coastal belt are living in miserable conditions, the resources they live on are reducing rapidly and the fishermen community will face immense food insecurity. Despite funding and all kinds of efforts, their mindset has not changed and they continue to be exploited misused by the fishing mafia and their white collar so-called landlords.”

Illegal trash fishing
Illegal trash fishing

Water is the life-line of people of coastal belt; last summer Punjab was affected by floods but, thankfully, Sindh remained safe, and canals became full for the time being in coastal areas also. But according to the local media the canals near the coastal belt of district Badin have gone water-scarce and the people are living without water. Ganj Wah, Noor Wah, Soomra Sha’akh and Garho Miner have not received water since the last nine months.

Social worker Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli says, “Most of the people of coastal belt are engaged in fishing which is their traditional source of livelihood but water has become highly saline due to area’s close proximity to the sea.”

Collecting firewood
Collecting firewood

What is the original sin of the people living near the coastal belt or on the outskirts of district Badin and Thatta? This question can easily be read in the eyes of even teenagers of this area who have no option but to cut wood from the trees as fuel for cooking. The effects of climate change that severely hit the people call for sustainable development practices.

Due to poor governance the people are left to deal with starvation, malnutrition and a lot of other problems. Trapped in these existential problems, people are no longer interested in their political leaders and representatives. Ali Nawaz Panhwar of village Muhammad Jaffer Panhwar smiled and remained silent when asked about his political representative; when asked who he cast his vote for, he replied “Sain, I don’t know.” When voters don’t know the political leaders who have won on the basis of their votes, one can imagine the level of governance in the whole coastal belt area.

Some families own a few sheep for milk or meat
Some families own a few sheep for milk or meat

In the absence of any support from the government, people are thankful to only two entities, the shrines of the saints and the national and international donor agencies like UNDP, etc., which have been working for the development and sustainability of the coastal belt and its communities. According to Jameel Ahmed Memon, a devotee who was present at the shrine of Hazrat Syed Mehboob Shah Bukhari, “The people from coastal belt respect the saints and the shrines heartily. There are approximately 50 shrines in the region, and people like me are beneficiaries of them.” And while the saints provide solace, the development vacuum is filled by global organisations: In U-C Seerani, the UNDP-GEF SGP (Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme) has built a community centre where communities organise their traditional ceremonies like weddings, etc.

But the government can’t shrug off its responsibility; it needs to evolve an effective and efficient policy for the coastal belt; to improve health, safety, environment and social development infrastructure for the people of the whole region. People can’t be left just with hope only in the miracle of God.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 4th, 2015

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