A VISIT to most villages in Sindh is a journey back in time. Pot-holed roads, overflowing open sewerage drains, closed government schools and barefoot children playing in the dirt. Women run their homes much as they did a century ago; fuelling their stoves with buffalo dung, struggling to drain rainwater from their mud huts and putting up makeshift toilets.
Economically, too, things are in a shambles. Men mostly work as farm labour which saves them little more than some grain since the share-cropping system serves the land owners more than the workers. Other than occasional casual labour, there are few opportunities. Out of frustration, most men spend their days and nights in gambling dens betting on everything from cricket to rooster fights. Even skilled workers, such as masons who can earn as much as Rs900 a day when there’s work, often lose their entire month’s income to this addiction. This means women have to work even harder embroidering traditional caps or bedding for a paltry benefit and at great damage to their eyesight.
The most startling is the stark absence of government. Other than the occasional policeman or lady health worker, it’s not uncommon to see no government representation or intervention. As a result, infrastructure is in a crumbling state. Even in areas where clean sub-soil water is available 70 feet below the ground, there are neither public hand-pumps to draw water nor programmes making it easy for families to install these at home. There’s no system to handle waste-water; neither to recycle it nor to dispose of it safely.
Government is absent in Sindh’s villages.
Government schools are either non-functional or crumbling and barely productive. People don’t have access to gas or electricity; even if connections are available, they’re usually illegal and therefore unreliable. Those without the means to afford even a modest one-room home have no means to aspire to shelter from the searing heat either.
When a child falls sick, mothers often resort to weeping at the tombs of pirs without access to efficient healthcare. Sometimes, government dispensaries will be stocked with basic medication to treat malaria or dysentery. But not always. Moreover, a large number of children in Sindh suffering from complex conditions such as congenital heart disease often go undiagnosed and untreated.
In some places, NGOs try to fill the gap but because most of them focus on just one aspect of development and due to the paucity of funds or the lack of integration with communities, they’re often unable to make a meaningful impact on village life.
The matter is made worse by centuries of feudal culture that has made people accustomed to handouts seen as generous contributions to the poor.
This is a great part of the problem rather than a solution. The more handouts people get, the more indebted they feel and the less likely they are to stand up against unfair decisions or develop a sense of self-esteem. The concept of leading their own development is virtually alien to them.
Yet, in these villages where most elders haven’t led infrastructure development efforts or found effective ways to solve education, health and income-generation problems that afflict their people, some other solution is a must. Waiting for the government to become present and effective, and that too in rural areas, hasn’t so far been beneficial. Until people are given the courage and facilitation to start owning their villages and taking a leading and active role in their own development, much of this bleak landscape is unlikely to change.
If NGOs become facilitators rather than outright providers and help organise communities one village at a time, their contribution will be much deeper and far-reaching than it is now. Indeed village elders and landowners can play this role just as easily too.
There are three immediate ways to do this. Organise women into groups with self-selected team leaders to begin small savings and loans among themselves; these women will eventually become the drivers of education for their children. Second, organise youth into groups responsible for different aspects of village life: street cleaning and facilitating patients through the cumbersome government hospital process are two essential examples. And third, organise men into village councils to develop consensus policy about what aspects of development need to be addressed and how they can contribute to the process and find appropriate facilitators.
Motivating these groups to show them that they need not wait for government intervention or pity their fate and to help them realise that handouts eventually cripple their thinking and solve only immediate problems is time consuming but revolutionary work. Given how village life has remained static or even declining over the decades and centuries, an effort to organise communities and encourage them to lead their own development may prove to be far more effective than the political solution we’re still waiting for.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2015