Thar revisited

Updated April 26, 2017


“Before we ate what we grew. Now we sell what we grow and buy what we eat” — a Thari elder

MY first visit to Thar (Sindh) was in 1978 and since then I have visited it 17 times for recreation, work and research. I have seen it change from an isolated region with a caste-based subsistence barter economy to the transition it is in today. During a recent visit, my colleagues and I spoke to various sections of Thari society including transporters, market operators, middlemen, recent migrants to Mithi, and school teachers. What is given below are my observations and a synopsis of what people said.

The most visible change in Thar is the construction of high-quality major roads and a profusion of secondary roads linking settlements to them. A large number of tankers now carry water from the outlets on the pipeline from the barrage areas and the RO (reverse osmosis) plants that have been established in the past four years. People however, feel that the RO plants are unreliable as they are of substandard quality and are expensive and intensive to maintain and operate. They feel, with good reason, that the canal source is more sustainable.

Every hour an air-conditioned bus, complete with TV and Wi-Fi (owned by Karachi Pakhtuns and Mianwals), leaves for or arrives in Mithi from Karachi. In the last four years, the number of taxis operating in Thar has increased from 150 to over 400 while the Qingqis in Mithi alone have increased from 150 to over 350. The taxis carry passengers not only within Thar, but increasingly to distant locations all over Pakistan while the Qingqis have completely replaced transport animals.

Capitalism is making inroads in Thar.

Because of the roads, Thar’s agricultural produce now goes to distant markets. Six to seven trawlers per day carry onions from Nagarparkar to Lahore. Vegetables and fruit from other areas of Sindh and Punjab are now easily available. Unlike 15 years ago, there are cattle markets in the taluka headquarters so the Tharis do not have to make the long trek on foot to Juddo to sell their animals. Shops carrying industrially produced household food and other items have multiplied and sell items unimaginable before, such as baby pampers.

The other visible change is the expansion of settlements on the periphery and within Mithi and Islamkot. Google maps show that Mithi’s spread has increased by over 200 per cent since 2012. New construction is of concrete and not in the traditional Thari style. The construction boom is so large that steel for reinforced concrete construction is short in supply. It was also said that local timber for traditional construction is no longer available due to deforestation.

The new settlements are established by enterprising individuals who occupy state land, subdivide it and sell it to the migrants. Increasingly, however, groups of up to 50 households move together to occupy and settle on land on the immediate periphery of the urban areas. Once established, they lobby with their elected representatives for a road link and electricity. These unplanned, randomly located settlements are an ecological disaster and will be a nightmare for future planners and officials.

Migrants give different reasons for migrating. One, that in the village the landlord made life difficult for them since, unlike their ancestors, they were not willing to do baygar for him. Also, in the towns, unlike in the village, they can get cash paid work on a daily basis, get their children educated and also become azad. All those spoken to had no intention of going back.

Village carpenters and other artisans have also migrated to the towns where, unlike the village, there is a lot of work and payments are made in cash as opposed to grain. Their leaving has left the village impoverished. We were also informed in 2012 that there were a few hundred Tharis working in the garment industries in Karachi whereas today, there are “thousands” and increasing.

The changes given here are the result of inroads that capitalism is making in Thar. The role of the coal project in the future of the district is another story. Here it is sufficient to say that the better-off entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and landlords see it as a welcome opportunity. The intellectuals, smaller businessmen and cultivators see it as an ecological disaster, an uncompensated land grab by outsiders, a destroyer of tangible and intangible culture which will marginalise them further and increase the rich-poor divide.

For the future of Thar, it is necessary to understand the changes taking place; their actors and factors, and support, curtail or direct them for overcoming environmental degradation and the social inequities inherent in them. This understanding and responding to processes is something that capitalism cannot do and is the domain of the state and civil society.

The writer is an architect.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2017