THAR is a unique and vibrant part of Pakistan. Some describe it as the land of peace and peacocks. Others talk of its mountain of coal reserves. In recent years, however, the desert region has largely been making headlines for the death of children from malnutrition and disease. The death count in 2018 alone climbed up to over 500, the highest in four years. Figures for previous years are equally disturbing: 450 in 2017, 479 in 2016, and 396 in 2015.
While the Sindh government kept trying to downplay the issue by claiming that the figures were equal or even less than those reported from other districts, the Supreme Court, using its suo motu powers, converted newspaper reports of infant deaths into a human rights case early last year.
After censuring the provincial government in nearly every hearing, the top court issued a final verdict on Dec 27, 2018, asking the government to take concrete measures to address the issue by providing basic services such as healthcare, education and food to the people of Thar. The three-member bench headed by former chief justice Saqib Nisar also ordered the formation of an independent monitoring committee to report on a quarterly basis the progress made by the government in this regard. In an unusual measure, two weeks before the verdict, the bench also visited Thar to gather first-hand information on the severity of the situation.
The Sindh chief minister, who accompanied the chief justice, mentioned that the top judge was impressed by the hospital in Mithi and appreciated the provincial government’s work, but the written statement of the bench told a different story. In a seven-page verdict, Justice Ijazul Hassan wrote that the bench was “disturbed, disappointed and dismayed to find that the condition of hospitals and healthcare facilities was in a dismal state...”
The PPP has turned Thar into an issue of ego.
“The main hospital in Mithi was understaffed, testing lab was in a state of disarray, the operation theatre did not even meet basic requirements of hygiene and cleanliness and to top of it all there was no surgeon, the main X-Ray machine was dysfunctional since 2008,” he wrote. The court asked the government to set up the Thar Development Authority (TDA) to devise policies and take steps in providing basic necessities to Thar.
Remedies such as those prescribed in the latest court order are not new. In March 2016, the Sindh High Court appointed a commission which recommended TDA to operate as an umbrella organisation to coordinate development work in the desert region. The Sindh government immediately accepted the recommendation and even drafted a bill for setting up the authority in the Sindh Assembly. Three years down the road, the bill never became law, nor were any other steps taken towards the creation of such an authority. Other recommendations made by the commission met a similar fate.
Then, in April 2016, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) sent a mission to Thar headed by chairman (retired justice) Ali Nawaz Chowhan, who was a former judge at the International Court of Justice. The Chowhan Commission findings were not very different from what was described by the Supreme Court. The NCHR recommended immediate, medium-term and long-term measures to address the issues facing Thar, particularly with reference to the death of children. Had these recommendations been implemented, the situation might have been different, and hundreds of lives could have been saved.
Unfortunately, the provincial government has remained reluctant to accept the situation on the ground. The PPP has turned Thar into an issue of ego. It keeps blaming the media and political opponents of maligning the provincial government in the name of the children in Thar.
The Sindh government is yet to notify the official members of the monitoring committee, even after the passage of a month. Hence, the proposed committee is yet to conduct its first meeting. This reluctance is the key issue, which obviously results in lack of political will to find a permanent solution that might require actions beyond merely filling in doctors’ positions and distributing wheat among the population.
Analysts have rightly described Thar as a classic example of bad governance. Despite its 11 years of rule in Sindh, the PPP has not been able to resolve a simple health crisis in a single district with a population of just over one million. The death of children is just a reflection of long-time marginalisation and extreme poverty in the region, for which no one is willing to take responsibility. Until and unless the core issue of social and economic exclusion is addressed in Thar with concrete long-term planning, the mere monitoring of ad hoc government actions may never yield the desired results.
The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2019