TO an outsider, the district of Tharparkar, or Thar, in Sindh may seem like a barren expanse of land where inhabitants struggle for survival in primitive conditions. But there is more to the region than meets the eye.
Thar, which has a population of nearly 1.65 million and covers an area of a little over 19,500 square kilometres, has undergone a slow but dramatic transformation over several decades, from colonial times to the modern world.
The region’s economy is no longer based on the barter system and nor are the livestock considered an integral part of the family. Selling milk is not taboo anymore and one can find it on their doorstep daily. Tharis now send and receive money and pay utility bills and school fees with a few taps of a finger, thanks to smartphones.
This is a far cry from the past when the only available transport used to be camels and the only communication link with the outside world was the post office, or maybe newspapers for some people. There were no schools, and students had to go to Hyderabad.
The district got a major boost in the 1980s when it was provided with basic facilities like roads and electricity. The transformation was slow, but it was finally happening.
Today, Thar’s 645 villages are connected to the power grid and its 1,992km road network links 900 villages.
Health facilities have improved as well. Snakebite and childbirth were used to be major medical emergencies and used to lead to death in some cases. However, treatment is now available for both in most towns. At the same time, every village now has a government-run school.
Life in Thar has also changed in another respect. In the past, it was considered a bad omen for men to leave the desert in search of livelihood. This has changed now as many breadwinners are working elsewhere and sending back remittances to their families. In fact, every next household is relying on remittances these days. These inflows have also spurred construction activity in the district, creating jobs like electricians, plumbers and carpenters.
On the flip side, water scarcity continues to be a problem for most residents, who rely on rainwater to grow crops. As for drinking water, an overwhelming majority depends on wells, which can go as deep as 50 to 300 feet depending on the type of soil and one may have to walk miles to fetch water.
Another menace that plagued the region in the past was caste-based discrimination, especially among the local Hindu population. Some people did not even invite others to weddings and funerals to avoid sharing crockery. But things have changed now, and the dated social practice has vanished.
Modern facilities and technology have played the role of a catalyst in minimising differences between people from
various castes, races, colours and creeds. Let us hope that Thar and its people will continue to prosper in the years to come.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2022