Rain in Thar means food and water for all living creatures. The recent monsoon rains have transformed Sindh’s thirsty Thar desert and its sandy land into a lush blanket of wild grass, and the local farmers are ready to cultivate their land.
Ramji Meghwar, 45, from Charhail in district Tharparkar’s southern taluka Diplo, is using donkeys to plough his fields. “I can’t afford a tractor to plough my fields,” he says. There is a smile on his face as he speaks; July rains have been a blessing for farmers such as him.
May to June is a good time to sow crops, Meghwar says. But the rains didn’t come during that time. By August, it would have already been too late. But luck was on the farmers’ side this year. “July is the second best month for sowing and we hope to have a good harvest this season,” Meghwar says.
As heavy monsoon rains continue in Sindh and other parts of the country, the rainfall in the province, so far, has surpassed the 30-year average.
Monsoon rains may have restored Thar’s food basket but encroachments on grazing land by powerful landlords continue to limit fodder supply
While the rain has been a cause for concern in many parts of the country, for Thar’s farmers it is still a blessing. With extreme weather and pressure from powerful landlords, life in Thar is anything but easy for local Tharis.
Thar is the sixth largest desert in the world and covers 22,000 square kilometres. Over 900 square kilometres of this land is made up of wildlife sanctuaries. As the sun rises over Thar’s dunes, you can hear the tinkling of small and large bells around the necks of the cows, goats and sheep. Peacocks flutter their mesmerising feathers and wild birds chirp in the cool breeze.
The monsoon brings abundant water not only for livestock but also for the different inhabitants of the region, including night owls, eagles, falcons, rabbits, reptiles, snakes, lizards, deer and endangered vultures.
Most farmers, including Meghwar, still employ traditional farming methods, using donkeys and camels. Fifty-year-old farmer Manthar Nohari’s land is near Meghwar’s farm, and both believe that donkey or camel-driven farming is much more conducive to soil fertility.
On a breezy July morning, Nohari drops millet and cluster bean seeds on his farm using a tube-like tool, locally known as narri. “It is an environment-friendly method of cultivation,” he says.
“Thar needs maximum rainfall for a bumper production of crop, which includes fodder for cattle. We will be ready to harvest major crops such as bajra [pearl millet], guar [cluster bean], moong [mung bean] and keerray saim [moth bean] in three months.”
But, in just a month, fruits and vegetables such as guar, mushrooms, tinda [apple gourd], watermelons, snap melons and wild melons will already be available in the local markets in Mithi, Chhachhro, Diplo, Chelhar, Islamkot, Nagarparkar, Daheli and other adjacent areas in the neighbouring Umerkot and Mirpurkhas districts.
“Rain has revived natural ponds and wells, and we are also collecting rainwater in tanks and reservoirs,” says Danish Kumar, a young student, from Charhail. “It will last us for three to four months for drinking and domestic use.”
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
During the dry period, usually from December to May, Tharis survive on the grasses and residue that they have earlier plucked, dried and stored.
“Now that it has rained, fodder is available in abundance,” says Harish Jaipal. “Later in the month, we will collect it to feed the cattle during grass shortage or drought. This way we won’t need to purchase fodder.”
But while this month the climate may have been on their side, that is not always the case. Every year, scores of people are driven to climate migration within Sindh in search of fodder and livelihood because of extreme weather, chronic water shortages and a lack of opportunities.
“Five months ago, I moved with my family and cattle to the Kotri barrage area,” says Allah Danu, a herdsman who owns 30 cows. “But after heavy rains in Thar, we are going back home,” he says. For Allah Danu, who earns a living by selling milk, the desert will always be his home.
But for most of the year it can be an inhospitable home. If it weren’t, many would not move away. Meghwar is happy with the harvest this year. “We will not have to migrate to Kotri barrage [this year] for fodder and growing food,” he says.
Even when nature is on the side of local Tharis, they continue to face other challenges. They are still battling the issue of illegal encroachment of grasslands by powerful landlords, which deplete fodder resources and cause huge losses to those who don’t own land and rely on livestock as a source of income.
Sajan Parmar, a Mithi-based activist, says that poor Tharis who do not own land in the area graze their cattle on the grasslands. Large-scale cultivation is officially prohibited, since the colonial era in Thar. For every ten acres of cultivated land, 100 acres is supposed to be left as open land.
But this ‘open land’ is being encroached upon by the powerful. “The government should restore grasslands not only for cattle herders but also for biodiversity,” Parmar says.
“We are poor people and cannot fight powerful waderas [feudal landlords] who often use forceful means and armed robbers to occupy grasslands,” says Junaid Azad, who lives north of Mithi district. Azad alleges that a government officer’s encroachment and cultivation on 23 acres of grassland has even blocked a school. The school now remains shut because it is no longer accessible to people.
Ugo Mal, a 75-year-old villager from Mithi, says that several powerful individuals are complicit. Influential members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are trying to forcefully cut down trees on grazing land, he alleges.
“Despite requesting the district administration to take legal action, nothing has been done yet,” says Mal’s 24-year-old grandson Sanjay Kumar. “We fear that, at some point soon, the waderas will take over this land using armed robbers and we might lose life and property.”
On the face of it, it seems the authorities are finally taking notice. Muhammad Nawaz Sohoo, deputy commissioner Tharparkar, has issued a notification against encroachers. Taluka revenue officers and assistant commissioners of the district have also been directed to take action against encroachers and to clear the unauthorised occupation. Salmoon Ayub, additional deputy commissioner Tharparkar, has been appointed as the focal person to resolve the issues through a complaint cell.
Thari writer Noor Ahmed Janjhi challenges this, however. “The notification is just paperwork and not enforced in letter and spirit,” he says, adding that there is a “conflict of interest” involved for the authorities. Janjhi’s words carry a lot of weight. Despite the claims about the notification and complaint cell, the enquiry and complaint phones are not answered at the DC’s office.
Locals not only fear climate change and drought, but also the wrath of influential land grabbers. Thar’s food basket remains precarious. While last month’s rains have been a blessing for locals, their troubles are far from over for the upcoming year.
The writer is a Hyderabad-based environmental journalist
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 14th, 2022