HOW ROADS CHANGED THARPARKAR

Published October 9, 2022
The construction of roads has changed not only the landscape of Thar but brought great sociological changes to the region | Tahir Jamal/White Star
The construction of roads has changed not only the landscape of Thar but brought great sociological changes to the region | Tahir Jamal/White Star

The main recommendation of the 1987 report on drought and famine conditions in Thar, prepared by the author, was that the changes taking place in Thar could only be consolidated through increased mobility and linkages of Thar with the rest of Pakistan in general and Karachi and Hyderabad in particular.

It was felt that, if a road-building programme did not take place, the inequities in Thari society would increase, since those who could hire or possess four-wheel drives would be the main beneficiaries of Thar’s huge mineral and livestock potential.

For mobility and linkages to happen, a road-building programme had been recommended, which envisaged linking the four Thar taluka headquarters with one another and with the national road network. However, it was not till the Musharraf era (2000-08) that a road-building programme commenced.

The roads have made transportation cheaper and easier. The old six-wheeler kekra [World War II era American truck], which was slow and consumed enormous amounts of energy plying on the desert tracks, has been replaced by normal Bedford trucks, which are cheaper to run and can carry 250 maunds as opposed to 150 maunds carried by the kekras.

Architect and planner Arif Hasan has been visiting the Tharparkar region since 1978 and wrote the first sociological assessment of the Thar drought of 1987, which challenged the then government assessments of the reasons for the famine conditions in the desert. His latest book, Tharparkar: Drought, Development and Social Change brings together his observations over the last 44 years. Eos presents, with permission, an excerpt from the book...

It is claimed by the transporters that, earlier, it used to take three hours from Mithi to Naukot, but now this has been reduced to one hour. They also claim that the cost of petrol/diesel and maintenance of vehicles have been reduced by 20 per cent.

With the building of the road network, trade and commerce has increased substantially. Thar’s agricultural produce now goes to distant markets — six to seven lorries per day carry onions from Nagarparkar to Lahore, and vegetables and fruit from other areas of Sindh and Punjab are now easily available in Thar.

Unlike the situation that prevailed 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 have multiplied and sell items such as baby diapers, something quite unimaginable before. Every hour an air-conditioned bus, complete with TV and Wi-Fi (owned mainly by Pakhtuns and people of Mianwali based in Karachi) leaves for or arrives in Mithi.

The number of taxis operating in Thar has increased from 150 to over 400, while the qingqis in Mithi have increased from over 150 to over 300 since 2013. These taxis carry passengers not only within Thar but to distant locations all over Pakistan, while the qingqis have almost completely replaced transport animals such as camels and bullocks.

Bank loans for the purchase of taxis are available, but to buy the qingqis and trucks, one can only borrow from the informal market. Interest rates against loans are high and vary depending on how much advance payment can be made by the borrower, or if property or land can be mortgaged against the loan. Spare parts and mechanics for the maintenance of the taxis and qingqis are locally available, which was not so in 2000 and, very often, the vehicles had to be taken to Umerkot for maintenance purposes.

Almost all these different types of vehicles have no insurance, since the owners find insurance rates far too expensive and prefer to put their trust in God. The qingqi and taxi owners have no association but are of the opinion that they desperately need one to negotiate with government agencies and fight against the bhatta [protection money] that the police extorts from them.

An association is also necessary to resist pressure from national transporters’ associations, who coerce the Thari transporters to call a strike on their advice. This was not an issue in the past, because the kekras, which the new vehicles replaced, were collectively owned by seths in Umerkot and Naukot. One truck driver pointed out that there was a desperate need for a driving school in Mithi, because people who were learning to drive were dangerous and caused a large number of animal deaths.

Changing Lifestyles

Access to and from other parts of the country has led to the proliferation of market spaces in Thar | Courtesy: Arif Hasan
Access to and from other parts of the country has led to the proliferation of market spaces in Thar | Courtesy: Arif Hasan

The roads have also brought about a change in lifestyles and supported people in fulfilling their aspirations and needs. For instance, the kekras have been converted into water tankers; people can now actually order one by phone, to pick up water from Mithi and deliver it to the village. In many neighbourhoods, this is now the preferred source of potable water. The tanker is often shared by many families and this is encouraging the construction of individual underground water tanks.

Similarly, access to healthcare units, especially to the Civil Hospital in Mithi, has become a lot easier and faster, and has been of special importance in maternity-related cases. At a meeting of lady health workers (LHWs) attended by my colleagues and myself in 2011, the LHWs requested that they be given motorbikes now that roads had been built, as this would make their work easier. When told that their husbands and sons would not agree, one of them said that, earlier, they had not agreed to us working but now we work; so tomorrow we will also ride motorbikes.

A major change has also occurred in gender relations — males are less restrictive; there is an increase in education and hygiene; women can now move around without male escorts; women have more say in domestic affairs; and have learnt to talk and carry themselves with confidence, as they have got rid of fear. Before, they had to take permission to go to their parents’ house, but that is not so anymore in the majority of cases.

Clothes have also changed and, as one Thari woman put it, they now prefer to dress for ‘fashion’ as opposed to tradition. People have stopped using asli ghee [clarified butter] and taken to Dalda, and they no longer use bajra [millet] bread but purchase flour instead. As one old Thari put it: “Earlier, we would eat what we grew. Now, we sell what we grow and buy what we eat.”

In addition, weapons’ shops, the consumption of liquor, eating out and discussions on inter-caste marriages are increasing and becoming acceptable. Religious groups have also multiplied and have become the cause of considerable tension between different religions. There is also considerable questioning of the latter trend by a nascent civil society.

The number of shops has also increased — in Mithi there were 20 to 25 grocery shops in 2015, as opposed to seven or eight 10 years earlier. In some villages we visited, there were six to seven kiriana [grocery] shops, where only one or two existed in 1998. Earlier, their owners used to travel to Hyderabad to buy goods but, today, because of the road and mobile phone, they just order the items from Karachi and the transporter delivers them. The clients at the stores are both rural and urban.

Livelihoods

Procurement of alternative energy sources like solar panels, easily accessible via the road network, has enabled Tharis to produce and consume goods that were previously scarce in the desert | White Star
Procurement of alternative energy sources like solar panels, easily accessible via the road network, has enabled Tharis to produce and consume goods that were previously scarce in the desert | White Star

Almost all the villages visited by me over the last decade and a half are still engaged in agriculture and herding. The majority of households do not own cattle or land and, although a minority, there are also villages where families do not have goats either.

Government jobs are preferred because of job security and because they add to the respectability of the person. However, the number of persons working in the public sector are negligible and are found only in better-off villages. The majority of households encountered do labour in the barrage areas or in the urban centres of Thar or Sindh.

Meghwar men also work in the garment industry in Karachi, where they save Rs 10-12,000 a month. These persons spend about four months getting trained in Karachi for the job. During this time, they receive no pay. The question is, can they be trained in Thar before they leave for Karachi? They also work as masons and building contractors in Thar’s expanding urban areas.

Spread all over Thar, the Meghwar community is endowed with great artisanal skills. Embroidery and weaving are their two more significant skills. They produce carpets, shawls, blankets (khatta), kurtas, tablecloths, bedcovers and trinkets, which are in great demand. In fact, business is so good that many middlemen have opened outlets in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and a number of smaller towns in Sindh and the Punjab. Access to these markets was previously difficult but, with the building of roads, this has become much easier.

Women can now move around without male escorts; women have more say in domestic affairs; and have learnt to talk and carry themselves with confidence, as they have got rid of fear. Before, they had to take permission to go to their parents’ house, but that is not so anymore in the majority of cases. Clothes have also changed and, as one Thari woman put it, they now prefer to dress for ‘fashion’ as opposed to tradition.

In addition, tourism has expanded in Thar and tens of thousands of people visit the area every year after the rains and for the many religious festivals that the desert celebrates. The expansion of NGOs and the roads, put together, have helped increase both international and elite domestic tourism. Businesses dealing in handicrafts claim that they can increase their market size if a proper tourism programme is initiated by the government or a private enterprise. Women, who are the most important producers of handicrafts, should logically be the main beneficiaries of such a programme.

Twenty to 25 carpentry workshops have started functioning in Thar over the past 10 years. The carpenters are from the rural areas of Thar, where they worked for the rural population, who paid them in grain. According to them, they have migrated from the traditional beygaar [unpaid labour] and caste culture and are now paid in cash, which has given them both social and economic mobility.

They have strong links with Karachi, since they import timber from there. They also use local Thari timber, but there is growing resistance to it, as the trees, especially the kandi [Prosopis cineraria], are fast disappearing. The carpenters say that if they are provided loans for buying power tools, they could easily increase their work, as the demand for carpentry is unmet.

The building of roads has also led to the establishment of petrol pumps, CNG [compressed natural gas] outlets, and maintenance services for vehicles. This has created a very large number of jobs and brought in money to the rural areas. In addition, building materials, especially burnt bricks that were imported from the barrage areas at considerable cost, have become cheaper by about 18 percent.

Roads have also helped in the increase of salt and china clay mining and there has been a growth in the number of enterprises in this sector. There is general consensus that this has also resulted in more jobs, especially for those villages that are next to the mines. The lives of the families who have benefitted from this growth in the job market have changed and the first investments they make is in the building of pakka houses, with steel channel and brick-tiled roofs. Another important investment is in motorbikes, which makes flexible and faster mobility possible. People have sold their camels and donkeys to buy motorbikes.

THE NEGATIVES OF DEVELOPMENT

However, a number of negative aspects were also discussed in village community meetings, especially in a 2011 visit. For household fuel, the population was still dependent on devi [mesquite] bushes. Many wanted gas cylinders and said that, with added income, they would be able to afford them.

Everyone complained of the disappearance or encroachment of gowcher [pasture] lands, because of government agencies or powerful individuals. Because the area is now connected by roads, land has become more expensive, which only the rich can buy to accommodate their enlarged families.

While people earn more, they also spend more, very often on things that they don’t really need. For instance, fresh milk is readily available in Tharparkar, but there is a growing preference for tetra pack milk and the use of mineral water is becoming increasingly popular — and to top it all, in weddings, baraats [wedding processions] no longer come in kekras, but in cars.

With the coming of roads, incidents of thefts have increased and the old method of investigating crime, by tracking footprints in the sand, is no longer feasible. No one abides by parking rules and regulations and so, although there are very few vehicles, traffic jams are not uncommon. Accidents involving cattle have increased substantially, and wildlife which was commonly seen while travelling on desert tracks is not visible anymore.

The coming of roads and the pressures of ‘modern life’ has also led to the establishment of a media sector, which is generating jobs in various taluka headquarters. Press clubs have developed where people can voice their concerns and show support or opposition to government policies. This is creating a more aware and politically involved population, and is providing news about Thar not only to Pakistan but also internationally, through channels such as the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] and VOA [Voice of America]. The more educated young Tharis are already working as journalists and reporters in the media industry and their number is growing.

One important trade that is seldom discussed, unless prompted, is related to wool and animal hair. An extensive discussion on it is available in the 1992 TRDP [Thardeep Rural Development Programme] evaluation and it was again touched upon by my colleague Mansoor Raza and myself in the bazaar in Islamkot.

It has been stated by middlemen in the trade that 10,000 maunds of wool are dispatched to the Karachi market every season and also to India. In Thar, this wool is used for making shawls. It is claimed that, if a mill for making thread from wool is set up in Thar, it would generate jobs and capital. But thread-making needs skill and training, so a training centre would be required. The cost of such a mill would be Rs 15 million and the process would also require non-saline water.

Impact on Agriculture

Physical mobility has brought with it impacts on livelihoods, education and culture | Courtesy: Arif Hasan
Physical mobility has brought with it impacts on livelihoods, education and culture | Courtesy: Arif Hasan

The roads have also impacted the agricultural sector. Animals can now be stall-fed with fodder from the barrage areas because of cheaper means of transport. Migration to the barrage lands in times of drought has become easier and trucks can also be used to transport animals. Because of the roads, men who migrated with their animals can also visit their families unlike before and, with the help of a mobile phone, can keep in touch with them. More than once it was mentioned that, because of the mobile phone, the mother could talk to her daughter who was married to a man in another village.

The building of roads and change in attitudes has encouraged the use of tractors for ploughing the land. This has damaged agricultural land and made it less productive, because tractor ploughing turns a much larger volume of soil than that done by an animal and, in Thar, only the top soil is productive. Tractor use is as expensive as using an animal (such as a camel) but it is much quicker, since it ploughs in less time.

Climate change is also affecting agricultural production in Tharparkar. Rain patterns have already changed, and this is affecting cropping patterns and will eventually also affect the technology of production. Fertiliser and pesticide has also increased and, with the use of the tractor, it is also destroying friendly insects and the soil. With increasing urbanization, the land under cultivation is also decreasing.

Education

There is a growing desire among young people to give up farming, although their elders find it difficult to come to terms with this reality. But farming and herding has to be replaced by something. To that end, the younger generation feels that they need to be trained as electricians, plumbers and tailors, and learn how to use industrial machines. This, they feel, would equip them for work in the urban markets of Sindh and beyond.

In every village visited, education was a priority, but it was claimed that at most only 50 per cent of the village children go to school. One of the reasons given for such low attendance is that, in most cases, there were no female teachers and not enough male teachers. There was also a lack of sufficient classrooms.

With the building of roads, the villagers are now more willing to send their children to school, including girls, since schools are easier to access. In case there are no schools in the village, they are even willing to send their children to the school of the neighbouring village. This holds especially true for villages that do not have middle and high schools.

However, they do not want to send their girls for higher school education to Mithi if it means living in a hostel. Living with relatives is also becoming impossible, since extended family relations were “not what they used to be.” This is in marked contrast to what a number of villages had demanded in 1998, that the government establish hostel facilities for girls at the taluka headquarters. Maybe this change is because of increased insecurity, given the anarchy that exists in other parts of Sindh.

With the building of roads, better incomes and contacts with the urban centres of Sindh, a demand for private schools has also risen and a number of them are operating today. Private schools have never been discussed earlier and nor has there been, to the best of Thari intellectuals and activists, a demand for them. But the demand has increased and a number of private schools are operating today.

In the opinion of Dr Khatau Mal, a prominent Thari intellectual, Thar needs O and A Level schools, so as to produce an elite that is at par with the elite of Sindh’s urban areas, and which will help them get into important decision-making jobs in the province and at the centre. Dr Khatau gave the example of a similar process followed in the Punjab and KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa], which helped in poverty alleviation and in the creation of an involved middle class. The counter-argument to this is that, once educated, the middle class would prefer to live in Karachi, Hyderabad and Islamabad, and only come back to Thar when it’s time to die.

A number of Thari activists have also argued that the migration of the potential middle class from the rural to urban areas will be a loss to the village, because it is this middle class that is the voice of the village. If they migrate, then only the landlord and the poor peasant would remain.

Another question that was raised was that people migrate in search of better education and facilities, business opportunities and professional jobs — can they not be provided in Mithi?

It was also pointed out, naming names, that the children of many Tharis who had studied in Karachi and Hyderabad abandoned Thar. It was further said that some sort of major investment in industry was needed to create professional and high-end jobs in the desert, with priority of employment given to the residents of Thar.

Human Settlements

The old parts of the taluka headquarters in Tharparkar were segregated by caste. The lower castes, who cleaned the town and lifted the excreta, lived in the outskirts and wastewater and sewage was dumped in the depressions. Brick-paved open drains carried the sewage and wastewater to their disposal points. The neighbourhoods were clean simply because of the presence of a hereditary professional caste, whose job it was to keep them clean. This has changed to a great extent, because of large-scale rural-urban migration within Thar especially in the last 20 years.

With the building of roads and markets at some distance from the old neighbourhoods, new shopping areas, bus terminals, storage facilities and eating places have developed. With Tharparkar becoming a district in 1990, government and semi-government buildings, hotels, guest houses and government residential accommodation have also been built away from the old neighbourhoods. So one can say that, while the old town still exists, it is in a state of decay, and the new town, which has not been really built so far, is developing without a cohesive planning strategy.

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 and there has also been considerable densification of the existing built form. The construction boom is so large that steel for reinforced concrete construction, when this note was first written in 2014, was short in supply. Contractors also claimed that local timber for traditional construction was 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 organise to occupy and settle land on the immediate periphery of the urban areas. Before moving on to the land, they find out about its status and make preparations of dealing with any problem that is likely to surface during the process of occupation.

The support of an influential in the process and the large number of persons involved in settling provide the necessary security from eviction. Once the settlement is established, they lobby with their elected representatives for a road link and electricity and promise their votes in return. These unplanned, randomly located settlements are an ecological disaster that will be a nightmare for future planners.

There is a need to document and direct this development so that the towns of Thar do not face the same problems as the towns of the rest of Sindh do today. For documentation purposes and planning, mid-level expertise is required and, hence, the establishment of a mapping and survey school and a polytechnic institute would be helpful.

Migrants give different reasons for migrating. One reason was that, in the village, the landlord made life difficult for them because, unlike their ancestors, they were not willing to do beygaar for them. Also, unlike conditions in the villages, they could do cash-paid work on a daily basis, educate their children, and become azaad [free]. All those spoken to had no intention of going back.

Excerpt reproduced with permission from Tharparkar: Drought, Development and Social Change by Arif Hasan, published in 2022 by Ushba Publishing International

The author is an architect and urban planner

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 9th, 2022

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