Tharparkar: Drought, Development, and Social Change
By Arif Hasan
Ushba, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699154553
436pp.

In his new book Tharparkar: Drought, Development, and Social Change, architect and city planner Arif Hasan has captured — in the simple yet powerful writing style so familiar to his readers — his long association with this district of Sindh. The association stretches over decades, through his engagement in various projects, formal commissions by several institutions and informal baithaks [meetings] with Thari individuals and communities.

The book is structured clearly and presents facts, observations and analyses in a cohesive and convincing way. It is part academic article, part technical report and part travelogue and memoir. The book comprises three distinct sections, labelled ‘Drought’, ‘Development’ and ‘Social Change’.

The first section explores the conditions that led to the drought of 1987 and describes Hasan’s visits to Tharparkar to document the impacts of this phenomenon on local communities and economies.

Section Two details the Thar Rural Development Project (TRDP) — how it was formulated as a policy outcome of the 1987 drought, the socio-economic and spatial changes it proposed, and the interventions it (un)successfully brought about.

Arif Hasan’s latest book explores the changes to Tharparkar through his own long and rich association with the region

Section Three describes the more recent changes within Tharparkar as a result of new roads, increased tourism and the impacts of the Thar Coal project, and speculates what this spells for the future of Thar, not just as a physical region, but also as a culture, an imaginary and a policy deliverable for the government of Sindh.

In exploring the reasons behind Thar’s present conditions, Hasan mentions two specific disjunctures in the region’s social history: Partition, which violently ruptured the broader regional associations between families and communities; and the more recent Thar Coal project, which has brought about unprecedented disruption at multiple levels.

The coal project has caused both physical and spatial changes as well as social and domestic changes, such as forcing those displaced by coal-mining to move into a vivarium of cosmetic housing typologies — supposed to mimic authentic communities, but considered inappropriate by the villagers — built by the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), which is a joint venture between the Sindh government and the Engro Corporation.

Hasan’s book creates a chronologically structured narrative that is personal as well as an attempt to provide an objective account of the changes that have taken place in Tharparkar. The author describes the physical features of 1980s’ Thar — its topography, water resources, vegetation and livestock economy — which sets up a basic understanding of the context for the lay reader to situate the socio-political implications of the climatic factors described ahead.

Today, this description reads like an archive of invaluable recollections: Hasan exoticises the Thar of that era, when the region was “another world” where “foxes and porcupines crossed the road” and “timings were determined by the stars and shadows cast by sunlight.” Perhaps it was these fond early memories that lured him to keep returning to Thar over the next three decades.

By being engaged in Thar for such a long time, Hasan was able to catch the earliest signs of how road and trade links to urban Sindh altered the cognitions and aspirations of the Thari communities, and how this reflected in the ways they started to dress, talk and conduct trade. He witnessed — first-hand, as well as through detailed conversations with locals — how the priorities of the Tharis started to shift: from a passionate attachment to tradition, to a curiosity for new technologies, products and services such as standardised education.

As the region’s economy started to integrate with that of wider Sindh during the 1980s and 1990s, a number of other visible changes also began taking place, notably in the spatial expansion of traditional markets and the upgrading of housing materials and structures within smaller towns.

Hence, Hasan emphasises how the 1987 famine should be attributed not only to episodic droughts but, more importantly, to these social, economic and demographic shifts in the lives of the desert dwellers, which compounded the effects of the drought to create famine-like conditions for particular populations.

He stresses how, traditionally, Thar and its population had been able to withstand severe climatic conditions by relying on embedded knowledges and practices, and by extending support through rural social networks that had only recently begun to dissociate as people began to “urbanise”, leaving communities vulnerable against sudden natural disasters.

A traditional Thari house made of mud, cow dung and a thatched roof, built approximately 30 years ago
A traditional Thari house made of mud, cow dung and a thatched roof, built approximately 30 years ago

A prominent strength of the book is the detailed appendices that make up its second half, providing data sources and terms of reference and agreements between the various agencies working in Thar, as well as route plans and schedules of field visits conducted by Hasan’s own team. These tables and diagrams set up a replicable methodology in terms of identifying data-generating organisations, the logistics of fieldwork and the kinds of secondary sources that could supplement similar fieldwork in the future.

The book also presents interesting ways to organise and methodise rural ethnography. Although this is not an explicitly stated aim, it provides the tools and a replicable audit trail that might be helpful for a new generation of scholars in urban and rural anthropology.

Despite not being formally structured as an ethnographic manual with memos, notes and active journaling, it gives rich insights into fieldwork, route-planning, active engagement and the contingencies of data collection that can be of immense value for new researchers, field workers, mappers and writers in economics, development studies and social policy, who may be planning to venture into rural Sindh.

However, there is at least one downside: the photographs included within are all black-and-white and of low contrast. This makes it difficult to appreciate visually the incredibly rich details of the mandirs [temples], communal practices and the desertscape, as well as the damaging impacts of the coal project.

Those of us fortunate enough to have visited Tharparkar at least once would fondly recall from hazy memory its desaturated greens, dusky browns and paling yellows; shaky mirages over the horizon; and the fading of thatch roof into sand dune. With black-and-white photographs, all of that chromatic bliss is left only to the memory — or imagination — of the reader.

Another minor shortcoming is that the appendices on demographic growth are cited directly from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in their original format. Perhaps processing these into visual graphs would have provided instantly readable snapshots of demographic trends of the particular decades under discussion.

Tharparkar’s changing region constitutes a critical moment in the urbanisation story of Sindh, in not just the changes to the province’s rural economies and socio-cognitive and lifestyle patterns, but also in the stories of the rapid growth of its secondary towns, peripheral urbanisation and spillover externalities, such as unregulated land use.

Researching Thar presents an opportunity for those planning our rural and urban policies to connect more deeply with the field, listen closely to stories from the ground and formulate not just more effective policy trajectories, but also contingency-based plans for unprecedented climatic or economic events that will keep surfacing as development propelled by coal extraction continues in this region.

For Hasan, Tharparkar demands a long-term policy commitment, requiring deep and persistent embeddedness in the field. Thar cannot be a one-time, grant-led, project-based solution and “the creation of new and viable social institutions” should underlie all attempts to develop Thar.

In this, Hasan posits a strong hope for the “communal” aspect of Tharparkar, that eventually Thari individuals and communities might be able to absorb and assimilate the new knowledge, technologies and lifestyle changes for the betterment of the region, and not to its further degradation.

He also hopes they would be able to hold off the onslaught of external entrepreneurs, investors and land developers who would wish to terraform the region into a cluster of monotonous housing schemes, bland commercial nuclei and generic leisure zones.

The reviewer is Associate Director, Karachi Urban Lab, and teaches Urban Studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. He tweets @a8junea

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2022

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