Multiple crises in Thar

THE plight of the people of Thar has been part of the public debate for many days now, but there is little evidence of any adequate comprehension of its causes or a meaningful effort to find appropriate remedies.

As has been happening for quite a few years, Thar is again attracting media attention because a large number of children have died since the beginning of this year and as usual extremely simplistic analyses are being offered. The two-day debate on the Thar situation in the Sindh provincial assembly degenerated into a slanging match between the government and the opposition and neither side added anything new to the arguments that have become quite stale. The government continued to assert that children are not dying because of shortage of food although this argument has been accepted for quite some time.

Speaking on another occasion the Sindh chief minister indicated his awareness of the findings of health experts that the causes of the increase in child mortality in Thar lie in economic factors (unemployment, poverty, malnutrition among children and women) and socio-cultural practices (early marriages, births of children without proper gap between them).

But then he strayed into the stock official explanation and declared that “we have developed the area, established more BHUs, dispensaries, upgraded taluka hospitals and equipped the Mithi Civil Hospital with necessary gadgets and medicines”. He also claimed that the provincial government had installed 400 reverse osmosis plants and in the same breath conceded that another 700 plants were needed.

The government cannot be unaware of public complaints that many health facilities — as many as 70pc of the total, according to some reports — are not functioning for a variety of reasons, that many reverse osmosis plants too are not operating and that their location is often chosen to suit the convenience of the local satraps or contractors (too many plants close to one another and large areas are left uncovered).

The demographic changes in Tharparkar could lead to a human disaster of unimaginable proportions.

For several years now, health experts have been telling the government that the poor cannot derive due benefit from health facilities for three main reasons: premature births or birth of babies with dangerously low immunity to disease, lack of basic health cover in villages, and the absence of readily available transport to take sick children to a proper health facility. And, of course, tales of corruption are countless.

Now the government has set up a judicial commission comprising the same former judges who were assigned an apparently identical mission in 2014. Their report was never published. One does not know what the new commission’s terms of reference, if any, are, but it will not be out of place to point out that the suffering of the Thar population is due less to the ignorance of their problems and more to the failure to properly address them, even if the state can deny the absence of the will.

For instance, it is known that the land resources in Thar cannot sustain the vastly increased population and there is not enough fodder for the growing number of cattle either. There is no employment for the youth for up to 300 kilometres away from home. And on top of everything the government is apparently insensitive to the consequences of ill-planned development, the intrigues of land grabbers and what looks like organised efforts to change the demography of Tharparkar.

Nobody knows Thar better than Arif Hasan, who has been working there for more than 40 years and has conducted numerous studies on socio-economic issues. The authorities’ refusal to heed his reservations on the Thar coal project is nothing short of a scandal. He argues that the project could have been planned in a way that it yielded the desired economic benefits without causing an ecological disaster and great harm to the local community. Several issues need to be resolved through a mix of skill in planning and due respect for the rights and interests of the community affected. These issues are:

Firstly, the directly affected families’ need for pastoral land to prevent a disruption of their productive pursuits is not receiving attention. Without provision of such land their rehabilitation will be impossible.

Secondly, coal is to be extracted by digging pits — as deep as over 24 metres. The mounds of earth that will rise around the pits will affect the ecology. Besides, the natural flow of underground water will be disturbed and a great deal of polluted water will be pumped into the sea.

Thirdly, the arrival of project personnel and the emergence of services to meet their needs will have an extremely adverse effect on the traditional rural economy and the people’s living habits.

And, finally, the polluted air will affect the people not only in Islamkot but as far away as Nagarparkar.

Unless these issues are fully tackled, the Thar coal project could become a permanent cause of misery for the Thar population.

At the same time, the demographic changes taking place in Tharparkar could lead to a human disaster of unimaginable proportions. It is said that the non-Muslims who till recently constituted 74pc of the population of Tharparkar now account for around 45pc only. This change is not the result of any significant migration of the non-Muslims, its cause lies more in the arrival of Muslim settlers. The most prominent arrivals in Thar are described as “grabbers of land for setting up madressahs”. A Punjab-based militant organisation is said to have been allotted a large tract of land in Nagarparkar.

If this story is true, somebody in authority must intervene to prevent a horrible tragedy. Thar will lose much of its grandeur. The non-Muslim population’s reduction to a minority will be a grave injustice to a community that has a right to be counted among the best Pakistanis. It will also negate Pakistan’s claim to extension of protection to minorities and make this country a pariah among the nations of the world.

Will the new Thar commission or anyone else have the authority and good sense to look into these matters?