Memories of Thar
THE story of famine in the Thar desert is a long and miserable one, filled with grief, desperation and death, affecting people, young and old, as well as livestock. If someone could gaze into the past, one could discover the occurrence of drought known as chhpnu - many people ominously termed it the 'black drought'.
It had hit in 1899 and went on for about 10 years. But at that time there were various natural indicators that warned local people of the approach of drought. One of these was the south-western howling wind, which would blow during all four seasons during the drought years. Otherwise in normal conditions the wind would only blow in the months of April and May - springtime in Thar. The movements of animals, birds and insects also warned the people in advance about the advent of the drought.
At the start of the drought the first victims would be the doves falling from the dried branches of trees out of thirst and hunger. They would die on the spot. In the second phase cows would drop from the dunes from hunger while goats would eat sand or bushes as a substitute for grass because of the non-existence of fodder in the shape of plants.
Out of all of Thar's livestock, the camel was the hardiest, staying alive in those tough conditions.
The 'ship of the desert' facilitated people's migration towards the 'green belt' of Sindh. Moreover, all the routes were buried under the sand because of harsh winds, leaving people lost. But it was the camel's credible instincts which led the Tharis to the nearest green belt. The humped animal was nothing less than a saviour.
At that time only some Rajput families owned big chunks of cultivable land. They used to pile up grain and dry grass for tougher times. Because of that they themselves and their cattle were able to survive in harsh conditions, and during the drought they did not have to migrate anywhere.
Their usual intake was camel milk and bread made from bajra (pearl millet), a modest diet that was capable of protecting them from various sorts of diseases also. But nearly 80pc of the people of Thar were poor and could not afford such 'luxuries', thus they had no option but to leave for the green belt.
At that time the nearest place of shelter for them was the Hakro river, a tributary of the mighty Indus at the brink of Thar that was filled with water for the whole year.
Fast-forward to the modern age, and it is an unusual fact that in the period of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, who belonged to Thar, served as Sindh chief minister; though he only got three years to govern, in those three years he built a network of roads in the far-flung areas of Thar.
This enabled people to reach well-todo areas to get relief even during difficult conditions. He was well aware of the conditions of Thar.
Yet it is a great tragedy that during the period of democracy Sindh has been drowned in the ugly waters of corruption and negligence.
Not only the politicians but the bureaucrats working under the politicians have turned out to be oblivious towards the problems of the common people of Sindh. The terrible behaviour of politicians and officers towards the drought in Thar is an example.
However, there are also some other factors behind the tragedies that have struck Thar this year. Rains come to Thar between July and the first half of September.
But tragically last year the rains came late. As a result, seeds did flourish, but the plants died before they could grow, because the second spell of rains did not take place.
The winter too was late in its arrival this year. After many years it was for the first time that the temperature reached zero in Thar. As a result of the harsh winter, children and vulnerable adults were overtaken by khirtio, a sort of pneumonia in which first the victim goes through a non-stop bout of coughing and in the second phase the lungs are affected.
At the same time asthma-like symptoms combine with the deadly pneumonia, thus the victim eventually takes his or her last breath. Already shortage of food and harsh environmental conditions signalled the coming of disaster. There was evidently no way out for the poor people to escape death. To some extent death is bearable, but the seemingly eternal wait for death is always unbearable.