Mul­ti­ple crises in Thar

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - I.A. Rehman

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 fa­cili- ties - 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).

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.

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