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Tuesday 28th June 2022 / 28 Zulkaedah 1443

The plight of Thar:  Who is to blame for premature death of children?

It is difficult to say what level of outrageous tragedy is needed to shake the Sindh government and its machinery out of its trance. For long now again, the Thar Desert in the province has been in the headlines.

From a severe shortage of clean drinking water in the drought-hit area to the insufficiency of access to basic medical facilities that can gratify the needs of a population that is already burdened by poverty, to the deaths of several children due to malnutrition and disease, Thar has seen much devastation.

Thar — the Future of Pakistan

The population of Tharparkar district is around 1.65 million and Thar is spread over both sides of India and Pakistan where life always remained hard because of the non-availability of basic needs of life. Among the 29 districts of Sindh in Pakistan, Tharparkar is the largest, covering 19,638 square kilometers of land, with Mithi as its capital.

Part of a larger desert area that extends into Rajasthan in India, this area principally consists of barren tracts of sand dunes covered with thorny bushes. Thar also has a very divergent colony of traditional tribes but they share many common characteristics that seem to bring together their pasts.

Humanitarian crisis

As estimate annual rainfall is recorded at 245 millimeters. That is why there is a severe scarcity of water because of which cultivation is not possible. To add to these difficulties, the subsoil has unusual levels of salinity that makes potable water scarce.

The principal resource of livelihood in Thar is based on livestock and agriculture. Millet is the chief crop. But due to a severe shortage of rain, the area suffers from occasional bouts of drought and famine because of which the people, as well as cattle, have to put up with an extremely low supply of food.

This problem has been recurring since 2012, with pastures and wells drying up, leaving Tharis with a dearth of food.

Child deaths due to malnutrition

According to a 2017 report by the Joint UN Observation Mission on Tharparkar, Umerkot and Sanghar districts were said to fall under a humanitarian crisis, with the situation remaining unchanged despite the 2016 Sindh Drought Needs Assessment report.

In another report, submitted by the National Commission for Human Rights in May 2016, it was claimed that between 2014 and 2016, about 1,380 children died of malnutrition-related issues in Tharparkar.

The most horrifying aspect of this report is that food scarcity has been declared as the root of the crisis, with 76 percent of the population having no food supplies at home.

Child deaths due to malnutrition and epidemics in the Tharparkar district are nothing new. More than 40 children died in July 2020, while the number of children dying of malnutrition this year is around 500. 77 children died in January, 66 in February, 47 in March, 59 in April and 63 in May.

Failure to develop infrastructure

Experts have indicated that the issues and problems of Thar are rooted also in the failure to develop infrastructure to offer piped water, upgrade hospitals and look into problems concerning malnutrition of mothers, a factor which often contributes to the death of infants.

It is obvious a comprehensive plan needs to be developed. Certainly, there has been no demonstration of any capability or commitment during the many years through which children have continued to die in understaffed and under-equipped hospital wards.

The apathetic attitude of Sindh govt

This state of affairs has been addressed by the government of Sindh by adopting the most apathetic attitude towards the people of the area. The thrice-elected government of the PPP has completely failed to resolve the overall issues faced by Sindh, let alone the drought-stricken Thar.

Amusingly, this political party has been in power since the 1970s and there are still no plans in the offing to uplift the rural areas.

It is not only a matter of shame for a province to have a population that is suffering from malnutrition and death on account of food shortage; it is also a matter of shame for the entire country.

It is also shameful that the PPP-led Sindh government has not done anything to improve the condition of Thar despite tall claims and media statements. The premature death of children under the age of five is, unfortunately, a usual occurrence in the area. 

Under the circumstance, when a province is unable to grapple with managing its human rights, it becomes incumbent upon the federation to take matters into its own hands.

Needed fundamental transformation system

Basically, resolving the crisis in Thar will require the fundamental transformation of an economic and political system that is geared towards rewarding the poor.

Cosmetic fixes and stop-gap measures aimed at providing short-term relief will inevitably fail in the absence of a commitment to providing economic justice and political accountability.

The real tragedy is that at present, none of the mainstream parties, including the PTI, are likely to embark upon such a course of action.

The PTI-led government, along with the Sindh government, should take remedial measures on an urgent basis to alleviate the suffering of people living in Thar.

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