Last month, hardly a day went by without a news report suggesting that there prevailed a doom-like scenario in Tharparkar. It was widely projected that children were dying of hunger and that a massive outward migration was in the offing due to famine.
To what extent all that reported in the newspapers and TV channels was true?
Not much, really, according to local residents and public health officials interviewed by Daily Times in Mithi and other towns and villages in Thar last week.
“What are you talking about? Much of it is just a pack of lies,” said 40-year-old Shahbaz Shah of the news reports about the growing number deaths due to famine. “The disaster lies in their imagination, not reality,” he added.
Shah, a small landowner who was born and raised near Tharparkar, said he wondered if media workers had sufficient knowledge about Thar region and the culture of its residents.
“Ask them about the famine and deaths and why there are here at my farm.” said Shah, pointing to a group of men and women filling up bags of wheat and onion and loading them onto a truck.
Originally residents of places beyond Mithi city in Thar, most of them belonged to the indigenous Bheel and Kohli Hindu faith.
The women among them were dressed in colourful and bright clothes with white bangles covering their bare arms. The men covered their heads with white turbans in distinguished styles.
The workers said they temporarily moved to Shah’s farm to earn hard cash during the harvesting season, but only to return to their huts in Thar in the next few days.
None of them seemed much worried about the story on drought and sharp rise in infant deaths, as reported in the media.
They said that on average, each one of them earned Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 per day for cutting wheat crop in lower Sindh, but noted that those who worked in Sukkur and Rahim Yar Khan were paid much more than that.
In addition to earning cash in the harvest season, each one remains in possession of at least a dozen of camels and goats, they told Daily Times.
“It’s insulting to call them starving people. They are hardworking, intelligent and dignified people. They love their way of life,” said Shah of farm labourers from Tharparkar.
In his view, the real poor in Sindh happened to be those who make no more than Rs 700 a day for doing menial jobs. But neither the media nor government was paying any attention to the plight of the working poor in Sindh.
The labourers said they were anxious to go back to the desert where they loved to live in close proximity to nature.
“We are the people of Thar. We can’t live here. Sindh is not Thar,” one of them said.
In Thar, despite scorching heat during the daytime, the night is always surprisingly sweet and cold.
Depending on the rain situation, the residents of Thar grow their own crops, which include pearl millet (bajra), pulses, sorghum (jowar), and maize. They cultivate these crops in September and October.
But, traditionally, the livelihood of Tharis is largely dependent on livestock and farm labour in Sindh’s irrigated areas. It’s a kind of permanent mode their economic life that has remained unchanged for centuries.
Tharparkar is spread over 22,000 square kilometres with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants. The area receives varying levels of rainfall, but sometimes none at all.
Last year, there was uneven rainfall in some parts of the region, which affected thousands of people due to scarcity of water for farming. But such kind of occurrences is recurrent, periodic feature of life.
It is a documented fact that not all of the population in the region relies on rain-based crops or livestock-incomes. Some of them run small shops, engage in trade or construction work as well.
In Tharparkar, there are 139 governmental health units, Public health officials admitted there were flaws in the system, but hoped they could be easily fixed with uninterrupted and steady supply of medicines, additional medical staff, and improved methods of oversight.
“Most of these deaths occurred due to birth complications,” Dr Hafizul Haq, the director general for Public Health (Sindh) told Daily Times at the Civil Hospital in Mithi, which was the centre of media reporting on infant deaths related to famine.
According to Dr. Haq, in the past three months as many as 191 children under the age of five have died in Tharparkar.
The statistics show that on average 81 babies are born every day out of which 23 die, which is slightly above national average.
To him, that is certainly a matter of concern, but not as alarming as the media had projected. “This concern can be redressed by focusing on reproductive health,” he said.
“There are socio-economic reasons behind these deaths,” he said, adding that the women population in the area need to be informed about nutrition focused diet.
Some women, for example, do not eat meat for religious reason,” he noted. The top health official also underscored the need for rapid transportation facilities, the availability of clean drinking water and construction of new roads.
“Some children died because there was no way to bring them to the hospital on time,” he said, alluding to the fact that media coverage of drought did not pay close attention to the real issues facing the people of Thar in rural areas and instead sensationalised the issue of infant deaths.
In Mithi, there were several relief camps set up by relief organisations of various descriptions, including those of the Pakistan Army and politico-religious outfits like Jamaat Islami and All Daawa, although inside the hospital there was no emergency case in the Children’s Ward.
On the same day, the news about Thar famine on TV channels was still part of the daily bulletin. It was about some bags of wheat gone rotten in a truck, which were meant to be delivered to the “victims” of drought.
When asked if they got any cash or wheat from the government as part of the relief package announced by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a group of villagers about 10 miles away from Mithi looked at each other with surprise.
They said corrupt practices in relief delivery provided more benefits to the former chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim (a close ally of Nawaz Sharif) and other few powerful figures in the area rather than the poor.
“Sa’in (Sir) Theaid money is for Arbab Rahim, not us,” said Nabi Baksh, a bearded old man covering his head with white turban. Others joined him to say that “all the talk about aid was just rubbish.”
In its frenzied reporting on Thar, the way media highlighted blame-game between Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the ruling Muslim League (PML), is hard to be described as appropriate, they said.
They recalled that how in his statements, PML leader Hamza Sharif kept on scolding the PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto for organising the Sindh festival at a time when “children were dying in Sindh”.
“That was clearly a move to embarrass the PPP in Sindh,” said Baksh, apparently a PPP supporter.
On his farm located some 40 miles away from Mithi, reflected on politicisation of the issue of famine in Thar differently.
“This aid thing is just a drama. Look at them. Each single one of them owns at least 10 goats and camels,” he said, pointing to the farm workers. “They don’t need money from Sharifs because they have their own. They don’t keep it in banks. They keep it in their turbans. They are Tharis!”
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