Thar, Drought and Change

Rainfall figures over the last 100 years tell us that drought is no stranger to Thar. However, over centuries, Tharri society has devised ways to deal with it. One is migration to the barrage areas with their animals. This migration coincides with the wheat harvesting season in Sindh and the Tharris provide labour for this activity. In exchange they are permitted to water and feed their animals. If the monsoon rains do not come, they make arrangements with the landlords of the barrage areas to stay on for another season. Previously, this relationship was entirely based on barter but is rapidly becoming one of cash and hence less reliable. The second manner was the construction and maintenance of embankments to divert rainwater to depressions (known as tarais) and the yearly desilting of the tarais before the monsoon rains. Thus, an extra source of much needed water was acquired. The third manner was the protection of the gowcher or pasture lands from overgrazing to save them from desertification and to prevent encroachment on them.

The maintenance of tarais and embankments and the protection of the range land was managed by the “upper castes” through a system of beygar or forced labour. This was made possible because the “lower castes” were completely subservient to their landlords and had no possibility of upward mobility of any kind. The artisans among them served the needs of the agriculturalists and made village self-sufficiency possible. They were also not paid in cash but in agricultural produce.

The description of Thar given above is no longer true. With the 1965 and 1971 wars, the Hindu upper castes migrated to India. With their departure, there was no authority left to organise the management of the range land or the embankments and tarais. Then came the “drought” of the late 1980s and with it came a large number of NGOs. At the same time, a metalled road to Mithi was constructed, making easy access to the desert possible, and still later, the Tharparkar district was created with Mithi as its headquarters. With these events came bureaucrats and new lifestyles and consumer items. Hotels and eating places and the bazaars expanded. With these changes, caste barriers began to breakdown.

A major road building initiative in the first decade of the 21st century brought about even greater changes. New jobs were created as the remote areas of Thar were connected to each other and to the rest of the world. Skills, now free from caste tyranny, migrated from the villages to work for cash, adversely affecting the age-old self-sufficiency of the rural settlements. Eating habits changed and food items imported from the barrage areas became available. Camels were replaced with motorbikes and milk, which was an essential ingredient of diet, is now increasingly sold to milk companies whose cold storage vans pick it up and take it to Karachi and Hyderabad. Powdered milk is becoming its replacement. Meanwhile, almost all adult males in the district, and some females, now have mobile phones. Even the most remote areas of the desert have become dependent on city produced goods. Before Tharris ate what they grew. Now they sell what they grow and purchase what they never needed before. In the process they have become poorer except for families whose members have acquired jobs in the services sector or work in Karachi or Hyderabad. Surveys tell us that the vast majority of desert households are in debt which they will never be able to repay. Meanwhile, large areas of gowchar land have been occupied by powerful families in the last 15 years reducing pastureland for an increasing animal population.

It has to be understood that the old caste based system will not return. Also, that Thar’s present economy cannot support the emerging lifestyles and aspirations of its increasing human population. What the Tharris require more than anything else is livelihoods. These can be created by facilitating the development of new relationships to manage Thar’s traditional economy and through promoting tourism and coal, salt, China-clay and granite mining. These latter activities are already taking place in an ad-hoc manner. If not properly planned, they will destroy Thar’s fragile ecosystem and its centuries old culture. Also, unless skills are developed in the Tharris to manage and work these activities, outsiders will come and take over as they have in many parts of Pakistan.

Thar is in the process of making a traumatic transition from a caste dominated culture of poverty to one of class based consumerism. The question is how can this process be made more equitable? Dole is surely not the answer.

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