Tharparkar – A Man Made Disaster

The three year drought in Tharparkar, which has impoverished the people and the soil of the desert as never before in known history, has come to an end. It has rained heavily and the desert is green again. Yet, this drought was not the first and certainly not the worst in Thar’s recent history. The unprecedented damage it has been able to cause is because major demographics social and economic changes have taken place in Thar over the last twenty five years. These changes have killed the old subsistence economy of the desert, which made it possible for the people and the land to withstand the regular cycle of dry years. No understanding of Thar’s current problems or its development needs is possible without an understanding of this old subsistence economy and the factors responsible for the social and economic changes that have destroyed it. And it is exactly this understanding which has been missing in the statements of politicians, the analysis of development experts, and the reports of media-men who have been riding the Tharparkar band wagon for the last three years.

Thar before the mid-sixties

Traditionally the people of Thar are agriculturists and herdsmen and the land tenure system which determines the relationships that make these two activities possible has always been similar to what it is today. However, before the mid-sixties this feudal system and its institutions had a power and vitality that they have lost over the years. Apart from controlling almost every aspect of life in the desert, the waderas, thakurs and their appointees, the patels, fulfilled a number of functions. The traditional “gowcher” or community grazing lands were protected from encroachment by them. So were the trees and shrubs that hold the desert soil together. They mobilized their ‘hans’ and artisans for digging wells, desilting ‘tarais’ (water ponds), and maintaining the infrastructure required for rain-fed agriculture in a desert region. The main crop in Thar has always been ‘bajra’ (millet). However, before the mid-sixties it was never sold for cash. The surplus produced in good years was stored for use in the future along with the stalk, which is excellent feed for cattle. Even grass, which used to grow up to five feet in good years, was cut and stored for emergency use in rainless years. A strict system of crop rotation was followed, giving the soil a chance to breathe.

Sowing is done in Thar during the rainy season, between end June to middle of August. By November the harvesting is over, and by January the dry season sets it. The tarais dry up, water levels in the wells fall, and the watering of animals becomes a problem as water has to be drawn up from deep wells for this purpose. By March the pastures are also affected, and the Tharris along with their cattle begin their time immemorial migration to the barrage lands. Before perennial irrigation created these lands, the movement was to the Indus flood plains. The timing of this migration coincided, as it does today, with the wheat harvesting season in the barrage areas. The Tharris provided labour for the harvesting, and in exchange, the barrage wadera gave them protection, space to stay, food, water and grazing areas for their animals. Over the years this relationship between the desert people and the barrage landlords had been institutionalized so that people from the same areas in the desert went and worked for the same landlords every year. The size of the migration depends on the extent of rainfall. In good years no more than fifty percent of the adult population and fifteen percent of cattle migrate. In bad years this figure could be seventy percent for the adult population and well over fifty percent for cattle.

Cattle in the barrage areas was almost nonexistent before the mid-sixties and so Tharri dairy products, mainly ghee, were very much in demand. Their sale provided the Tharris with cash for the purchase of raw cotton, or cotton cloth, for their clothes. Apart from this cash transaction the relationship between the desert and the barrage lands was entirely one of barter.

Before the mid sixties there was almost no increase in the livestock population in Thar. Breeding was strictly controlled as there was no market for Tharri cattle. Sindh’s urban centres had a population of less than one-fifth of what it is today and their limited needs were meet by cattle from Punjab and Baluchistan.

Villages in Tharparkar were physically similar to what they are today. However, the staple food was ‘bairay ki roti’ and ‘dahi’, both prepared from local produce. Similarly, blankets, shoes, clothes, clay utensils, agricultural implements, were all produced in the villages by hereditary artisans. A strict cast system determined the position of these artisans in village society which fed, clothed and housed them. Since villages were economically self-sufficient, and trade with cities was unknown, almost no mechanical transport linked the desert with the rest of the country.

Changes in the desert

In the nineteen-fifties the Ghulam Mohammed Barrage colonized large tracks of the Badin district which the Tharris used as pasture-land while they worked in the barrage areas in the dry season, or during bad years. This colonization, along with extensions to the Jumrao canal system, also introduced a new sort of farmer in the barrage areas. This farmer had links with the outside world, was not a native of the soil and through official patronage could receive loans for agriculture. Consequently, his relationship with the migrant Tharris was bound to be different from that of the older landlords. It was through these new landlords that cash payments to Tharri seasonal agricultural labour were introduced.

The position of these landlords was further strengthened by the policies of the Ayub era. The government introduced new varieties of seeds, fertilizer and gave huge loans for mechanisation of agriculture. Along with these changes in agricultural production, the government, through its Basic Democracies system undertook development projects in the desert and the people of Thar elected their own representatives. It was at this time that vanaspati ghee, industrially produced shoes, and old American army blankets made their appearance as substitutes for desert manufactured items. The previously equitable relationship between the desert people and the barrage landlords thus became an unequal one. It also weakened the feudal structure of the desert and reduced the powers of the Thakurs, the Waders, and their Patels and Mukhis.

As a result of the 1965 war, many Hindu landlords left Thar for India and their haris became small landlords. In addition, a large number of Muslim immigrants from Rajistan were settled in the desert. These developments further weakened the feudal order.

The death below to the old social system, however, came with the aftermath of the 1971 war. Thar was occupied by India and when it was returned to Pakistan in 1972, its economy was in shambles and its Hindu landlords and their appointees, the custodians of the old order, had either fled to India or had lost the confidence to assert their power. The city middleman stepped in to fill the economic void created by this sudden social disintegration. He offered loans to the people of Thar; he purchased their agricultural produce and animals for the expanding city markets; he found buyers for their handicrafts. In addition, he sold them manufactured goods such as soap, matches, tea and biscuits on which they were subsequently to become dependent.

Effects of the chance

The disintegration of the old order and the introduction of cash as a means of exchange have had an immense effect on the ecology of Thar. The gowcher lands were brought under the plough and the system of crop rotation was discontinued. This was done to increase the production of bajra which was now sold to middlemen for the city markets. Wheat, imported from the barrage areas, became a substitute for bajra simply because its purchase price was marginally less than the sale price of bajra. The encroachment on gowcher lands led to their deforestation, as shrubs and trees had to be burned to make agriculture possible. The old order having lost its authority could not prevent these encroachments, and it also failed to mobilize the people to protect and maintain the traditional infrastructure required for rain-fed agriculture. Thus tarais, wells and embankments are no longer maintained and restrictions on grazing in protected areas are ignored.

In the sixties and seventies the urban population of Sind increased rapidly and with it the demand for meat. So Tharparkar became a major supplier of meat, and between 1961 and 1988, the animal population in the desert increased by over two hundred percent.

The immense decrease in pasture land by colonization through the Ghulam Mohammed Barrage scheme, the extensions to the Jumrao canal and the encroachments on gowcher lands, along with the massive increase in animal population has led to soil erosion and desertification in Thar. The appropriate stocking ratio for excellent rangeland conditions is thirty cattle equivalent units per hundred hectares. In Thar this ratio is now sixty-eight heads per hundred hectares and the range-land is degraded by any standards. Because of selective grazing, only shrubs and trees that are unpalatable to the animal population have managed to survive over the years in any appreciable numbers. Unfortunately, these plants are not good soil stabilizers and grow only in degraded conditions. Consequently, in the wind-swept areas of central Thar the top soil has been carried away making the soil barren for all times.

These ecological changes have made the desert people incapable of withstanding dry years and so their economic dependence on the barrage areas and middlemen has increased. The barrage areas however, have also expanded and the last drought has shown that they cannot accommodate an exodus of people and animals from the desert as they could before. As a result, the animals had to be sold for a song and the people were forced to work as agricultural labour for less than half the normal wage. The drought has also made it clear that the migration of people and animals from the desert did not take place because of a lack of water, as is generally believed, but due to a lack of pastures for the animals. These pasture lands will keep diminishing and the next drought will devastate Thar as never before.

What is happening in Thar has already happened in other areas of Pakistan which have become unproductive as a result of deforestation, over-grazing, pressure on land, break down of the old social order and the absence of new institutions. The population of these areas now supplements its income by remittances from the cities or by employment as contract labour in the irrigated areas. Dir, the northern reaches of Swat, parts of the D.I. Khan district, are all examples of this pattern. If Thar is to be saved from a similar fate then the creation of new and viable social institutions is a priority, for without them no appropriate development, and especially not the type that is being currently promoted, can be sustained. If on the other hand Thar is to be abandoned to the market forces, then an efficient communication system must be established to help the people of Thar in establishing a more equitable relationship with the middlemen, transporters and entrepreneurs of the urban areas.

(The author was consultant to the UNICEF for a joint Government of Sind, Save the Children’s Fund and UNICEF assessment of drought and famine in Sind arid zones leading to the preparation of a realistic short and long-term emergency plan).


  1. Dear Arif Hassan Sb.

    I am really thankful to you for providing us knowledge on situation on Thar, I share your reports and articles with my staff and friends also with some researchers.

    I usually try to find the articles from Arif Hassan on Net. If there is any published book on Climate Change, Tharparker, I will love to purchase it from market.


    Ali Mansoor

    Posted September 18, 2013 at 11:48 am | PermalinkReply
  2. bilal haider

    thanks respectful brother its real information May ALLAH bless you

    Posted November 4, 2014 at 4:30 pm | PermalinkReply

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  1. […] nearly thirty years, Arif Hasan has been studying Thar, a desert in Sindh. He initially went to investigate reports of animal and human deaths being blamed on drought. The report he produced became a bible on […]

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