The Trauma of Change

Drought conditions in Tharparkar resulting from insufficient and erratic rainfall during the last three years have been heavily publicised recently. However, if the meteorological records are correct, this is certainly not the first drought in Thar’s post-independence history, nor by any means the worst. Yet, it has generated debate, interest and concern as never before. In addition, a host of problems related to the availability of food, fodder and water have surfaced, which were unheard of in previous and more serious droughts. Both these phenomena are the result of major social, economic and demographic changes that have taken place in the desert, and the political relationship between the rural areas of Sind and the people of Karachi – a relationship which has grown steadily, friction and suspicion notwithstanding.

The Tharparkar district can be divided into two distinct areas: the barrage lands and the desert. The desert contains approximately half the population and more than seventy percent of the land areas. Twenty-five years ago there were almost no doctors, engineers, lawyers or administrators from this district, and the number of secondary school and college teachers was negligible. These professionals now number over 4000, and the number of registered high school students has increased from about 7,500 in 1972 to well over 20,000 today.

These professionals, students and their parents constitute an increasingly powerful political lobby in Tharparkar. Well over half of them either come from the desert area itself, or have close links with it. This accounts for the demands and concerns being raised regarding conditions in the desert by the Thar politicians today, demands and concerns which were never raised before. It also partly explains the growing importance of political figures from the district.

The demands and concerns voiced by this Thar lobby are no different from those voiced periodically by people of other arid and backward regions of the country. However, they acquire an urgency and seriousness because they are supported and expanded upon, very often dramatically, by Karachi based professionals, political figures and intellectuals. Worse drought conditions than those in Thar exist in other parts of Pakistan, but they have not involved the interests of this Karachi based lobby. In Makran, for instance, a seven year long drought, lasting until last year, dried up the Kech Kaur and the ancient karez system of the district, destroying almost all agriculture and making the population completely dependent on exorbitantly priced imported food stuffs – and not everyone in Makran gets a monthly cheque from the Gulf. It is, thus, important to understand the relationship of this Karachi lobby with Tharparkar.

The discovery of the Thar desert is part of a larger discovery of Sind by the liberal westernised Karachiite. This discovery was necessitated by the political situation in the country in the late sixties and early seventies, and by the need of the second generation of post-independence Karachiites to have a relationship with the “culture of the soil.” In the case of the Thar desert, this relationship acquired a romance and a passion which, given Thar’s fascinating ecology and colourful culture, is, to say the least, understandable.

Karachi’s first major contact with Thar came after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, when it was occupied by the Indians and a sizeable part of the desert population had to move out of the war zone. In order to survive, migrating Tharis were forced to sell their valuables to middlemen who purchased them for the Karachi market. Thus Thari rugs came to adorn the drawing rooms of posh homes and offices in the city and Karachi’s female elite took to wearing silver jewellery, cholis, and embroidered shawls from the desert. A regular trade in handicrafts commenced and continues to this day.

Fascinated by the handicrafts and stories told by the traders, young men went into the desert. They came back with descriptions of women who wore bangles to their shoulders, of dancing peacocks and ruined temples. They spoke of a desert that bloomed after the rains and of strange red-coloured rock formations that stood in contrast to the surrounding expanse of brown sand. There were private slide shows in Karachi’s Defence Society and Lahore’s Gulberg, on Tharparkar’s forts, “African type” huts, dancing camels and colourful costumes. There were also lectures and exhibitions for visiting dignitaries.

By the mid-seventies, Tharparkar had become so fashionable that even Pakistani film makers left their Muree and Swat locations for the trackless desert. In addition to all this, there was the fact that almost fifty percent of the desert population was Hindu. Their plight, ever dear to the secular westernised Pakistani’s heart, was a convenient stick to use against the orthodoxy and the state in their informal drawing room get-togethers.

So, although Thar’s culture and the more attractive aspects of its anthropology have been subjects of interest (though not of scientific research), its economy and the process of socio-economic change in the desert have not been studied at all. Thus the drought has been made out to be the major issue in Thar, and comparisons with conditions in Ethiopia and the Sahel, which are far-fetched to say the very least, have been drawn.

The spirit behind the involvement of Karachi lobby in Thar’s affairs may be commendable. However, its recommendations for Thar’s development fail to take into consideration the fact that the real crisis in Thar arises out of the slow death of the desert’s subsistence economy over the last 20 years, and the birth of a cash economy, increasingly controlled by market forces. All meaningful development in the desert has to take into consideration this all important factor. The process of change has to be understood. It has to be aided, guided – or suppressed – depending on the resources and possibilities available and the socio-economic results that are desired. The hydrology of Thar has to be understood as well, and care taken that its limited subsoil water resources are not depleted by uncontrolled mechanical pumping, as has happened in similar arid areas of Pakistan.

Before the cash economy started making inroads into the desert area, the system of land tenure and manner of cultivation there was very similar to what it is today. Land holdings in Thar are between ten to forty acres. The land owners, as in the rest of Sind, are known as waderas. The soil is tilled and the crop harvested by haris, who are mostly Hindi Bhils and Kohlis, or Muslim Bajirs.

The main crop in the desert before the mid-seventies was bajra and almost all available land was used for its cultivation. It was planted after the first rains in late July or early August, and even a meagre shower guaranteed a fairly good crop. It was harvested six weeks later and fulfilled the food requirements of the local population. If there were additional showers after the harvesting, a second crop was possible, and this was usually stored for use in years of successive drought. The stalks of the bajra crop were used as food for cattle and so the cultivation of fodder, except where perennial well water was available, like in Nagar, was unknown.

Cash crops were also grown, but the area allocated to them was negligible. They consisted of til, mong and, in the case of Nagarparkar, chillies. These were sold by the landlords in the few urban markets that then existed in the desert, and some of them found their way through middlemen to the barrage areas. Since there was nothing to buy in these markets, and food for the people consisted of “lassi”, butter and bajra ki roti, cash was not a necessity.

By January, the process of cultivation, harvesting and land clearing would be over, the water level in the desert wells would begin to fall, just as it does today, and the best pastures would have been grazed over. By February, over half of Thar’s adult population, along with its livestock, would begin its trek to the barrage areas. This movement was unrelated to the cycle of rains, and took place even when winter or spring rains occurred. The size of the migration, however, was directly related to the quantum of rain the summer before.

In March and April wheat was harvested in the barrage lands and the Tharis provided the labour for this activity. In return, the barrage zamindars allowed them to graze and water their cattle in the area. Here they exchanged their dairy products, mostly ghee and animals, for cloth, brass utensils and other household goods. If the preceding year had been rainless, they also purchased rice and bajra. Once harvesting was over, it was time to go back and wait for the summer rains, and the cycle repeated itself.

In those days, there was not much of a market for meat, for the urban populations of Sind were small, and Karachi’s needs were fulfilled by the Punjab. In addition, the Hindu Tharis, for religious reasons, did not sell cattle for slaughter. So, cattle breeding was strictly controlled and no increase in the animal population was allowed. This also saved the pasture lands from over-grazing.

The urban centres in Thar were small and commercial activity centred round three or four shops. They sold household goods and cloth, which only the affluent could buy. These goods were brought to the settlements on camel-back from the five larger desert towns which were served by the kekra, the second world war army six-wheeler that still provides the only mechanical transport available in the desert. The architecture of these settlements was entirely of sun-baked mud brick. The mud was acquired by the yearly cleaning of the tarais – the natural depressions that the rains convert into water reservoirs.

Cow-dung was the main source of fuel, along with dried up twigs of the booh, lani and ak, all small, quick growing desert shrubs. The larger kikar, khabbar, kandi and ber trees were only used as joists in roof construction and never as firewood. Thus the natural vegetation of the desert was also preserved.

On the surface, the desert appears to have changed very little. The same cycle of rains, cultivation, harvesting, migration and return continues. It seems that only the urban centres have expanded, the peacocks have decreased, and kekras have largely replaced the camel as a means of transport. However, under the surface, the whole relationship of the desert with the barrage areas has changed, and new relationships with Sind’s urban areas have been established. Thar has been ‘opened up’, and is rapidly being taken over by market forces.

The cultivation of bajra has, to a very great extent, been replaced by til, mong and chilli. These cash crops are now purchased by middlemen for the Hyderabad and Karachi market. In the last six or seven years, middlemen have also started purchasing these crops before they are sown. This credit system was previously unheard of in Thar.

The cultivation of cash crops benefits the wadera. With the cash he receives he can purchase flour and food stuffs from the city middlemen. His standard of living has gone up, and his dependence on urban manufactured goods has increased. These factors have increased trade and commerce immensely, and Thar’s transport system has grown six-fold in the last ten years, in spite of the fact that there has been almost no increase in the length of metalled roads in the desert.

However, the change in cultivation from bajra to cash crops has badly affected the haris and herdsmen. Their share of the cash crops is far too meagre for them to purchase food from the middlemen. In addition, a decrease in bajra cultivation also means a decrease in bajra stalks, which are used as fodder for cattle. So today we see attempts at cultivating fodder in winter, from condensation water.

As a result of these changes, the towns have expanded, and due to urbanisation, the number of cattle in them has decreased. This has reduced the availability of cow dung, and made the people dependent entirely on timber for firewood. Numerous homes and offices of burnt brick have been built in the past two decades, and kikar and ber have been used as fuel for firing the kilns. The result is that desert vegetation has decreased, and an increasing amount of timber for firewood is imported from Sind.

Changes have also taken place in the barrage areas. Sugarcane has replaced wheat in a big way, and it is harvested from October to December. In these months of wells, and in good years the tarais, of Thar are full of water and the best pasture lands of the desert still have life in them. Thus the Tharis have no incentive to move in these months. In spring, on the other hand, unlike before, job opportunities in the barrage areas for the desert people are few, and they decrease every year. As the Bhils, Kohlis and Bajirs can no longer offer any services to the zamindars in March and April, they are denied the use of pasture land for their animals. Their dairy products, too, are less in demand.

Vanaspati ghee has replaced asli ghee in the urban and semi-urban settlements, and an increase in cattle in the barrage areas has made them almost self-sufficient in dairy products. However, the demand for meat in Sind’s urban areas, especially in Karachi, has increased. Middlemen now purchase Thari cattle and goats for the Karachi market. An estimated 25000 heads of cattle were supplied by the desert to Karachi, Hyderabad and other urban settlements last Eid-ul-Azha. The Hindus, too, have started selling their cattle for slaughter, and this trade brings in some cash with which grain and other necessities of life can be purchased. As the meat trade develops, breeding of animals, resulting in an increase in their number, is taking place.

These changes in Thar have also resulted in a change in the wadera-hari relationship. The wadera, mukki or bara, no longer commands the respect he did before. He can no longer call upon the people to provide free labour for the desilting of tarais, repair of embankments and clearing of shrub land. Consequently, many of these activities no longer take place. Agriculture suffers as a result, and the tarais can no longer hold as much water as they once did.

There have also been major demographic changes in the desert. In 50 years, from 1901 to 1961, the population of Thar increased by just over 100 percent. Its average rate of increase was 2 percent per year. Over 70 percent of this increase took place during the process of colonising the barrage areas. Yet in 20 years, between 1961 and 1981, the population increased again by over 100 percent, this time at a rate of 5 percent per year. Fifty percent of this increase took place in the desert, at a rate which is 1.8 percent higher than the national average.

In 1972, it was estimated that there were 2.3 animals to each person in the desert. In 1981, this figure had increased to 2.9. These demographic changes, along with reduced bajra cultivation, changes in the desert-barrage area relationship, and the emergence of a new economic order, have destroyed the desert’s old institutions, which responded to the ecology of the area, and have put a severe strain on its meagre resources. This strain is merely aggravated by the drought, not caused by it, and even if there are no droughts in the future, the crisis will deepen. No amount of facilities for health, education and communications can by themselves overcome it.

There are various ways to deal with the Thar situation. It could be abandoned to market forces. A better system of communications would make the exploitation of its resources easier and cheaper for the middlemen from the cities and the local entrepreneurs who would crop up. A fair amount of “affluence” will come to the desert, but the majority of its people will be further impoverished. A large number of herdsmen and tillers would have to leave their homes and seek permanent jobs in large urban settlements or irrigated areas. This process has taken place in many parts of Pakistan, and it has already begun in Thar’s arid region. There are those who believe that this form of development is normal, and that there is nothing wrong with it.

Alternatively, the desert communities could perhaps take over the role of middlemen and entrepreneurs, thus controlling not only the resources of the area, but trade and commerce as well. For this to be possible, new institutions and relationships in desert society will have to be created that are compatible with the changed conditions in Thar, and with the objectives of this kind of development. This can only be done if scientific social, economic and technical research is carried out on a continuing basis, and a viable social model is developed and supported.

For this, an institution based in the desert, manned by competent professionals and support staff well-versed in modern economies, engineering and agriculture, and constantly in touch with the people, is necessary. The government’s SAZDA does not fit this description. Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan’s Comilla cooperatives in East Pakistan, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gilgit, are the only two successful examples of this form of development in Pakistan’s history.

The most important factor related to Thar’s development is the creation of a reliable source of water for the animal population. As migration to the barrage lands is becoming increasingly difficult, the availability of fodder for animals is also required.

Investigations by the Public Health Engineering Department and international agencies in Tharparkar have established that there is no fresh subsoil water in the desert. In some cases drilling has been done to a depth of 700 feet. Fresh water is found only in the rain water aquifer. This aquifer is thirty to fifty feet below ground level. It is charged by the rains. In years of successive drought, it may even disappear in places. The desert people tap this aquifer by sinking wells. The primitive manner in which this has traditionally been done has saved the water from being depleted.

In the town of Mithi, tube-wells have been sunk into the aquifer for a piped water system. The scheme became operative only last year, but as a result, the town now consumes six times as much water as it did before. Already, the quality of water has declined and many of Mithi’s 120 hand-dug wells have become saline. At Virawah, mechanical pumps have been installed on an old well which used to have fresh water the year round. Now the fresh water is used up within four or five months after the rains, and the well becomes saline.

Uncontrolled mechanical extraction of water in the desert can be disastrous and is not a solution to the water issues. Similarly, the construction of dams for storing rainwater keeps the desert dependent on the monsoons, except where very large quantities of water can be harnessed. In Thar, only the southern part of the Nagarparkar taluka offers this possibility.

Extending the irrigation system of the barrage areas into parts of the desert could have been a solution to Thar’s water problem. Given the lack of water in the Indus, this is no longer possible. However, there are other avenues of investigation for a solution.

The ultimate discharge of the Left Bank Outfall Drain is supposed to be 15,000 cusecs; it is to be disposed of by evaporation in the Rann of Katch depressions. This is a sizeable volume of water. Although it is saline, it is not necessarily unfit for animal consumption. It is well known that a variety of fodder, vegetation and trees can be grown with brackish water. The question is: would diversion of this water for use in certain areas of the desert help in resolving some of its problems, and help its residents in responding appropriately to the sweeping changes that have taken place in the last twenty years?

One Comment

  1. Bilal Hussain

    Very well written. What citation should I use for ARTICLES. Just give me an example of that, how you prefer to be cited. I will then change the names of the articles while quoting them. Plz

    Posted October 31, 2014 at 5:45 am | PermalinkReply

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