3 Days in Southern Sindh | DAWN.COM

September, 2010

3rd, 4th and 5th September 2010 spent  driving 60 kms from Karachi to Thatta and  600 kms onwards to Nagarparkar via Kotri and Hyderabad provided sights that disturbed and uplifted, contrasts that were vivid and ironic.

Going from Sindh's current capital to one of Sindh's oldest capitals is also to take with oneself the different time- zones of history that we simultaneously live in today. Sleek cell phones and laptops inside  powerful 4-wheel drive vehicles. Immediately outside, on the national highway just past Gharo, boys, teenagers , grown men upset at wretched conditions in a flood relief camp, refuse to move to a better location offered to them. They wield poles, axes and branches cut from trees to threaten traffic and block the road to  stage their protest.  The sporadic intensity of their shouts, the fleeting anger in their eyes which look but but do not see, disturb us. They want to wait till the news media and cameras arrive. No sign of the police...yet. After about 50 minutes and long lines of stalled vehicles, our 2 cars are permitted to be carefully steered through the jam.

 As shared  in a recent exhange with the veteran journalist Nazir Leghari : we use the  technology of  the 21st century, our politics  is stuck in a 20th century groove, our  incompetent governance flourishes post-1971,  our  raw capitalism  is from the 19th century, some of our  social practices are unchanged  from ancient eras.In the same city, cheek by jowl, we live far apart.

Covered  in a single journey at this time, districts Thatta and Tharparkar become strangely distant  though geographically close. The one ravaged by water, the other blessed by water. The one dislocated and distressed, the other serene and sedate. With the tables completely turned. Traditionally, the Tharparkar arid region faces recurrent drought  and is frequently declared to be a calamity-hit area.This year, the rains have come gently in the right quantity and at the right frequency for  planting seeds and nurturing  crops. In Thatta, the rains brought floods of water and  floods of refugees. It is Thatta that is now hit with a calamity that began with Nature --- roiled by climate change --- but which is compounded by Man.

Man, as distinct from gender-neutral Humanity.  Our group passes road-side settlements of hundreds for whom we can offer nothing to match the scale of need. We then enter  a school compound converted into a relief camp. Whether by the wayside or in this place, the women radiate strength, resilience, skill and dignity.  In  disjointed circumstances, they continue with the basic tasks they have always fulfilled without demur . Delivering  babies, minding children, finding morsels or meals, guarding meagre belongings, tending to cattle and buffaloes.  3 volunteer women teachers were conducting a classroom full of girls and boys  bereft of  learning aids like books and pencils but fully engrossed.

In another camp  at the Technical College nearby, amongst about 1500 refugees, little Zuleikha at 10 years of age, accompanied by little Tanya and Aroosa, declines to surrender to the despair  around her : the  single outdoor toilet for hundreds, the single daily meal of  rice, the wait for the single water tanker. She insists she wants to go to school, and she smiles with a charm  that lightens the darkness at noon.

We hear of inter-clan, inter-tribe strife and tension  being barely held in check because of the common lot they presently  share. Will this cathartic event subsume primeval passions, or re-ignite them ?

 To be fair, some men are better than others. There were at least 5 young volunteers rotating duties at the same camp, no complaints and in good cheer.  All of them M.As in Social Work, all of them otherwise unemployed. In times when neither political leaders nor bureaucrats are remembered fondly, there was  praise from development professionals at the SPO office for the excellent work rendered by MNA Ayaz Shirazi in hazardous rescue work and for DCO Manzoor Sheikh for co-ordinative support. Many men from Karachi,and from Thatta itself, quite a few of whom want to remain anonymous, be they Memon  by community or not, bring thousands of plastic bags full of biryani, hundreds  of bottles of water. Under-acknowledged official civil efforts and adequately projected military efforts work in tandem.

The spontaneous compassion so promptly and generously expressed by the people of Pakistan in general and here in Thatta district, manifest by individual acts of giving or in the vigorous work of   NGOs soothes frayed tempers and boosts confidence in our own people's capacity to tackle formidable challenges.

 The open Eidgah is  flooded with displaced persons without formal shelter.  Children splash joyously  in stagnant water. On the road to Hyderabad a wide-angle view of the swamped  Union Council Tando Hafiz Shah area conveys the  extent of the  havoc.

Over the old railway bridge at Kotri just feet above a turbulent Indus into Hyderabad : scattered groups of the new intruders from rural areas mark out  urban spaces. We are shown  samples of over 5000  red school bags containing notebooks and pencils from UNICEF distributed recently to young ones learning life’s extra lessons in bizarre conditions.

Hyderabad typifies the squalor, organized chaos and rare sites of order that mark all our non-metro cities.  They quietly  absorb new numbers of people. Smooth roads now connect most of them. Tando Jam, Tando Allah Yar, Saeedabad, Mirpurkhas, Digri, Tando Jan Mohammad, Jhudo, Naukot . Yet virtually each town has a  ditchy main street full of  pits and pot-holes.  Between Tando Jam and Tando Allah Yar, the beautiful canopy of trees that served as a beautiful tunnel is now only  a memory : tragically  slaughtered in order to widen the road. Entering Tharparkar at this time is like entering  Paradise Park. Lush and resplendent, undulating sand dunes now covered in glorious green.  Shrubs, bushes, trees, farm fields in  the fulsome shade of Nature. Newly formed lakes and ponds  with tranquil, peaceful water most unlike the anger and fury of river water elsewhere. Swooping, trilling birds , Thari cows with  regal horns, disdainful camels in large herds, sheep as obedient as pliant voters. Then,sudden, striking glimpses of slim red, blue, orange and black  forms on the green backdrop as the tireless women of Thar  toil in the fields in their colourful, elegant clothes.  At village Churio, 45 sand-tracked  kms from Nagarparkar, close  enough to the Indian border   to clearly see the structural detail of the fences, watch-towers and office blocks built by our neighbour, Baanhn Beli’s local members and staff proudly show off a new piped water supply system built with support from the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund that benefits  over 125 households and 1200 people to liberate  women from the grinding daily labour of  drawing and fetching  water.  Despite the poverty,there is a special sense of peace here. We discover why : they do not have access to TV. Radio keeps them in contact with our hyper-world. Yet  heaven on earth can also be deceptive. Dereliction of duty, nepotism and  administrative apathy  are alive and well in paradise. Be they apparent in the slovenly maintenance of a new rest house  or be they in the Taluka hospital where 27  sanctioned posts for doctors out of 31 posts remain vacant for years on end and some staff remain absent without punishment because of their connections. Malaria, gastro-enteritis and respiratory diseases register alarming increases. Despite the success of the Pakistan Primary Health Initiative elsewhere, the   weak governance reflected in aspects of the relief effort  also afflicts a  region so far from the floods, and  so near.

Spiritually nourished and revitalized by the green glory of Tharparkar, we return via Jamshoro to the addiction of Karachi . Here another reality delivers   a parting blow in case  we let  only  pleasant images pre-dominate.The Indus has spilt over its banks. Hundreds of persons are forced  on to the edges of the super highway.Some  people run after vehicles, transformed into beggars. Hunger’s wand makes evil magic. When the waters recede, a slow, steady return to homes and fields  can begin. Southern Sindh, like the rest of Pakistan desperately needs resolve rather than recrimination,  unstinted co-operation rather than a contrived  and unfair comparison and competition  between civil and military efforts.  Retaining a democratic path through all the twists and turns, the disappointments and the  distress, is the only way forward to a better Pakistan.

 (The writer is a former Minister and Senator of Pakistan  and author of the book " Pakistan : unique origins ; unique destiny ?".)