Last week I had the chance to visit Thar again after more than a decade. While it remains an extremely poor and least developed region of the province of Sindh, I was struck by a few changes that have the potential of transforming the region into a vibrant economic player. Water is the most basic need in a desert. Last time round, I observed that Thardeep, a rural support organisation that has worked in the area since the early nineties, had achieved some success in improving provision and quality of drinking water in selected areas. Traditional birth attendants, some dispensaries and a few “barefoot” doctors was all that it could manage in the field of health. It also ran a number of schools. Linkages between craftswomen and middlemen from the market were few and far between. Government presence was minimal. The district hospital in Mithi was a mess. Roads were almost nonexistent.
Fast forward to August 2016. The road from Karachi to Thatta is a shame and Thatta to Thar via Badin is tolerable. Enter Thar and it is a different world. The main road here is probably the best highway of Sindh. It leads to coal mining areas, power stations and the gasification plant. Coal mining is a joint venture of the Government of Sindh and ENGRO, subcontracted further to a concern named Bilal. There is no knowing whether usable coal will eventually be available to the power plant being constructed next door. The coal gasification plant is no more than a monument to our atomic veteran.
The impact of the road, augmented by mobile connectivity, is multidimensional. Walking long distances has given way to motorbikes and overloaded buses have taken the place of kekras, the rickety shuttle truck-bus of the World War II vintage. Children suffering from malnutrition and other ailments are reported directly to the media as well as the hospital in Mithi on mobile phones. The high numbers of the suffering children had always existed; only the media was late in discovering these cases. The media attention did bring politicians and bureaucrats to the region, facilitated of course by the road. The hospital in Mithi is now much better staffed and well-stocked with medicines. It is now a thriving town with a good number of schools and a college. Even an English-medium private school was in evidence. A sub-campus of a university is also coming up. Locals complained about the lack of girls schools, especially at the post-primary level. This is a sign of growing awareness. There was also frustration that the locals are not given the party tickets for the National and Provincial assembly seats. Mobile connectivity and the road have linked the famous craftswomen of Thar with the main markets much more effectively. At a community meeting in Islam Kot, women were quoting prices that broadly corresponded with the prices charged in Karachi’s Zeb un Nisa Street.
Another change is the large number of government buildings, most of them left incomplete. Many that are completed, are uninhabited. Those complete and inhabited are poorly maintained. The tourist complex built at the legendary Marvi well is a case in point. A beautiful tourist complex in Nagar Parkar, designed by friend Arif Hasan, funded by Sindh’s Planning and Development Department and managed by Thardeep is another case in point.
At the end of the day, there may or may not be good quality coal or power, but the very presence of the road is rapidly opening up the area. As for power, the people are beginning to learn that the best off-grid solution is the sun that shines over Thar most of the time. I, though, had the good fortune of witnessing rains and greenery in a desert — an exhilarating experience.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2016.
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