People & Society Tapestry

The desert in watercolour

Updated 19 Mar, 2015 03:42pm

The old thakur looks wilted and weary but as soon as he spies the camera, he straightens up, straight as an arrow. He reties his turban and adjusts his shirt; he spits twice, once on the flat of each palm, then rubs them both together and styles his moustache. The men around him collapse into laughter. “That’s right,” they cheer. “Give them the old Rajput glare!”

He freezes into a pose of mock seriousness. Behind him, in the near distance, the tops of village huts – choras as they are called – are visible, a lone peacock flitting from one to the other. The choras look ruffled, rendered unkempt by recent rains. Last year, residents say, the entire village had been washed away — they point to the mounds in the distance where they sat with their belongings for over two months, just waiting. Unlike last year’s deluge, this year, the rainfall has been just right in terms of quantity — but it came too late: just two weeks before the skies clouded over, drought was declared in the desert. Even now, although it is more green than brown, district Tharparkar is “drought-ridden” in the official lexicon of the Sindh government.

This settlement of thakurs, upper-caste Hindus, overlooks the road that links Mithi with Islamkot, a straight and narrow path that undulates over the rocky desert terrain of Thar. Little stone blocks with numbers painted on them dot the road: they tell you that the (in)famous Thar coal deposits are now 15 kilometres away, now 14, now 10; the airport, though still under construction, is even closer. The villagers, however, do not really care about the coal, at least not now, and they care even less about flying. Theirs is a more basic concern: water. They are not quite sure what to make of the rains this year, except that it means that their livestock won’t starve and that they will not, therefore, have to migrate to other areas of Sindh to support themselves. The thakurs are polite people: even as they relate their troubles, they insist that you drink some tea.

A Thari, they say, is immediately recognisable by his bad teeth. And indeed, as the old man poses, you can see brown stains on his teeth; it is as if his mouth has rusted. Even residents of the town of Mithi, the district capital – which now has access to sweet water via a pipeline constructed during the tenure of Arbab Ghulam Rahim, himself a native of Thar, as chief minister of Sindh – carry marks of this decay. “No one wants to marry my daughters because of their bad teeth,” laments one villager. And there are also other, equally insidious signs. In an alleyway in Mithi, for instance, a cow tottered along, swaying drunkenly; when she lay down, her limbs jutted out at awkward angles. This is also among the consequences of consuming water contaminated by fluoride: according to a report published by the United Nations, the high level of fluoride in water carries a slew of health risks, affecting both man and beast: bone and joint diseases, thyroid and kidney problems, irreversible deformities. And so it makes sense that, even as early as at 8:30 am, the Laxmi Medical Centre, located a block or two away from the tottering cow, was aflutter with activity on a recent Sunday.

The people who make it to the hospital are the relatively more fortunate ones, however. “Khaara (brackish) water makes our children throw up,” says Hothchand, who lives in a village called Nanisar, just outside of Mithi. “Or else they contract chronic diarrhoea. We rush them to the city but sometimes it is too late.” When it is too late, he says, they dig a hole in the ground, bury the child, and return home. The roads that lead to Mithi, it appears, are dotted with unmarked infant graves.

Thar’s water woes are not of recent origin. When Sher Shah Suri wrenched the Indian throne from Humayun in the 16th century, the Mughal was forced to retreat into the depths of the desert. For months, the disgraced king, his heavily pregnant wife and his ragged army stumbled through the heat and haze of Thar. In the Humayun Nama, the toppled emperor’s sister Gul Badan Begum describes their treacherous journey from Chachro to Umerkot: for three days, she wrote, they found no water. Then, finally, on the fourth, some wells shimmered into view. These wells, according to Gul Badan Begum, were “very deep” and the water that they held was “extraordinarily red”.

Humayun alighted near one of them, his thirst-ridden entourage following suit. Buckets were lowered down, then hastily heaved up — slowly, they bobbed into view, the ‘red’ water contained within them sloshing and spilling. But the people could not wait: in their eagerness and in their thirst, they flung themselves at the buckets, snapping the ropes: the buckets tumbled back into the wells — and so did the people who had leapt towards them. Many perished that day in the desert, Gul Badan Begum wrote. The sight moved the emperor so much that he allowed the commoners to drink from his own royal water bottle.

Today, centuries later, there are still stories of men and women dying similar deaths in the desert: by tumbling into wells even as they work to build them or by drinking water that doesn’t look or taste quite right. Scientists say you can live for up to two months without food – forgo water, however, and you’ll last only eight, maybe 10, days. So what do you do when the only water available – when it is available – carries within it the potential to kill or, at the very least, to severely undermine your quality of life?

“My shoulders hurt,” gripes Sapna. The women around her nod in fervid agreement, their white bangles clacking as they clutch their forearms to demonstrate.

In half an hour, dusk will begin descending upon the desert but for now a colourful crowd is clustered around the talaab (reservoir) at an agricultural farm near Nabisar. There are no men here — this is an all-girls club. The women, who spent all morning and afternoon in the fields, have gathered to perform their final chore for the day. Then they will pile into a kekra – a converted military vehicle from the World War II era found only in Thar – and return home. Before there were metalled roads in the desert, this clunky-looking kekra, best described as a ‘truck on steroids’, was the only way of traversing this land.

It is the quintessential desert image: the women with their stack of bangles and bright floral prints, dipping long-necked sirahis (pitchers) into water, elegant silhouettes framed in the crepuscular light. But listen to them for a while and the romance will begin to ebb. Some, such as Sapna, complain of the long distances that they have to walk, lugging cans of water (the earthen sirahi is no longer a vessel of choice — it has been replaced by the more convenient, but also far less becoming, blue plastic can). Others claim that carrying such heavy weights for so long has caused permanent indentations in their heads.

“And then there are days,” says Sapna, “When you come to the reservoir and find that it is completely empty.” Her friends nod and cluck sympathetically. In the gloam of the evening, a faint white fuzz is visible on their clothes, remnants of the day’s cotton-picking labour. On average, each woman picks about 30 kg of cotton each day, earning approximately 200 rupees for her labour; if she is accompanied by a child working with her, that amount might extend to a maund (40 kg). By most local accounts, a Thari household requires approximately 150,000 rupees a year in order to survive even for its meagre hand-to-mouth existence.

Still, in the grand scheme of the desert, these women are lucky — the very fact that they have access to a reservoir makes them so. The farm on which they work isn’t part of Thar proper: Nabisar is perched at the very edge of district Umerkot; it is the last subdivision that falls within Sindh’s canal-irrigated area. Being on the tail end of the irrigation network comes with its own set of problems: persistent water theft all along the canals means that the flow of irrigation water, by the time it reaches Nabisar, is reduced to a trickle. That explains the at-times empty reservoir.

In an effort to alleviate the problem, a non-government organisation installed groundwater taps on the farm — there is one, for instance, located a hundred or so yards away from where the women are assembled. “That?” says Sapna dismissively. “For a week, the water that flowed was sweet and we could drink it — then it turned brackish and became useless.” The brown streaks characteristic of dental fluorosis are visible on her teeth too. Indeed, a study led by the Dow University of Health Sciences, in 2010, established that 80 per cent of the groundwater in the district is unfit for human consumption.

Sapna and her friends are day labourers: they are not tied to any particular piece of land. Rainfall – the lack of it as well as its excess – affects them to the extent that it affects crop cultivation. This year, for instance, the rains fell when the majority of cotton buds had already bloomed; direct contact with water made parts of the crop rot. This meant that there was less cotton to pick and consequently less money to earn in a day; in order to find more work, the women would have to move further west into the province.

On the other hand, the haris (farm labourers) of Hoth Khan Chandio village, located half a kilometre from the farm, cannot move away at all. The burden of debt, accumulated over years and generations, means that they are inextricably tied to the land on which they work (and partly own) and to their zamindar, a slight, soft-spoken man called Raza Ali Shah, who seems only marginally better off than his wards. The haris also speak of bad water and little water; they mutter about the uselessness of ‘black-faced’ government officials who only “pop by once a year to get their vote.” They talk of the importance of education as a means of bettering their lives — they show off two 16-year-old boys, the only ones in the entire village who make the long trek to nearby Kunri each day to attend school there. Sometimes the two boys walk the distance of several kilometres; sometimes they take a rickshaw. But that too, the villagers explain, costs money — and these days, with the failure of the winter crop due to late rains, money is especially hard to come by.

There is no concept of kharif (winter) or rabbi (summer) crops in Thar proper like there is in the rest of the country; people grow what they can and when they can, as soon as it rains: bajra, guar and in the plain areas near Nagarparkar, onions and watermelons. Mushrooms grow in wild abandon after the rains; as you travel from Nabisar to Umerkot, young children can be seen standing by the road, holding plastic bags full of them. As vehicles pass them by, they raise their arms, offering the mushrooms up for sale.

Such massive dependency on rain and the fragile existence its absence causes make an outsider wonder why nothing has been done to change the situation for the better. Indeed there have been efforts but only half-hearted: drip irrigation, an irrigation method that saves water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, for instance, is an option — but local residents complain that it hasn’t really been applied, pointing to a lack of political will at the official level. Desalination of the predominantly brackish ground water is also an option — but the method is too costly to be implemented on a large scale even with government money.

Traditionally, civilizations spring up near sources of water – and die out as and when that source dies out too. At 83 persons per square kilometre, Thar is the most densely-populated desert in the world; in comparison, the population density of other deserts is roughly seven persons. Why do so many people continue to live in such inhospitable conditions – extreme temperatures, lack of potable water, meagre sources of livelihood – migrating only when they have absolutely no other choice, and even then, temporarily?

“That’s the thing about Tharis,” said the manager of the farm near Nabisar. “You can house them in a palace; you can promise them 10,000 rupees a month — but the minute they see lightening in the sky, they will think of their land, how it must be in the rain, and they will leave.” It is true that Thar after the rains isn’t the desert of the imagination: it is an astonishingly verdant expanse, studded with pools of sparkling water. It has been a couple of days since it last rained and desert dust has started to settle on the land once again, imbuing the area with a faded, careless beauty.

And indeed, throughout Thar, the question is received with furrowed brows and a sense of genuine bewilderment. “But what do you mean?” says Savera of Nanisar puzzled, wrinkling her nose. “It’s our land — where else would we go?”

A Mithi-based engineer and philanthropist remembers an incident from years ago when all of Thar turned brown and barren, forcing thousands of people to flock to makeshift camps elsewhere in Sindh. A foreign delegation visiting Pakistan wanted to visit some of those camps; in the time that it took for the delegates to travel there, clouds gathered in the sky and it began to drizzle.

“Within hours, the camp residents began packing up and leaving,” recalls the engineer, chuckling. “By the time we reached there, the camps were nearly deserted — and I was left with a bunch of bemused goras on my hands.” The desert, that in its unyielding dryness had spat its people out, suddenly seemed appealing to them again. With the sound of thunder, Thar had beckoned.