Sleepwalking in Sindh
By Syed Mohibullah Shah
the Indus breached its embankment at Tori in 2010, with
water flow at 11,60,000 cusecs under the Guddu barrage, the
resulting floods devastated lives and livelihood of millions
of people living in six districts on its right bank.
This in 2012, even though
in 1975 – with much less resources – flood waters of
12,00,000 cusecs had passed under the Guddu barrage without
causing any breach in the embankment at Tori or any other
place and without piling miseries upon millions.
Next year, in 2011, the
rains caused devastation to many more millions – this time
on the left bank of the Indus.
Thousands of uprooted
families – men, women and children – lived their lives by
the roadside, or any high ground they could find and
depended upon charity to feed themselves.
Draining out water and
getting people to return to their devastated homes and to
some semblance of normalcy took almost two years.
In both cases, tens of billions worth of losses were
suffered by the people from what could have been avoidable
disasters – and certainly of reduced magnitude – if
preparatory and preventive measures had been put into place.
And now, it is the turn of the people of the Thar Desert to
taste the medicine of this sort of sleepwalking through
governance. It is easy to blame all this on nature, but the
only thing natural about the rain is that it falls – more or
less – from the skies above.
But what were the men doing
on the ground below, especially the systems and institutions
of governance designed to handle such challenges?
Small administrative measures taken on time in August and
September 2013 would have prevented the drought from turning
into a famine that will now continue to take its toll until
the next monsoon season arrives in June 2014.
If the local administration
was often absent or was incompetent, where did the
monitoring role and responsibility at the provincial level
go? And if the administrative machinery had gone to sleep,
why were the representatives of the people not awake to
impending disasters to their constituents? Why did they not
raise these issues in the provincial and national
Sleepwalking through governance while major issues remain
unresolved and new adversities keep piling upon the people
does not speak well – neither of those who owe duties and
responsibilities towards the people nor for that model of
What has stopped empathy, soul-searching, analysis, internal
reviews, monitoring, checks and balances and weeding out of
rotten eggs – whether in the administrative or political
systems? And why has a mindset been gaining ground over the
years, which smacks more of a medieval neglect of people and
their problems than a modern system of governance that
equips them with skills and opportunities and moves them
forward to face the future with confidence?
Since there have been no major developmental initiatives –
industrial, infrastructural or agricultural – in recent
years, poverty and unemployment have been rising in both
urban and rural areas, leading to increased crime and social
and economic tensions.
The province continues to suffer from the dubious
distinction of ‘segregated development’ adding to problems
for itself as well as the country.
Instead of integrating the
economy of rural and urban areas – through infrastructure
projects and facilities that criss-cross throughout the
province, creating linkages between agricultural and
industrial economies and developing common stakes of
wellbeing among people through ‘integrated development’ –
separate and exclusive fiefdoms continue to be promoted,
with non-interference in each other’s domains and breeding
more problems ahead.
The stories emanating from
the Thar Desert will continue to haunt people across the
country for a long time. As unfortunate as these tragedies
are, the common thread of systemic and repeated failures to
respond timely and effectively to challenges is what worries
one about the future ahead.
A report in this newspaper by its Thar-based correspondent
narrated the tale of deaths of children and livestock in
Shahmir village – barely 10 kms from Islamkot – lamenting
that no representative of the relevant government department
had visited the people there, much less offered any
So where is this Islamkot? Islamkot was the place where the
foundation stone was laid for a 5200MW coal-fired power
project in January 1996 – by former prime minister Benazir
Bhutto and the chairperson of the PPP.
According to project details,
Islamkot was to be the hub of Thar coal-mining operations
with residential colonies and related facilities of water,
electricity, health and education for the workforce as well
as the technical and managerial staff.
A new railway line was to carry powdered coal from Islamkot
to power houses at Keti Bandar.
If governance had not been
sleepwalking through these years, this project alone would
have broken the back of any famine and certainly prevented
pain and suffering faced by tens of thousands of people.
Besides, it would have
produced cheap and abundant electricity for the whole
Those who criticise the superior judiciary and the media for
paying attention to the famine conditions facing people in
Thar should realise that if internal systems of checks and
balances within the executive branch and the oversight by
the legislatures had not disappeared, others would not have
found the space to step into the vacuum.
Had these interventions not
happened, business as usual would have further ravaged the
lives and livelihood of many more – all of which would have
gone unnoticed and unattended.
Thank you, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the prompt and
generous support to mitigate the sufferings of the people in
the Thar Desert. And Pakistan Army and the Rangers for
quickly providing food and medical facilities.
These measures – and now the
Sindh government has also come into action – will greatly
help in meeting the immediate challenges posed by the
But where are the international NGOs? Their assistance is
needed to find permanent solutions to water supply and
settlement problems. We are not the only country in the
world with a desert.
Those responsible can be
guided by seeing how others have found permanent solutions
to similar problems of desert regions; a lesson in regional
planning would help.
Also most welcome are the suo motu notices of this disaster
in the desert taken by the Supreme Court and the Sindh High
Court. Their actions have already helped wake up governance
and provided the necessary impetus for overdue actions.
So kindly continue monitoring
and reviewing the progress, lest business as usual become
the order of the day again – until the coming difficult
months have passed with minimum loss to the lives and
livelihood of the poor people of Thar.
The writer, as head of Board of Investment, marketed and
negotiated the finalisation of the 5200MW Thar coal-fired