Teach Them How To Fish
I was home for winter break in January and I heard on news about increasing infant mortality rates in the desert region of Sindh- The Thar Desert. Famous for its folk tale of Umar Marvi and the coal reserves, the desert region of southern Pakistan, however beautiful, is becoming known for famine, droughts, low literacy, high infant mortality and an aid dump. For years I have heard of people sending aid to this region and the government too has been sending relief funds in the times of distress. I wondered why the condition of Thar kept on getting worse. With a hope to answer my curiosity I along with a friend took off from Karachi, passing through Thatta, a city known for being home to Asia’s largest grave yard and Shah Jahan’s Mughal mosque. Driving through Badin and Khoski I found myself in Mithi following a 6 hours long drive. Mithi is an urban settlement in Thar and it is a moderately sized town with reasonable roads and access to water, electricity and other basic necessities of life. However, this was not the case for the 2400 other villages which inhibit between 500 to 1500 people each.
After going around Mithi city for a while we went to a village called Neriensir which was located about 8 km away from the city. The road only went until 2 km before the village and the village population was 800 people. A hand full of houses, with an average family size of 6 to 8 members. We got out of the car where the village elders were waiting to welcome us. It was predominantly a Hindu village, which was not surprising because according to the locals the Hindu- Muslim ration was about 50–50 in Thar. The two religious groups have coexisted in peace for centuries however, according to the locals, the establishment of Madressas over the past few year have sabotaged this age old religious harmony since Muslims have now started distancing themselves from Hindus.
I asked my friend to take out the camera as we walked towards the villagers. At this point on of the village elder, not knowing that I understood Sindhi, told our guide to ask us to just take photos and give them whatever aid we had brought for them. I was taken a back by this comment, I turned to the man and responded in Sindhi of course, “we are not here to take pictures, we are here to talk to you about the prevailing conditions in your region and the problems that people here are facing”. We were then invited to sit down outside their homes on a sheet of cloth and we started talking. We had a 45 minute long conversation and I figured that the biggest reason for the deteriorating condition of Thar is us- the people who are sitting at homes and sending aid. Yes, the aid and the relief funds were the biggest problem; because it had made them complacent. We asked them to tell us what they felt was the solution to Thar’s problems, they said, “Education, if we were educated, we would be a lot better off but we dont make enough money to educate ourselves.”
Even though they were literally living in the year 1900, where they had no direct access to electricity, water, gas or road, they were aware that education was what they needed. And I think this was a very positive sign. On further inquiry, and interaction with some youngsters, we found out that most of them had given up education at an early stage. Finding this puzzling, we asked, ” Why dont you continue education? If you know that Education is the only way to improve your condition?”. To our surprise, they said, ” Our forefathers have lived without making extra effort, and government gives us 50 kg of wheat every 3 months, and we get other aid too. We see no reason to put in extra effort when we can sustain ourselves without it. Also its all desert, there is nothing you can do to earn money here.”. On one level they came across as helpless but their helplessness was reinforced by the sympathetic eyes of the Pakistani society at large. They had become used to receiving aid in sympathy for their poverty. However, I was glad that they realized this and said that we have gotten used to being beggars and as long as we dont stand on our own two feet, we will remain in this poverty.
On the issue of infant mortality, they told us that preferential treatment is given to the boys and given the already scarce food supply, the girls often dont get sufficient food and suffer malnutrition. Moreover, these girls are wedded at an early age of 14 or 15 and obviously, when they bear children, there is very little chance of the child surviving, however, despite the high mortality rate, on average every family has 6 to 8 children.
The Situation is indeed Alarming, and the government is ever shameless. As a nation, the people of Thar are our responsibility, they cannot continue to live a whole century behind us forever, and one child’s death in Thar should pain us as much as a death of a child in Karachi or Lahore.
What we need is a sustainability model to educate and provide employment to the people of Thar. A long term solution is needed because the short term solutions are worsening the overall situation in Thar and not letting the locals stand on their own feet. We should stop catching fish for them, and teach them how to fish instead.
This story has been written by Zia Hussain Syed and the original post can be found here. Syed Zia Hussain Shah is cofounder of Ravvish, a social project that addresses conflict resolution through global engagement.