Transition in Tharparkar – Amir Hussain

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I am writing this piece on the last day of my weeklong enriching journey to the heart of Tharparkar in Sindh. I am pleased to share with readers some of my thoughts and impressions of what matters the most to the people of remote villages when it comes to making sense of transition in Thar.

Some four years back when I visited Thar, local people there had mixed feelings about the imminent transition. Today, while Thar is undergoing rapid change, hope and despair has morphed into an intellectual debate of some ivory tower well-wishers who have influenced the public discourse of transition on the mainstream media. A new reality is being shaped through simulated media discourse which has robbed the local people of their discursive power and spaces of expression. This is detrimental to the expressive power of the people of Thar whose voice is not being heard. It is easy to write a sensational journalistic report to bash corporate excesses, pick sensational stories and purge contested voices but that does not lead to building a livable Thar for the local people.

It took me some four years to find a reason to be back there again. The agency of locale has tremendous potential, and you feel it when you meet confident and expressive men and women across the poverty-stricken remote villages of Thar. Much credit goes to the Thardeep Rural Development Program (TRDP) which remained at the forefront in supporting people in organizing solid and inclusive platforms of self-expression. If one is interested in capturing the voices of the local men and women of Thar, I advise them to spend a few hours with these organized communities and listen to them carefully. They speak sense and their perspectives outshine the sophisticated and unending theorizing of ivory tower debates.

The TRDP as an organic institution for the poor has created the most important precondition to unleash local human agency as a vital force of transformation. The men and women that I met across Thar spoke highly about the TRDP, in particular about its current role in helping communities engage in transition rather than denying the new reality. This is an impressive approach that helps create opportunities and workable solutions through which the local communities will always benefit.

Most of these stories and perspectives of engaging with change have remained buried under the debris of the grand narratives of ‘Tharparkar in transition’. The grand narrative or the big theories of transition that have been written for or against the ongoing mega projects of coal extraction, for instance, do not help the local people at all. The people are least interested in an intellectual debate as an end in itself if it does not provide any workable solutions to the enduring local challenges.

During my interaction, the local people of Thar did not give any impression of being recipients of unsurmountable misery or unlimited benefits; they instead expressed the will to re-engage with their new reality. This is where the role of local civil society deserves due credit since it advocates a winning proposition by equipping the local to engage rather than confront change. To me the discourse of transition viewed and narrated by the people is the most authentic perspective and therefore it must precede all other discourses and theories. It is also important to go deeper to identify realistic solutions where people matter more than ideology.

In the duality of people versus corporate interests the role of the state becomes questionable, when in reality it has to take the ultimate decision for its citizens. The apparently democratic provincial government is left out of the crucial discussion of transition in Thar. A democratic government is supposed to protect the interests of its people and represent their voice instead of safeguarding elite interests in a situation of transition.

The first question to ask then is: Does the government play its role? What I sensed in my visit was that the government is nowhere, and the local governance structure is dysfunctional across Thar. The only tangible services extended by the provincial government was the installation of Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants in almost all the UCs of Tharparkar but 90 percent of them are dysfunctional now. Eighty percent of government schools are closed due to the unavailability of teaching staff and those functional impart very low-quality education. Most of the villages I visited did not have secondary schools and the literacy rate for women in some cases was as low as five percent.

Tharparkar is in a state of a nonlinear and rapid transition. Nonlinear because the outcome of this transition does not seem to be aligned with local aspirations and inputs and hence it lacks ownership. Rapid because it does not allow for thoughtful engagement and transcends the organically evolved imagining of change. This paradox can be overcome only through the timely action of local civil society.

It takes days of rigorous engagement, tasting the dust of the dunes, and immersing in the locale to dig out how people think of transition. The grand narrative of Thar being on the verge of destruction does not offer a workable solution that the local communities would like us to tell and then leave them at the mercy of their own fate.

The way forward is put forth brilliantly by Dr Allah Nawaz Samoo – the CEO of TRDP – in the following paragraph: “The genesis of TRDP was predicated upon a simple fact that the people of Thar needed their own institution to facilitate transition from a barter economy to modern cash-based economy 25 years ago. [The] TRDP facilitated the poor people to become the stakeholders of change by creating a credible service delivery mechanism of community institutions to benefit from the cash economy…. This is how the transition must be seen as an opportunity to negotiate for the larger good of the poor people rather than dismissing it from an elitist vantage point.”

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.