Before I knew it, summer had disappeared and in a flash the sceneries of Northern Sindh, Tharparkar and the Indus Basin were a receding memory. I drank the water, I survived – never mind that it had effluent. I was resolved to never buy again or cut any wadera kid any slack thinking they’ll change the system and run feminist jirgas. How did fellow humanity live in such oppressive conditions, and not kill. The fights happen in Karachi, the guns emerge, and the blood spills, but in rural areas, it’s slow violence, more brutal, cunning and entrenched.
Day one we are in the Indus Basin. It’s a warm day, end of June. We’ve rented a car, and our driver is an off duty police officer. He is our regular driver’s brother and not as chatty, which is a blessing 5 am, but dull at 8 pm. Only on the way back as we hit Hyderabad Toll does he warm up enough to tell us that Karachi police are vice free and that code for taking accused prisoners for a ride instead of their court hearing is “school duty.” Curious.
The community of the Delta share their problems with us, reminding me high school geography with a smattering of human rights training is more useful education than the elements of contract law. The Indus Delta is finished – big dams upstream, silting, sedimentation, water logging, violation of water laws, corrupt bureaucracy, the works. People are migrating to cities, crowding the expanding metropolis, pushing its peripheries for livelihoods, or travelling upstream turning parts of Punjab Sindhi speaking. Every other week one more ugly building goes up in Gulistan-i-Jauhar. Every month there is one new bus company calling itself the “Shanghai Daevoo.” Sindhis, Punjabis, Mohajirs co-exist in one big cauldron of a melting pot – finding common ground in Ramzan, loving money, hating Ahmedis. The villages in the Basin will eventually vanish. There is no drinking water; there is very little fish. We try to leave. The engine splutters and gasps but no cigar. Several of the people we met gather to push it as our host announces it’s a “khatara.” The mangroves are going, the river’s dry, yet embarrassingly, the errant car is the more urgent problem. They’ve given us fried fish in a washed “Medora” cream box as snack– cooked by a wife we never met, and now they bring it back to the shack to serve us in plates while the cop driver fixes the engine.
Next, we are breezing through the deserts of Tharparkar. In August, it’s pretty and even the desert is sprouting and lush. But it’s June and June never did any favors for anyone in Pakistan, except us in a car. Magical scenery — too pretty to be Pakistan, a dream sequence immersed in desert plains like a giant’s large brown limbs spotted by shrubs, thatch roof huts, colorful garb, and the legend of Marvi resonating in the backdrop. The cop decides the car can fly over a four foot deep gash in the ground. Now the only thing interrupting the beauty is the broken bumper. People here live almost the same way they did 50 years ago, but for a few organizations providing solar panels, water pumps, training to mid-wives, and other mere cushions. State neglect is prevalent and rural poverty pervasive even if it lacks the razor sharp edge of urban squalor. As you approach cities you can see mini city problems. Mithi is cool, but for its open drains and the ensuing smells. Our host has a house filled with airy verandahs and book shelves in the walls. He is Hindu, and introduces us to Mai Bhagi’s niece who places herself on the floor. Bhagi is a famous folk singer from this region. “Look at her,” he declares in liberal pomposity, “she could pass as Hindu. But she is Muslim. Can you tell the difference?” I write “50 percent Hindu population, tolerance, syncretic” in my notebook for no apparent reason, but to avoid looking at her directly. She is smiling and acquiescing to the statement. Yet, the Hindus are leaving their ancestral Tharparkar and opting for India preferring economic insecurity to religious marginalization. By now I have been in Sindh enough to know that a cup of water is precious. I try to decipher if we are all drinking from the same utensils, and decide that we are. People leave their belongings unprotected but lock up the water tank, we are told.
We stay in Umerkot. New hotels have sprung up courtesy Telenor patronage and international mercy organizations that came after the 2010 floods. The motel is nice for Sindh where garish is modern and toast for breakfast is English. An NGO woman and her helper are in the hallway preparing packets for the next day’s workshop. We smile and acknowledge each other’s vaguely connected purpose. We get daal and onions for dinner, despite my insistence on bhindi ki sabzi, which the cook says he can fix in half an hour. I locate sockets to charge my electronic paraphernalia and pop vitamins. My fear that I drank industrial waste at Keenjhar, which like another destroyed lake from our childhood, has subsided. The morning brings renewed strength and there is an exotic bird outside my window.
I tell the boy how to make instant coffee, and he asks me to repeat the directions. The pace is softer and less cranky than Karachi. Who knows why the peacocks are dying in Thar. Poetically, it would seem it’s all the companies exploring coal, aspiring to put Thar in another dimension. Legally, it may be the reason as well. Almost the entire desert is sitting on a gargantuan coal field. We’d all like a happy ending — power for the rest of the country, development for Tharis, as we pray it will not be decimation of the Tharis, debt for the rest of the country, and a lot of money for a few corporates and their smug engineers. No evangelist will save us; no environmental assessment hearing ever ended in a victory for the people; let’s hope the people will resist bad change.
Now we are in Northern Sindh or as some may call the Karo Kari capital of darkness. I meet a woman who is one of ten daughters of a communist and she tells me she saved a woman from being a kari, dodged bullets and escaped on the famous red status symbol motor cycle. She is a lady health worker, a profession that has allowed some women mobility, income, and potential politicization – and has my utmost respect, but the state hosed them down when they made demands for salary increase.
In no particular order, the three systemic poisons in this water starved region:
Waderas — triple moon lighting as pirs, politicians and jirga judges. Companies — draining natural resources. International monetary agencies like IMF and WB — injecting loans to fix flailing irrigation infrastructure that falls apart anyway. All three wheeling, dealing, drawing kickbacks and spelling ruin, poverty, misogyny, displacement for the locals, and usurping or polluting water supplies.
Apart from owning lands, controlling profits, and firming up power through NA and PA seats, the big waderas (as supposed to the rehri or small) suffer the “giving” complex. They like to be the ones doling out cash, jobs, and food; they like to think they are benevolent in their jirgas whereas they are simply and often confirming customary rights farmers and herders have enjoyed from time immemorial, or workers should have. The colonial British government, for whom they served as collectors, consolidated the power of these heads by giving them jagirs and inams as prizes. In Badin, we do a sit-in with medium landlords who are complaining there is no irrigation water left for them as they are downstream, and they are missing the season.
But at least in popular culture, big landlords are infamous. Criticism of corporations has somehow not permeated our consciousness or entered local human rights discourse, probably because criticizing them is like criticizing the army and we are gullible in light of their polite false pretences of social work, and the plushness they offer in a bleak rural landscape. Yet there are more than 20 multi nationals in Sindh alone engaged in questionable environmental and employment practices and serious flight of capital. But if you check our case law, they’ve hardly ever been sued.
World Bank now talks of participatory methods as they pave ground for new projects, acknowledge fault, but in-debt us anyway thereby impoverishing the region.
My gay-dar is on and this activist person we meet makes me wonder about gay sub culture in Johi. When material conditions are so bad there is no reason to romanticize anything even the warmth I receive. He takes us to the press club and I am already heading for the door – but he insists we go the long way and marinate in the air conditioning for a few seconds. Aren’t we all looking for slivers and seconds of luxury maintaining only a bare semblance of decency and decorum about the plight everyone else is in? I snap a picture of people lining up for lunch. Ramzan is not observed with the same religious bigotry we see in Karachi. Our driver has returned. After whizzing through a 40 mile passage of date trees, we stop at Moro for lunch. Driver thinks Sindh is bigger than America and shows us his college.
I am ethnically neutered, I realize later. No Sindhi, no Punjabi, no Pashtun, just the outcome of the insipid aspirations of some political leaders in UP, writing in a mostly irrelevant language, seen by many as a technical skill, and certainly not the language of those who will bring revolution to this rotten system. I do not talk about local politicians and who ran from what district. I have no village I hail from. My class and I may benefit from the corrupt hierarchies indirectly. But, I am no longer apologetic about not knowing Sindhi—too disgusted by power and apathy of Sindhi elite and the use nationalism and culture to cover up oppression. It’s high time loans, large land holdings and corporate crime all wrapped up in a paternalistic culture that eats away at the land and its people are stopped and people’s collective humanity has a chance to breathe.