Tharparkar’s dead children are testament to our indifference
The starving children of Pakistan’s Tharparkar have been dying every single day for the past year, in a part of the country seemingly forgotten by all. The numbers are staggering: over 237 children have died in the past three months, with cumulative figures from last year at about a thousand deaths. There is no great mystery in this enormous loss of life. Thar is struck by famine and the children are suffering the brunt of it, unable to get the basic nutrition they need to survive.
There are also no medical facilities to help the problem. In a region that has over half a million registered voters (half of whom are women), there is only a single public hospital located in the district’s headquarters at Mithi. The civil hospital lacks even basic medical facilities and hygiene protocols in patient care. Often, no trained medical staff is present and just last month, the government of Sindh fired 33 ‘ghost’ doctors who had been on the payroll in the district for several years, collecting pay checks without ever showing up for work.
The children have died in different ways, owing to pneumonia, birth asphyxia, respiratory infections and malnutrition, and most conditions can be traced back to the area’s prolonged drought. The supply of drinking water and irrigation water has been low for over a year. This impacts not only water supply available to grow crops but also the nutritional health of pregnant women who are about to become mothers or are nursing mothers. Water scarcity also has hygiene implications, making it difficult to prevent the spread of communicable diseases between children which they never recover from.
All the while, as children die every day in the arms of their parents, politicians make promises. Last October, the Sindh chief minister said the problem in Thar had to be dealt with “in a holistic manner.” Whatever this holistic solution was, it has still not come to bear fruit.
In November last year, the head of Thar Coal Mines, Shamsuddin Sheikh, suddenly resigned from his job citing the indifference and callous approach of the Sindh government towards the people of Thar. In an interview to Dawn, he said he was “shattered” to see the unwillingness of Thar politicians to address the suffering of the locals and called out their “hollow promises and fake slogans.”
"Thar is struck by famine and the children are suffering the brunt of it, unable to get the basic nutrition they need to survive."
Earlier this month, another politician doled out yet another promise that will be hard to keep: a new university. Added to this, a 250-bed hospital and various schools throughout the region were also pledged. But let us not lose perspective here, based on the words of visiting politicians. The fact is that the region under discussion has a single hospital in shambles, almost no water and hundreds of children dead this year alone.
With the effective bowing out of most lawmakers, it is not surprising that extremist groups and criminal elements have begun to operate in the area, with the abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls becoming more common. One harrowing case in recent memory showed the father of two recently abducted girls weeping hysterically in protest outside a police station because local policemen would not register his complaint.
A recent assessment carried out by the National Disaster Consortium alongside the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others, revealed that a whopping 71 percent of households were food insecure while almost a third were severely food insecure. In addition, 41 percent had borderline food consumption.
These numbers are a tragedy quantified; they are the numbers of too many dead children, too much despair and too little hope. It does not have to be this way. If the government refuses to pay attention to the problem, then the celebrated charity of ordinary Pakistanis, both in the country and in the diaspora, must play its part.
As the holy month of Ramadan approaches and as fasting is willingly taken on by millions of believers, the difficult hunger in these summer months should fore-mostly serve as a reminder that too many people in Thar cannot look forward to a guaranteed meal at sunset, and that most of those starving to death are small children.