Wandering in the Land of Wonder

Mohammed Hussain Khan, in Dawn, 1 October 2017, …with the tile “Footprints: Land of Wonder”

THE bells sounding around the necks of animals are melodious, with herdsmen taking care of them in the usually desert plains that now look like meadows. After back-to-back spells of rainfall across Tharparkar, following an unusually long, harsh weather spell, everything is lush green.

Having covered Tharparkar over the last two decades for all the wrong reasons — successive droughts, unending deaths of newborn children, the absence of basic health facilities — my own excitement knows no bounds. The desert is now under cover of golden fields of the millet crop. I feel lost in the never-ending, picturesque landscape. Abundant greenery follows the Islamkot road, starting at Wango Morr from coastal district Badin’s side to Nagarparkar taluka, which borders with India’s Rajasthan and Gujarat states. The scene is, indeed, one of breathtaking beauty.

It did rain last year, but it was belated. This year, the monsoons that started in the third week of June across Tharparkar ended a four-year drought that witnessed a countless number of deaths of infants, chiefly because of malnutrition. From the food security viewpoint, this year the rains have occurred in time.

The people of Tharparkar endure harsh conditions whenever there is drought. The levels of groundwater wells — the primary source for drinking water and livestock needs — drop considerably. This requires locals, especially women, to cover longer distances to fetch water from wherever it is available. For the Tharis, water is truly the elixir of life.

Almost every drought, moderate or severe, people — especially from the Kohli, Kheel and Meghwar communities — migrate to the barrage areas in search of food for themselves and fodder for their livestock. The hot and humid conditions lead to a great deal of emotional trauma and psychological injury; their livestock — which are their greatest assets — die for want of fodder and water.

The rains represent a special meaning for communities that suffer drought at regular intervals. The dynamics of these residents’ economy revolve solely around the weather. The recent rains left people euphoric. They anticipate more rains soon, and forecasts follow interesting yardsticks in centuries-old wisdom.

“During the colonial era, when an officer asked a maharaj [prince] as to what kind of rainfall suits this region so that farmers have a better crop, he retorted, ‘Wasay, wasay, wasay [it should keep raining].’ The officer said that such a downpour would be problematic, but the maharaj said that the day it stops raining, we will be doomed,” remarks 62-year-old Eidal Kumar.

The wisdom he inherited from his forefathers dictates that, “goats showing restlessness portend rainfall. Likewise, if there is grime on the cattle’s body, that means we can expect rainfall shortly”. Kumar wasn’t wrong in his weather assessment. Eight days later, it did rain again in parts of the desert.

Whenever it rains heavily, Thar offers a haven of peace and serenity to visitors. Tourists from across Sindh travel to the desert, especially Nagarparkar, to enjoy awe-inspiring views of the hills dotted with stunning stone configurations.

“Last year it rained in some pockets, but that didn’t benefit the community. The rains were erratic and localised. But this year it rained across the desert, and this will replenish everything from groundwater reserves to fodder and vegetation as well as the summer crops,” explains Ali Akbar Rahimoon, who runs a non-governmental organisation in Chhachhro. This year’s rains, he believes, will help farmers get healthier harvests of the traditional crops of bajra [millet] and guar [cluster beans]. Currently, he adds, there is controlled grazing as the community is not letting the cattle enter the fields; the animals will be allowed in after the harvest. Right now, the rain-induced grass is sufficient. Likewise, recharged groundwater reserves will cater to the needs of the community for around two years.

This arid region’s farmers need at least three cycles of timely rainfall: before, during and after the sowing stages of crops. Currently, locals are set to not only harvest a healthy crop but remain complacent about fodder’s availability. The official figure for the livestock population in Tharparkar is 6.5 million.

Thar is also home to a huge energy project, thanks to an estimated 175-billion-tonne reserves of black gold — coal — underneath its sand dunes. It also has tourism potential. However, it remains unexploited for security reasons. Once the centre of the Jain religion, Nagarparkar is now a border area where the Rann of Kutch is located. “This area can be an ideal tourism zone provided security restrictions are relaxed,” says Krishan Sharman, whose organisation works with the Sindh government’s planning and development department in Tharparkar’s social sector.

The federal government recommended Nagarparkar’s landscape area to Unesco for inclusion in its world heritage sites. The Sindh culture department, says an official, is preparing a dossier for Unesco to declare the goddess Gauri’s temple and the well of Marvi — Bhitai’s character of patriotism in one of his epic folklores of Umar Marvi — as a heritage site. The culture department wants to have the entire landscape of Nagarparkar declared a heritage site, ie the area from Gauri’s temple, Karunjhar hills, and Bodhesar mosque to the Jains’ temples dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries. The mapping of the area is said to be under way.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2017

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