Pakistan's neglected Thar desert region suffers from every development hurdle you can name, but its recently accelerated growth is leaving its residents further behind.
Local officials have reported a frightening spike in the number of suicides from the Thar Desert region in Pakistan, an impoverished Hindu-majority region bordering India.
Apart from updates on recently opened coal-powered plants, deaths of infants from malnutrition, and the absence of basic health facilities, the country’s mineral-rich region is mostly ignored by mainstream media and government.
The economic or social conditions that are now leading people to take their lives by hanging themselves from trees, taking poison or pesticide, or jumping into wells, are mostly neglected.
According to statistics compiled by regional police, at least 77 people took their lives in Tharparkar district while 56 people died by suicide in Umerkot district up until November 2019. Umerkot is a borough that was separated from Tharparkar district in the 1990s for administrative purposes.
Activists and police officials in the region said that a large number of suicide cases went unreported because families or relatives of the deceased preferred not to come to the police or report the incident.
The same statistics show that at least 198 people died of suicide in the region in 2018 while 97 killed themselves in 2017.
Recently, a joint suicide emerged. On November 3, the bodies of two Hindu girls – sisters-in-law – were found hanging from a tree in the Kehri village in Tharparkar’s Islamkot town.
Both girls, Veeru and Nathu, were married to two brothers and had one child each. The victims’ relatives and police said that their husbands’ intolerable treatment forced the two girls to kill themselves.
In one case in Tharparkar’s Islamkot town in early 2017, a pregnant woman, 35, killed herself by jumping into a well after throwing her two minors to their deaths.
Rights activists and police officials believe that the rise in suicides indicate a trend that had intensified since 2012 when just 24 people took their lives.
“It is a more alarming trend, and police take it very seriously,” said Saqib Ismail Memon, the regional police chief. He said that his department had compiled the statistics of suicides, investigated each case thoroughly and conducted research to understand the underlying causes behind the rise in suicides.
So many reasons why
Prolonged spells of drought, domestic violence, bleak employment prospects, failures to pay loans to landlords and micro-credit banks, and the displacement of poor families are some of the key factors behind the rise in the deaths in Thar, according to residents, activists and police officials.
Ali Akbar Rahimoo, an activist associated with Aware, a local rights-based NGO, says that over the past few years, suicides – or murder-suicides, as sometimes children are killed along with the parents – have registered an upward trend in the desert region, which faces a drought for a third consecutive year.
A recent study conducted by Aware said that the factors behind most of the incidents of suicides appeared to be poverty, family issues, domestic violence, and psychological disorders.
But researchers and activists working in the region insist that it should not be seen in isolation from the region’s strategic importance and recent developments.
Because of its remote location, proximity to India and past wars with its neighbour, the region has been isolated from the rest of the country with no TV or cellphone coverage and nonexistent transport infrastructure.
The areas most remote regions were only accessible by crab-shaped vehicles, locally called ‘Khekhro’ that crawled over sand dunes.
However, that state of affairs changed some in the 2000s during the government of General Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief, after international feasibility studies sanctioned by Islamabad found that nearly half of the desert contains coal, and suddenly TV and mobile phone towers were installed in the region and roads were built to connect the region to the rest of the country.
“Economy-wise and sociologically, it was hyper-change for the residents and adversely affected ways of the age-old self-sufficiency, including the barter system,” Rahimoo says. The region’s current economy cannot support the emerging lifestyles and aspirations of its increasing population.
A majority of the residents depend primarily on rain-dependent agriculture and livestock, are unskilled, and it is tough for them to find jobs in the China Pakistan Economic Project (CPEC)-related Thar coal projects. The government asserts how it has already brought significant infrastructure transformation and is set to boost social well-being in the region.
Veenaj Raj, a 16-year old from Malhay Jo Tar village, around 16 kilometres away from the coal mining project’s Gorano reservoir, took his life last year after not being able to find a job in the mining projects.
Raj’s father Veeshu, 60, said that his son had applied for a job, “But like the dozens of other villagers, he also did not receive any positive response,” he told TRT World.
According to villagers, Raj was one of the brightest people in the village who could understand the Urdu language – Pakistan's national language.
The drought has led men from poor families to migrate to find work on farms or odd jobs.
“The (suicide) rate in Thar desert is much higher than Karachi, the Sindh province’s capital, which has no match with the poverty-stricken and drought-hit part of the province in terms of population, culture, crime rate and other civic issues,” Rahimoo told TRT World.
“Even in an impoverished neighbourhood of Karachi, one can find some sources of livelihoods, but in the Thar region, no employment is available for local residents who are unskilled and illiterate.”
Rahimoo's claim is hard to verify with a lack of reliable suicide statistics for Karachi, or any cities in Pakistan. The stigma attached to suicide in Pakistan means that any numbers that are recorded, are likely lower than the actual number.
Debts and caste
Non-payment of loans to landlords and micro-credit banks are also one of the key factors behind the rise in suicides.
Activists said that several organisations and individuals give micro-financed loans to residents on low rates when compared to the national rate. However, it is still too high for the impoverished region’s residents. Sometimes people are not able to meet their payments and that sends them down a destructive path.
Kashif Bajeer, a rights activist, said that because of a lack of employment opportunities, the residents could not repay the loans and because of pressure from the micro-credit banks they have been forced to take their own lives.
“In some cases, before committing suicide people have recorded their statements and mention the pressure from landlords and micro-credit banks,” Bajeer told TRT World.
The majority of the borrowers are women. He said that in rural society, culturally, it is considered insulting if someone comes to your home and demands the payment of the loan.
The region is populated predominantly by low-caste Hindus who are generally looked down upon by landowners, who include upper-caste Hindus, and the wider Muslim population.
Statistics also show that most of those who took their lives are lower-caste Hindus aged between 15 to 40. Approximately 71 percent were Hindu and 29 percent Muslim, 54 percent women and 46 percent men.
Rakesh Bheel, a minority rights activist from Tharparkar, said that double discrimination helps compound the conditions that lead to suicides in the region.
“We face double discrimination,” Bheel said, “Muslims discriminate against us on the basis of religion, and upper-caste Hindus on the basis of caste.”
The Hindu community’s own strict cultural taboos and lifestyles, such as the prohibition of inter-caste marriages and cousin marriages are also causing domestic quarrels and tensions that lead to suicides, he said.
Hindu activists complained that whatever minorities-specific incentives and relief were given by the government, never trickle down to them. Instead, they said, the upper-caste Hindu community leaders would use their political clout to trample over the rights of the scheduled caste, or ‘lower caste’.
Easy to ignore
Already facing a major challenge of high infant mortality rates in the Thar Desert region — more than 500 children died last year, and over 200 this year — the provincial government is trying its best to hide this tragic phenomenon.
For months, local rights groups and newspapers were up in arms over the number of deaths as a result of drought and suicides. Due to the media coverage and political pressure, the government’s attention on Thar increased over the past few years - but it's clear the problem persists.
In Sindh’s provincial parliament, the issue of suicides in the Thar region was discussed several times this year, and the provincial government had also sought a report from local authorities. The government has already declared desert districts of Tharparkar and Umerkot as drought-hit areas.
“The government is tackling the issue on an ad-hoc basis by declaring the region drought-hit or announcing relief for the residents,” said Rahimoo. But activists say that “holistic planning” is needed to meet challenges in the region.
The growing number of deaths by suicide had compelled senior police officials to organise awareness rallies, distribute pamphlets and meetings with community leaders.
Memon said that a suicide attempt is a criminal act in Pakistan and an amendment to decriminalise it is necessary.
A bill, moved in the Senate in February, last year, envisaged that the survivors of suicide attempts should be provided treatment and not be awarded any punishment.
But no progress has yet been made on the bill.