A Hindu-majority region of Pakistan’s Sindh province has witnessed the death of 143 children from causes such as malnutrition in little more than four months, and the government’s apathy has allowed groups such as the JuD to make inroads in the area.
Tharparkar district of Sindh, which borders India’s Rajasthan state, is considered one of Pakistan’s most backward areas. It is also home to thousands of divided families whose members live on both sides of the border.
In February, health officials of the Sindh government confirmed the death of 143 children aged up to five years in Tharparkar because of malnutrition and other causes since October.
Most of them were from families that live in the desert, earning their livelihood through agriculture. Residents have seen their food stocks dwindle and their cattle die during droughts in the past three years.
Local journalists who interviewed villagers and elected representatives of local bodies have reported more than 190 children have died since January. However, this figure could not be independently verified.
Given the harsh conditions and government apathy, the region has seen a surge in infant deaths over the past two years, civil society activists said. The deaths are mostly caused by malnutrition and the number is rising, they said.
Help, if any, is coming from the most unlikely sources. Organisations such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, named by the US as a front for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, have set up camps and established their footprint in the area.
They have provided medical help to people, dug wells in dry areas and even started informal schools.
“They don’t ask who you are…whether Hindu or Muslim. They just help us,” said a villager who was interviewed by a local newspaper.
Lal Malhi, the local MP, said: “It is a hard place to survive but what we have seen is that people have lived here for hundreds of years without such a high number of children perishing.”
Malhi, who is also a businessman, was elected to parliament on a ticket of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. He is an exception as most MPs in the region come from slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.
The PPP has been in power in Sindh for more than a decade but has faced considerable criticism for its governance in recent months. When news of infant deaths first surfaced in 2015, chief minister Qaim Ali Shah dismissed the reports as media propaganda.
Local press club official Kapil Dev said the situation is going from bad to worse. “We are seeing almost no help from hospitals or doctors. Many come to Umerkot or Mithi for treatment and end up getting none at all.”
The deaths have now become a subject of national politics. The PPP insists the deaths are exaggerated. The provincial government has accused Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party, which heads the federal government, of trying to benefit from these deaths.
Qaim Ali Shah recently said that “thousands died in Punjab of dengue but we did not exploit this. But the PML-N is doing this in Thar.”
A team of doctors from a local medical university was recently stopped by police from entering the Thar region and forced to return to Hyderabad. Other such attempts have been thwarted by the government, which insists it can handle the crisis. “We have world class hospitals in Thar…better than Karachi,” Shah said.
The JuD and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, also considered a front for the LeT, are active on the ground. Other religious organisations have followed them into the region.
So far, the authorities have ignored the fact that several of these entities are banned. But in a place where there is little food and water, their presence is welcomed by all.