Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh is confronted by issues ranging from poor governance, lack of support to small and medium-sized farmers and a fragile regulatory framework. A study in contrasts defined by sharp urban-rural and socioeconomic divides, Sindh’s politics has ethnic and sub-nationalist elements. Despite huge productivity potential, Sindh remains largely untapped. The available data suggest that Sindh has experienced little improvements in any of the human development indicators over the past two decades. Moreover, the province is faced with a large influx of people from other parts of Pakistan who put an additional burden on its resources and infrastructure. The province’s extremes range from the wealth and density of Karachi, the mega port city that dominates the economy not only of Sindh but also of Pakistan as a whole, and the poverty in other parts like Tharparkar.
The rural districts of Sindh are home to some of the most impoverished citizens of Pakistan, many of them haris (sharecroppers) who are tied to waderos (landowners) in bonded labor arrangements. Industrial and commercial activity in Karachi has long outpaced the agricultural economy that flourishes on the banks of the Indus in Sindh, further exacerbating the province’s economic divisions.
The centre regularly commits excesses with the province. Sindh’s political leadership claims that that by showing a reduced population of the province in the census figures the federal government deprives the region it of its increased share in the divisible pool in the National Finance Commission Award.
Water and Agrarian Crisis
Sindh holds a special place as far as its contribution to the overall agrarian economy of the country is concerned. However, despite having a climatic advantage, Sindh’s crop yields are decreasing. Sindh comes up with an impressive output of wheat every year despite pre- and post-harvest losses at various stages, but because the province lacks storage capacity, only a limited quantity is procured from farmers at support price and the rest is hoarded or sold in the market at lower prices. Of the four million tonnes of wheat produced by the province, only 1.3m tonnes are procured every year after hiring rented premises.
Presently at the height of summer, the Guddu Barrage in Sindh province is facing the “worst water shortage in 60 years.” Pakistan’s government has circulated an advisory to farmers not to go for paddy sowing in May and June as all three barrages in Sindh are bearing with 36.94pc water shortage. Every year wherever cotton is grown or paddy nurseries are prepared in Sindh, the crops are affected due to water shortage. On the other hand, 50,000 acres of land is irrigated in Punjab’s riverine area out of the water flows released for Sindh. The timely availability of water remains essential for achieving desired growth in the agriculture sector. However, being a lower riparian region, Sindh continues to face water shortage more often than not.
Worsening the problem is the tug of war between the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) members from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab over water distribution. This dispute has aggravated over the opening of TP-link canal from the Indus at a time when the low riparian federating units are craving for water even for drinking purposes. Recently the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) in Sindh chapter announced holding protests against Imran Khan’s government at the district level in the Sindh province from June 3 to June 15 against acute water shortage.
Amid the rising population and climate change, the availability of freshwater is becoming worrisome in Pakistan, which may face absolute water scarcity by 2040. In 2016 a commission appointed to probe whether people in Sindh received clean drinking water, and whether the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) had discharged its statutory responsibilities conclude that the “people of Sindh are not drinking clean water. The mixing of untreated sewage with freshwater bodies — rivers, canals, lakes, ponds etc. — was found to be the prime cause of contamination. It was found that water is unfit for drinking purpose in many cities.
Environmental & Health Crisis in Sindh
Even as Pakistan is listed as the 7th most affected country by climate change, within the country, Sindh is the worst affected by extreme weather events that are the classic manifestations of climate change. Erratic rain patterns have led to decline of rainfall.
A World Bank (WB) analysis ‘Sustainability and Poverty Alleviation: Confronting Environmental Threats in Sindh’ estimates that 45,000 people died prematurely in 2009 in Sindh from major environmental health hazards, and its economic impact in terms of GDP was 15 per cent of Sindh’s GDP, with an annual cost of about PKR 372 billion. The most important environmental problems are those affecting human health. The report recommended that lead exposure should also be tackled urgently, as it resulted in irreversible effects, including impaired intelligence in children, which have significant and lifelong consequences. Among the problems, inadequate water supply, sanitation, and hygiene has the highest cost; air pollution, both in urban areas and within households, is another pressing challenge. The problems associated with degradation of natural resources and losses from floods and other natural disasters have a cost equal to 5.3 per cent of the province’s GDP.
Amid challenges from several public service issues, another crisis is looming large as major hospitals across Sindh are running their operations without medicines. Citing the gravity of the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, a senior health professional was quoted by the media, “The Sindh government hospitals across the province right now are running their operations without medicines and in some cases several health facilities have formally informed the authorities about their inability to operate even their emergency units in such a situation.”
Out of five provinces of Pakistan, the situation is worst in Sindh province where Food Insecurity ranges from 40 to 70%. Closely related to health and food scarcity is the stunting indicator of intensifying malnutrition Sindh. As many as 48 per cent children under the age of five are stunted while 35pc of them are severely stunted. Major nutritional problems in Sindh are low birth weight due to poor maternal nutrition, protein-energy malnutrition, anemia, and iodine deficiency. Malnutrition is a deep-rooted governance problem.
In 2020, the population faced multiple shocks including high food prices, locust outbreaks and heavy monsoon rains/flooding, all exacerbated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 3.1 million people (26 percent of the rural population analysed) are estimated to be facing high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 or above) in March to June 2021.
Sindh was once known for its progressive politics, religious tolerance, pluralism and vibrant civil society, but the province has undergone a change and is no more immune to security challenges.
Organized crime, particularly kidnapping for ransom rackets, is the greatest current security challenge in rural Sindh. Criminal gangs operate unchecked with the patronage of political parties and influential landowners, and the politicized police force do little to clamp down on criminal activities. The dense riverine forests in Sindh provide excellent cover for the outlaws where they can disappear after committing their crimes, which run the gamut from murder and extortion to kidnapping for ransom. While that is true, there is also a political dimension to the perennial law-enforcement problem.
Even some extremist organizations are increasingly active in Sindh’s central and northern districts. Sectarian militant groups and the anti-state Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are consolidating their presence in the province in rural areas.
In parts of interior Sindh, there have also been unconfirmed reports that the educated unemployed are joining the ranks of dacoits who offer them monetary compensation and protection in return for “services” rendered. The result is that today a thin line divides crime from politics, a gap that is likely to be bridged further by the gradual collapse of the state machinery in the interior of Sindh. Ensuring stability in Sindh is key to tackling the security situation in Karachi and in preventing the spread into the province of violent extremist and sectarian groups based in southern Punjab.
Human Rights problems
Human rights cases in Sindh, Pakistan, range from arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances to torture, extrajudicial killings, and political repression. In October 2011, Asian Human Rights Commission issued an appeal on information it had received that the Sindh University authorities allegedly used law enforcement agencies for disappearances of students in Sindh province. In a 2012 statement issued by Asian Human Rights Commission, it said that: “In Sindh province more than 100 nationalists were abducted and disappeared after 9/11, many were extra judicially killed and their tortured and bullet riddled bodies were dumped on the streets.”
According to the Chairperson of the World Sindhi Congress Rubina Greenwood, “Since February 2017, more than 300 disappearances have occurred, including young activists such as Aaqib Chandio, Shabir Kalhoro, Basit Kalhoro, Ayoob Kandhro, Kashif Tagar, Shahid Junejo, Insaf Dayo and others. The families of the missing continue to suffer.”
Hindu Bonded Labour, Forced Marriages and Conversions:
The position of religious minorities in Pakistan is overwhelmingly at the bottom of the socio-economic structure. This places them in a powerless position and leaves them vulnerable to predation and forced conversions. This is often compounded by the Untouchable (Dalit) caste status of many Hindus in Sindh. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) the majority of the so-called Untouchable, or Scheduled Castes (Dalits) in Pakistan are Hindus in the Sindh region. Dalits and Hindus also make up a large part of Sindh’s landless bonded labour that forms the backbone of the economy in both agriculture and brick kilns. The situation of bonded labour places people in a virtually powerless position vis-à-vis those who own their labour. For example, 14-year-old Jeevti from Sindh, the daughter of Hindu bonded labourers, was abducted in the middle of the night from the family’s home by the landlord. She was converted to Islam and forcibly married to the landlord as his second wife because he claimed that the family owed him $1000. Jai Prakash Moorani, editor of the Sindhi daily stated, “when Hindu girls are kidnapped, forcibly converted and married to Muslims, the police, government and courts all turn a blind eye.”
Evidence provided by numerous NGOs, journalists and academics have shown that abductions and forced conversions are one of the most serious problems facing Hindu and Christian women and girls. Former vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Amarnath Motual, notes that 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted every month in Pakistan. The volunteer group, Responsible for Equality and Liberty estimates that between 20 to 25 Hindu girls are forcibly converted every month.
It is a matter of great concern that successive federal and provincial governments had completely ignored various issues in Sindh, especially the water shortage, unemployment, steep prices of essential commodities and law and order situation.
Law and order problems in Sindh have been exacerbated by systemic issues, including socioeconomic factors, an extreme urban-rural divide, poor governance, and a centuries-old feudal system. The authorities are yet to fulfil their obligations under these international treaties to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities from forced conversions and forced marriages. Political representation for religious minorities, law enforcement, legal system capacity, education policies, government accountability and transparency, and job creation are key to enhancing stability, both within the province and across the country.