Two successive years of drought and famine highlight the state of neglect and callousness of the government towards the people of Thar. It is the 9th largest subtropical desert located between River Sutlej and Indus in the North West in Pakistan, Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan in India and Great Rann of Kutch. It cradles hundreds of civilizations ranging from 10, 000 years (last ice age) to 1,900 BC (Mohenjo-daro). Like civilizations yet undiscovered, the people ironically lie buried in the sands of time. Pakistan’s economic and industrial future depends on this region.

The Indian side, due to developed irrigation and communication infrastructure, is fairly developed. India developed a series of dams and headworks up to Faridkot. Indira Gandhi Twin Canals have brought an agriculture revolution. Jodhpur is a cultural hub and international tourist attraction. Development and industry in Gujarat and Ahmadabad places the region in the fastest growing economies of India. Archeological activities in India are at a higher ante than Pakistan. In a recent survey and dredging, the farthest limits of the desert have been discovered on the northwestern coast of India in the Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay) Arabian Sea. Carbon dating of artefacts estimates the civilization at more than 9,000 years coinciding with the last ice age. Khambat was once a flourishing civilization and part of Thar submerged more than 100 meters at sea by geological changes.

On the Pakistan side, the canal network of the Indus Basin water distribution system is restricted to developments in South Punjab and Upper Sindh. Every year flood waters amounting to many Tarbela and Mangla dam reservoirs are wasted in water logging and the Arabian Sea. The desert comprises Cholistan in South Punjab and upper Sindh, the Nara Massif from Mirpur Mathelo to Badin and thereafter the Thar up to Nagarparker. For defensive reasons, some parts of the harsh and difficult desert with dunes ranging from 50-150 meters have been left undeveloped forming a natural barrier between India and Pakistan (Nara Gap). My exploration of the area from 1992-2005 suggests that with technological advances, the area hardly remains a barrier to military movements. Black top roads exist on the Indian side right up to the check posts. Exploration activities are selective. The lack of planning, government resolve and societal frictions are the obstacles. Feudal elitism is the biggest hindrance to empowering these people.

Pakistan’s major gas and oil fields are located in this massif comprising Kadanwari, Qadirpur, Sawan and Badin. Thar provides the major share of Pakistan’s existing oil and gas supplies, dispelling the notion of Sui being Pakistan’s energy center. Nara Canal flowing out from Sukkur Barrage has extended the green belt to Mirpur, Badin, Tando Adam Khan, Thatta, Hantangu, Sorah and Tando Allahyar. The land holdings are feudal in nature employing bonded labour or driving hapless further into the harsh desert. The fruits of development have not trickled down.  The area despite being Pakistan’s energy power house remains the poorest, with a lack of water, health facilities, child nourishment, sanitation, agriculture, education and stable job opportunities. Apart from inherent social discrimination overseen by an unjust social system, the people at rock bottom are non-Muslims; comprising Kohlis, Bheels, Schedule Caste Hindus and some Jains. Jains were at the receiving end at Nagarparkar when Babri Masjid was destroyed by Hindu zealots in India. These people are driven into inhospitable socio-economic conditions and quarantine by Sindhi feudalism, high class Hindus and absence of human resource development. The trend of forced conversions, abductions, private jails, exodus to India and rise of religious intolerance has further squeezed space. They cocoon in isolated Goths (hutments) around water wells maintaining their identity and culture. Over time, these wells become the hotbed of water borne parasitic diseases and arsenic poisoning. The government of Sindh has yet to install a single arsenic removal water treatment plant in a region that has the world’s highest levels of contamination. Neglected people live in desert ghettos and pre-historic time warps.  But these indigenous people of pre historic times have survived for over 10, 000 years.  Their folklore and Rigvedas (Hindu religious scripts) reminds them of their glorious past and perhaps a civilization that pre-dates any other. Their future is written in gold.

A great river called Sarasvati once debouched into this area from the mountains in the North. Rivers Sutlej and Yumuna were its tributaries. Biblical archeologists relate to it Pishon with huge treasures of gold and gems. Geology, earth quakes and tsunamis changed the course of the rivers. Sutlej slipped and joined the Indus. Yumuna and perhaps Sarasvati joined Ganges. The river dried out. What remains is the Ghaggar River bed on both sides of India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, this dried bed assumed the names of Hakra near Bahawalnagar and Fort Abbas, Reini Nullah near Khairpur and Nara Canal in Sindh. During my expedition in the area in 2005, when we crisscrossed over 1,700 km, we saw the prehistoric dry river beds intact. Salty oasis in the area ooze out water trapped from the sea through tsunamis/ earth quakes. These geological changes resulted in ridge lines like Aravalli Range in India, line of pinnacles near Sorah-Khairpur and the Allahwala Bund in Karachi. Archeologists estimate that a massive civilization is buried under the dunes of Nara Desert and that Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro are its mere outposts. Also buried lie baffling reservoirs of hydrocarbon, fresh water and precocious minerals.

Thar Desert holds the world’s second largest reservoirs of lignite coal. The lignite can alone produce petrol, diesel, LPG, natural gas, fertilizer, petrochemicals and irrigation water for the next century. Crude oil, copper, gold and gas are besides this. Why has Pakistan not exploited this immense mineral and archeological resource?

The feudal and elitist mindset does not wish for this to happen. Prosperity means liberation for the poor. Since they are “low castes,” political elites do not consider them worth two pence; calling them Tharis, not Sindhi.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson.