For almost a year, a tragedy of truly unfortunate proportions has been unfolding in Thar. Hit by yet another wave of drought, the region has seen hundreds of deaths from disease and malnutrition, with the vast majority of victims being children. Widespread poverty and deprivation, coupled with poor infrastructure and official incompetence, have only exacerbated the crisis, and it seems increasingly clear that the little being done to ameliorate the situation will be both insufficient and ineffective. As the winter begins, bringing with it extreme cold, the people of Thar are likely to find themselves abandoned once again by a state that has thus far demonstrated little interest in helping them.

At the outset, it is important to clarify a few things. While it is not possible to prevent natural disasters from occurring, it certainly is possible to plan for them, and to respond to them quickly and competently. For years, experts familiar with the dynamics of Thar have been arguing for the implementation of measures, such as rainwater harvesting, that could be used to offset the effects of water shortages. Similarly, droughts do not occur overnight; if it becomes evident, as it was earlier this year, that there will be less rainfall, it is possible to start planning for inevitable shortages of food, fodder, and other goods. At an even more fundamental level, it should be obvious that dealing with any kind of calamity will be difficult in the absence of roads and hospitals. As one of the most underdeveloped parts of Pakistan, Thar was always going to be hit hard by adverse environmental conditions.

There is, however, a broader issue that has to be considered here. While it is absolutely right and appropriate to blame the district administration, as well as the federal and provincial governments, for the current state of Thar, there is a systemic logic at work that underpins the recurrence of drought and famine, as well as the inability to respond to them. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen famously argued, famines rarely occur due to shortages of food; instead, they happen due to the inequitable distribution of existing stocks of food. Following from this, Sen suggested that famines were less likely to occur in democracies because representative governments, held accountable by the citizenry, would be forced to respond more effectively to famines than authoritarian ones not beholden to the electorate.

In this context, it becomes easier to understand the structural constraints that impede the formulation of an effective response to the crisis in Thar. The presence of a capitalist economy driven by profit and exploitation, coupled with the existence of a dysfunctional democratic system built upon an unresponsive bureaucratic edifice, essentially ensures that any lasting solution to Thar’s problems will be difficult to achieve. At the start of this year, for example, when plummeting livestock (triggered by the prevalence of preventable diseases amongst sheep in the region) wreaked economic havoc upon Thar’s pastoralists, the absence of any kind of economic safety net or social provision meant that they were completely and totally unprepared to deal with the impending drought. Rising food prices across the country only made things worse; even as the people of Thar began to starve, the elite in Lahore, Karachi, and the rest of Pakistan continued to consume and waste food with their customary, oblivious abandon.

Left to the dubious mercies of the free market, the people of Thar were priced out of being able to feed themselves, lacking the material means through which to both grow and buy food. Predictably enough, even when the government initiated its belated and poorly coordinated response to the crisis, opportunities for rent-seeking and corruption meant that local officials and politicians not demonstrating utter disregard for the plight of their constituents, or sheer incompetence, often used their influence and power to provide a select few with ‘relief’ at the expense of countless others. Thar’s hospitals, few and flawed as they are, were completely unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the influx of people wracked by disease and hunger. Earlier this week, the Chief Minister of Sindh lambasted the media for misstating facts about Thar, arguing that infants were not dying of hunger but, instead, of infections, complications arising from premature deliveries, and so on. The fact that much of this could be prevented through better healthcare provision, as well as through greater material support for the poor and dispossessed, seems to have not crossed the Chief Minister’s mind.

Governments obsessed with ‘development’ and flashy, visible symbols of ‘progress’ often miss the wood for the trees, assuming that largely symbolic statements and gestures are an adequate replacement for comprehensive, nuanced policies. The Sindh government, plagued by factional in-fighting and political grandstanding, has continued to trumpet its ‘achievements’ in Thar, pointing towards aggregate statistics on, for example, road construction, while continuing to ignore the structural reasons that ensure the vulnerability of the poor to drought and famine. The federal government has announced that it will build coal power plants in Thar, somehow assuming that the presence of a ‘mega’ project will, in and of itself, resolve the problems that the region faces.

Fundamentally, resolving the crisis in Thar will require the fundamental transformation of an economic and political system that is geared towards punishing the poor and rewarding the rich. Cosmetic fixes and stop-gap measures aimed at providing short-term relief will inevitably fail in the absence of a commitment to providing economic justice and political accountability. The real tragedy is that at present, none of the mainstream parties, including the PTI, are likely to embark upon such a course of action. Comprised of traditional, elite politicians and bankrolled by big businesses, these parties are, for all their differences, united by a common interest in perpetuating the status quo. As always, dying children are of less importance than the untrammelled pursuit of profit and power.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.