ISLAMABAD (TIP): The death toll from famine in Pakistan’s Hindudominated Tharparkar district has mounted to 160. More deaths are feared as two to three children are reported dead daily due to malnutrition and related diseases. The region in Sindh, which forms part of the bigger Thar Desert spread across a vast area in Pakistan and India, has been reeling under drought since December.

But the government failed to take notice of the situation until the media highlighted its gravity. The provincial government maintains around 70 people have died, but reliable independent sources contest the figure and put it at 160. “The deaths are mostly caused by pneumonia, diarrhea, meningitis, neonatal sepsis and pre-mature deliveries,” said district hospital medical superintendent Dr Jalil. He said his 76-bed hospital is treating around 300 famished people.

The calamity has forced thousands to migrate to other parts of Sindh. It has further killed livestock and forced famine-stricken people to sell the surviving ones at throwaway prices to buy food. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rushed to Tharparkar last week along with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari whose Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rules the province and has drawn flak for mishandling the situation. He announced Rs one billion package for the region and directed federal government officials to monitor the situation. Drought is a regular phenomenon in the desert area and occurs every two to three years.

But this time it has been very severe. Officials said the government has to warn people about drought-like situation and provide wheat and fodder on subsidized rates if the region does not receive three spells of monsoon rains before August 16. But the situation worsened since the Sindh government did not take any timely action. Journalist Shakir Solangi described the situation as an administrative disaster. “The negligence of concerned authorities caused the grim situation and multiplied the woes of downtrodden masses of the deprived area,” he said.

Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, who has come under fire, has sacked a provincial minister and top officials for negligence after the Supreme Court took suo moto notice of the situation. Residents blame the provincial government for the tragedy. “While children were dying in large numbers in Thar, the provincial government, under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was celebrating the Sindh cultural festival last month,” analyst Naz Sahito told TOI from Tharparkar’s main city of Mithi.

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“Over half a billion rupees were spent on the festival aiming to build a political image for Bilawal. If a slight portion of that amount was diverted to Thar, the situation could have been controlled.” Tharparkar is spread over 22,000 sq km and has a population of about 1.5 million, majority of whom (52%) are Hindu belonging to Meghwar scheduled caste.

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