Friday , December 9 2022

Mystifying rise of suicide in Pakistan’s Thar Desert

19-06-2022

Warning: This story contains descriptions of suicide and references to sexual assault which some readers may find disturbing. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help and support are available. Visit Befrienders International for more information about support services.

By SJA Jafri

MITHI/ THARPARKAR: Early in the morning, on the last day of a difficult year – December 31, 2020 – Chaman Lal received a call from home. His youngest sister, 20-year-old Babita, was missing.

Chaman, who is in his thirties, worked in the city of Hyderabad as a cashier at a gas station, but home was the desert town of Mithi, 322km (200 miles) and a four-hour bus ride away. He rushed back. Meanwhile, in Diplo, 40km (25 miles) southwest of Mithi, Chaman’s other sister, 29-year-old Guddi, woke up to find that her husband Doongar hadn’t come home all night. He worked in Mithi for an NGO supporting orphans and widows. He owned his own motorcycle, a source of pride for the family, and commuted by it daily.

It was noon by the time Chaman reached Mithi. It was a wintry Thursday, by desert standards – a nip in the air, the sun pleasingly mellow – and the cluttered town lanes burbled with motorcycles and qingqi rickshaws swerving past rickety pushcarts and glowering cattle. By then, Babita and Doongar had been located and confirmed dead, their bodies found in an empty house at the edge of town, hanging by a single rope from a ceiling fan.

Despite the family’s insistence on foul play and the emergence of jarring details, the house belonged to a local policeman; according to the family, Babita and Doongar barely ever interacted, the police ruled it a joint suicide. Chaman, who has sun-streaked hair and amber eyes, recounts the incident in a daze, his eyes inadvertently straying to the ceiling fan above him in his Mithi home.

Babita and Doongar’s deaths were, according to police records, the 112th and 113th suicides in 2020 in Tharparkar district where Mithi is located. That year saw the highest annual figures recorded in the desert region. Quantitative data is tricky in a country like Pakistan, however, especially when it comes to suicide, which remains a criminal offence with attempts punishable by imprisonment and fines. Pakistan does not compile national suicide statistics, but the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the suicide rate in Pakistan to be 8.9 deaths per 100,000 people, slightly below the global average of nine.

Local attempts at comprehensive data collection yield even sparser results. Last year, the mental health authority in the south-eastern province of Sindh concluded a five-year study of suicides in which Tharparkar emerged as the district with the highest number of reported cases between 2016 and 2020 even though it has a population of 1.65 million, much lower than other districts in Sindh, including the seven that comprise the metropolis of Karachi. The report counts 79 cases of suicide in Tharparkar in 2020 and does not list numbers for previous years. Despite this, the district has the highest number of cases over the five-year period. Local police records indicate well over a hundred suicides in 2020, however. (The Sindh Mental Health Authority did not respond to requests to clarify the discrepancy.)

Statistics, therefore, provide only a sliver of insight into suicide in Pakistan, especially in Tharparkar, among the country’s least-developed districts.

Locals, however, have many stories. Less than a year after Babita’s death, two streets away from where she lived, a shopkeeper’s son-in-law died by suicide. Across the road from where he lived, in the new settlements atop the old sand dune by the new Mithi bypass, another young man, 22, did too. A month later, his next-door neighbour, a schoolgirl, 17, also died by suicide. In an older neighbourhood of Mithi, a businessman whispered news of a friend’s son’s death by suicide. Further away, in the town of Chachro, near the Indian border, a young father threw his three sons aged four, three, and three months into an empty well, then jumped in after them.

The stories don’t end, but they do have a beginning. “I remember just one incident from when I was younger, about a woman in Mithi who flung herself into a well,” recalled one mother, whose grown son took his own life three years ago. When she was a girl, the cases were rare enough that each incident stood out, a story unto itself.

Now, however, it isn’t uncommon to hear of one every other week, to see photos of bodies circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp. When asked if she remembered when this started, the woman was unequivocal. “All these deaths, we only began hearing of them seven, eight years ago.”

‘Thar will transform’

In 2018, a television commercial began making the rounds in Pakistan. In many ways, it was standard government fare, muddled metaphors for progress (“the winds of knowledge will resound on all lips”) set against a rippling flute accompaniment intended to situate the viewer in an unspecified rural part of the country.

Produced by the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company, a public-private venture under the ambit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it depicted several singers waxing poetic, in Urdu, Sindhi, Dhatki, and Mandarin about the riches of Thar, specifically the 175 billion tonnes of subterranean coal that, in theory, could fuel the country for centuries. Against images of green landscapes, almost certainly digitally enhanced, and of children sloshing about in a small dam, they sang: “Thar badlega Pakistan (Thar will transform Pakistan).”

Tharparkar district, par kar means to cross over, is entirely desert, and belongs to a larger arid zone known as the Thar Desert that extends into India. In fact, only 15 percent of the Thar Desert is part of Pakistan.

For centuries, the region had a life of its own, separate from the rest of the subcontinent and contingent on caste hierarchies and patterns of rainfall. For nearly a century, seasonal migration was the warp and weft of desert life: Thari people, traditionally farmers and herders, cultivated bajra (millet) during the rainy season, a hardy small-grained cereal integral to the local diet since prehistoric times. After the summer harvest, with the onset of the dry season, most Tharis especially “lower-caste” Bheel, Kohli, and Meghwar communities, would migrate to the irrigated plains of Sindh to harvest wheat. Up until the 1970s, Tharis scarcely dealt in cash. For their labour in the wheat fields, they were provided protection by landlords, grazing grounds for livestock, and allowed to collect wheat stubble to feed animals when they returned home to await the summer rains.

This ebb and flow of life in Tharparkar was recorded by the social researcher Arif Hasan in 1987 but, even at the time of writing, he noted that this way of life was dissipating. Tharparkar has historically been a Hindu-majority region, but the creation of Pakistan and subsequent wars with India upended old religious and caste hierarchies.

The introduction of more lucrative “cash” crops such as sugarcane clashed with the longstanding patterns of migration. When drought struck in the 1980s, NGOs and social workers entered the fray and with them paved roads, market goods and the cash economy. Still, for the rest of Pakistan, Thar was largely seen as a brown blip on the national map, a faraway land of camels, exotic clothes, and malnourished babies. Until, that is, the early 2010s, when the state decided to begin digging up the vast reserves of lignite coal underneath the desert.

Suddenly, in the national imagination, the desert morphed from deadwood to golden goose. Banks, mobile shops and petrol stations sprouted up. The network of roads became wider and denser.

Professionals from other parts of Pakistan, even from China, moved in for coal-related employment. Guesthouses sprung up along the new roads, designed to look like traditional Thar housing: round white huts with peaked roofs made of thatch, known as chaunras. Long gone were the days of bajre ki roti and lassi, you can now order “Chinese biryani” at local restaurants.

As for Mithi, according to Hasan, it grew by 200 percent in just five years.

Visiting in 2017, he noted that steel for reinforced concrete construction was in short supply and because of deforestation, local timber was no longer available. Many Tharis migrated to Mithi and other urban centres because their ancestral lands were acquired by the state for its various development projects. Some moved to avail new opportunities, and others because, as the climate grew more erratic, the old agrarian way of life became increasingly untenable. Coal exploitation will only serve to exacerbate this last trend, observers have pointed out. Since 2014, when the first coal power project was inaugurated, people have protested against land acquisition, neo-colonization, increased securitization, water security, and ecological disruption.

Thar badlega Pakistan. For now, the first part of the state’s battle cry has come to pass. Thar will transform.

Death and dust

Sonia was 17 when she took her own life, soon after sitting for her secondary school exams. She was bright and studious and loved poetry. She would painstakingly copy out her favourite Sindhi passages, tracing verses on lined paper torn from school notebooks. Those pages, rendered in a neat schoolgirlish hand, were pinned up on a wall in the family room. Next to them were letters that her sisters Geeta and Narmala, one older and one younger, wrote to her after her death.

There was a dust storm in Mithi the day I visited. Great gusts of wind ruffled the tops of thatched huts. Sonia’s father, a lanky man in a white kameez turned beige by the billowing sand, is quiet but affable. It happened in September 2021. The clock struck one, two, and then three in the morning. The girls finished watching a movie on their brother’s mobile phone and went to bed. Fifteen minutes later, says the girls’ father, he happened to wake up and found Sonia dead. She had hanged herself in one of the chaunras in the compound.

“We’re not the sort of family that hides things from each other,” he said, still grasping for an explanation.

Seventy percent of Tharis who died by suicide in 2020 were under the age of 30, according to data from the Sindh Mental Health Authority. More than half of those were teenagers. Bucking global patterns, more women and girls in the district died by suicide and, while Hindus constitute roughly 43 percent of its population, they accounted for 63 percent of deaths. Police data is slightly different but exhibits similar trends. The numbers aren’t disaggregated by caste, but local accounts indicate so-called “lower-caste” Hindus make up many of the deaths.

Sonia’s family are Meghwars, a caste historically associated with leather tanning. In the past half-century, as societal roles contingent on caste became less rigid in Tharparkar, Meghwars attained education at higher rates than other caste groups so much so that by the early 2000s, according to Hasan, they constituted the majority of professionals in the district. Still, young Meghwars can’t fully shake off the burden of being Hindu and “lower-caste”, a double whammy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

“The media makes it seem there are opportunities in Thar now, but it’s complicated,” said Akash, a 26-year-old Meghwar activist. “You have all these unemployed young people running around with degrees in electrical engineering, mining, petroleum and gas” but even amid the ongoing bonanza of resource exploitation in Thar, most skilled and semi-skilled jobs appear to have been given to outsiders, leaving locals to become security guards, construction workers, and drivers. There is little else for them to do.

Accelerated social change

A few hundred metres up the dune from Sonia’s house lived Sajan, who also died by suicide. He was 17, like Sonia, and the eldest son in his family. For four years, since his father’s death, he worked at a garment factory in Karachi. Last August, he took leave from work and came to Mithi for a few days. On the fourth day, he announced his departure. He changed into a white cotton shalwar kameez, shaved his beard, combed his hair and bid farewell to everyone. Half an hour later, he was dead by the water pump.

Unlike Sonia’s father, who is quietly contemplative, Sajan’s mother’s grief has hardened into anger. “He’s blackened his father’s grave,” she said. “I have tensions too, but if I were to kill myself, I’d just burden the people I leave behind. All he’s left behind are his photos, what do we do with those, just look at them?”

She showed them to me. He had floppy hair, wore a clunky watch and kept his kameez collar popped and buttons open. Pink appeared to be his favourite colour.

“His problem,” said his mother, in bitter exasperation, “was that he was too jazbaati.”

This is a common refrain among older Tharis: that newer generations are jazbaati or emotional, easily provoked, exceedingly thin-skinned. When older people talk of suicide, they veer towards outrageous anecdotes, narrated in a tone of bewildered dismay: the 10-year-old who, scolded by his father, flung his schoolbag aside and hanged himself; the teenager denied a mobile phone who clambered onto a pylon and let himself be electrocuted.

“We’re the ones who saw real hardship,” said Sonia’s father, alluding to Thar’s past famines.

It is true, said Akash, there were times when people were forced to subsist entirely on crushed leaves. But there is a particular kind of despair that arises from expecting a different life, working towards it, and still finding it just beyond reach, he says that is how young people in Thar feel these days.

Research from other Asian countries has also linked suicide to social upheaval. Perhaps tellingly, the district in Pakistan most associated with high rates of suicide is Ghizer in the mountainous north. Comprehensive data is not available but one study estimated female suicide rates between 2000 and 2004 to be 14.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, and as high as 61.07 per 100,000 for women between the ages of 15 and 24. Like Thar, Ghizer district was historically isolated but has recently undergone swift social change, girded by expanding road and telecommunication networks and an accompanying boom in tourism.

Akash, who accompanied me to interviews in Mithi, pointed out that many of the families of the deceased only migrated to the town in the past decade or so. The disorientation that can come with exchanging a peripatetic rural life for a settled urban one is sometimes – for younger people – accompanied by greater social control.

As social ties become looser, for instance, according to Akash, the longstanding custom of watta satta involving the simultaneous marriage of brother and sister pairs from two households has increased. “There’s declining trust between families and so it acts as a kind of collateral,” he explained. “A man will think twice before beating up his wife knowing that his sister might receive the same treatment as retaliation from her husband.”

What that means, however, is that young people rarely have a say in whom they marry. For Hindus, moreover, divorce is never an option. Widows are forbidden from remarrying, and Akash says it is rare for widowers to do so, too. Moreover, in a departure from Muslim Pakistani communities, where marriages normally take place within the clan, more than 60 percent of unions are between first and second cousins Hindus marry within their caste but outside their subcaste. This comes with its own complications, says Akash.

A year ago, in a village an hour away from Mithi, a 13-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy hanged themselves from a tree in the middle of the night. The girl was betrothed; her wedding was in two weeks. The boy was set to be engaged in a few days. His family said he never asked to marry that girl or anyone else, for that matter.

“Of course he didn’t,” said Akash. “They belonged to the same subcaste, it was impossible.”

This isn’t a new development: in the past, said one doctor in Mithi, if you ever heard of a case of suicide, there was only one intoxicant to blame: thwarted love. But something else has changed. It is not just stories of suicide that are everywhere in Thar, so are photos.

Exposure to suicide can compel susceptible others to do the same, a phenomenon known as suicide contagion. Research suggests at least 5 percent of suicides by young people are influenced by this, a cause of such concern that in the past, some countries (such as Norway) forbade media from reporting on suicide altogether. In Thar, however, not only do local papers carry uncensored photos of suicides, images are published in NGO reports and circulate freely on Facebook and WhatsApp, contributing to its normalization. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 93 percent of Tharis now have access to mobile internet.

Sonia would come across such photos on Facebook, recalled her sister Geeta. She’d be alarmed. “She’d look at them and ask out loud: ‘How are people able to do this?’”

A family’s desperation

At the district police headquarters the morning after I met Chaman, Constable Gomoon Lal scrolled through his WhatsApp messages. “Any incident, when it occurs, comes to me here on this phone,” he explained, then without warning, thrust the phone in my direction, and zoomed in on an image of a dead woman.

“See, she’s wearing a gold necklace.”

Gomoon Lal was making the case that suicides in Thar aren’t the result of poverty. If that were so, he reasoned, the woman would have sold her jewellery, instead of taking it to the grave. As he saw it, domestic spats were the cause.

“Look, this is what happens: the husband comes home, he tells his wife to make him food, she takes her time, mood ki malik, mercurial, you know so he hits her. Shortly after, he finds her hanging from the ceiling fan.”

He paused.

“Or sometimes, a husband will strangle his wife and make it look like a suicide. That happens, too.”

You hear this often in Tharparkar: the prevalence of suicide can let you get away with murder. Chaman Lal believes this is what happened to his sister and brother-in-law: Babita and Doongar, he insisted, were murdered, the former lured to the house to be abused, found by the latter who tried to protect her, their deaths staged as suicides. On the day of the incident, by the time he’d rushed back to Mithi, the police had already concluded its investigation. The family’s protestations of foul play fell on deaf ears.

“For five days, they wouldn’t even register an FIR,” said Chaman, referring to the First Information Report that aggrieved parties must file in order to initiate a criminal investigation in Pakistan and other South Asian countries.

In desperation, the family placed Babita and Doongar’s bodies in the middle of Mithi’s busiest intersection and staged a dharna, a protest, until the police relented and made some arrests. Within months, says Chaman, the accused were released on bail. The family doesn’t have the money to pursue the case further.

Gomoon Lal, the police officer, was adamant that Babita and Doongar died by suicide. Police are required to carry out a medical and psychological autopsy in the event of a suicide, the former entailing an examination of the body, the latter detailed interviews with family and close associates although this procedure is rarely executed properly.

In this instance, Gomoon Lal said, the medical examination indicated that Babita had been sexually assaulted and on that basis, the police detained suspects, including a rickshaw-driver cousin who all parties agreed was a nefarious fellow and involved in some capacity. But further forensic analysis indicated that the DNA found on Babita belonged to Doongar so, he continued, the suspects were let go.

“The truth is, woh chalti thi,” he said, “she was easy.”

“Okay,” I said. “But what happened? The police has to figure out whether it is murder or suicide, right?”

Gomoon Lal gave me a long look.

“It was suicide,” he repeated. “The brother-in-law, he didn’t like his wife, so he would pursue this one instead.”

‘I dream about him’

Time has taken on a strange, bifurcated quality for Chaman ever since Babita and Doongar died: He is acutely aware of its passing, knowing that answers become more elusive with each day but he also feels weighed down, haunted. “I feel like my brain has slowed down,” he said. “It’s I don’t know, it’s just not working right.” He never returned to his job in Hyderabad and remained unemployed for many months after.

With the caveat that numbers are likely grossly underestimated, nearly 20,000 suicides took place in Pakistan in 2019, according to the WHO. For every suicide, also according to the WHO, there are between 10 and 20 attempts and a hundred who experience suicidal thoughts but don’t act on them. Roughly 0.4 percent of Pakistan’s already meagre healthcare budget was devoted to mental health in 2008 – more recent figures are not available. That year, there were 342 psychiatrists and 478 psychologists in the country whose current population is close to 221 million. Up to 20 percent of psychiatrists typically immigrate to other countries within five years of completing their training.

To address this shortage, the Sindh Mental Health Authority recently launched a pilot project in Badin, the district with the second-highest number of suicides in the province, equipping female front-line health workers with a mobile health app called Pareshan pareshan means anxious in Urdu that will allow them to monitor people exhibiting mental distress. The facility isn’t available in Tharparkar, although a “telehelp” service has been announced.

Chaman hasn’t talked to a professional about how he has been feeling. In Thar, many communities consult local spiritual healers called bopas, of whom medical professionals aren’t entirely disapproving. For milder bouts of anxiety and depression, a doctor in Mithi explained, sometimes all you need is some reassurance and pastoral care. Chaman hasn’t consulted a bopa either, though. As the social fabric of Thar changes, the culture of seeking out bopas is waning too.

After Doongar’s death, his wife moved back to her brother’s Chaman’s home, hounded out by hateful in-laws who wouldn’t let her use the stove or the bathroom, accusing her of being cursed. She broke down as she recalled this, weeping quietly.

“I remember him all the time,” she said. “I dream about him.”

She has four children, all of whom came back with her, the eldest, an 11-year-old girl, and the youngest a happy-go-lucky toddler. Doongar loved them all.

“We didn’t have any problems,” she insisted. “He had his own motorcycle.”

(Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Centre.)

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