A New Deal in Pakistan
The New York Review of Books; Volume 55, Number 5 · April 3, 2008
The province of Sindh in southern Pakistan is a rural region of dusty mudbrick villages, of white-domed blue-tiled Sufi shrines, and of salty desert scrublands broken, quite suddenly, by floodplains of wonderful fecundity. These thin, fertile belts of green—cotton fields, rice paddies, cane breaks, and miles of checkerboard mango orchards—snake along the banks of the Indus River as it meanders its sluggish, silted, café-au-lait way through the plains of Pakistan down to the shores of the Arabian Sea.
In many ways the landscape here with its harsh juxtaposition of dry horizons of sand and narrow strips of intensely fertile cultivation more closely resembles upper Egypt than the well-irrigated Punjab to its north. But it is poorer than either—in fact, it is one of the most backward areas in all of Asia. Whatever index of development you choose to dwell on—literacy, health care provision, daily income, or numbers living below the poverty line—rural Sindh comes bumping along close to the bottom. Here landlords still rule with guns and private armies over vast tracts of country; bonded labor—a form of debt slavery—leaves tens of thousands shackled to their places of work. It is also, in parts, lawless and dangerous to move around in, especially at night.
I first learned about the dacoits—or highwaymen—when I attempted to leave the provincial market town of Sukkur after dark a week before the recent elections. It was a tense time everywhere, and violence was widely expected. But in Sindh the tension had resolved itself into an outbreak of rural brigandage. We left Sukkur asking for directions to Larkana, the home village of the Bhutto family, only to be warned by people huddled in tea stalls shrouded under thick shawls that we should not try to continue until first light the following morning. They said there had been ten or fifteen robberies on the road in the last fortnight alone.
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