As I stepped out of the coaster with my colleagues and onto the barren land that is Thar, I knew my perception of the world was about to change. It was surreal to look at the vast expanse of sand, almost glistening under the hot sun. The light brown hues were only interrupted by the vibrant attires of the local women that I could see in the distance.
I was standing on the land that I had only seen in textbooks but no picture in the world can prepare you for the stifling, humid heat that hit me as soon as we got there. As we made our way into one of the villages, women, old and young, with veiled faces welcomed us with the most genuine smiles. We were also the object of attention for many of the children, with some downright staring at us, while others laughed, smiled and even waved. Some kids also looked us with suspicious faces, possibly wondering what would be in store for them with the arrival of the people from the big city.
It was the summer and I was in the middle of Tharparker for a project called Muhinjo Sohno Thar (‘My Beautiful Thar’, MST), which is using mobile phones to help empower the indigenous people of Thar.
As the pandemic hit Thar —a disadvantaged community— saw the halting of necessary migrations, the shirking of the already limited job prospects and the access to food and water, diminishing further. Livestock was also compromised, resulting in a severe food shortage which put pregnant women and children at risk. The resulting financial, emotional and physical challenges also took a toll on the community’s mental health, with at least 143 cases of suicide reported during just the last year.
As I felt the sweat on my brow, I also felt the weight of my privilege and I could not help but become eerily quiet. I had often heard about my colleagues’ experiences but nothing prepares you for Thar till you get there. People had made a life in the middle of nothing. Nursing mothers put their kids to sleep, kids played on the hot sand, birds fluttered about searching for water and people gathered to chit chat about the day.
The Thari people don’t have much but they do their best. They make do with the little they have, still reserving the most comfortable shaded spaces of their homes for their guests. Between the resilience of the people and the harsh conditions, my own problems seemed trivial at best. Why did I complain about anything ever?
A local lady health worker joined us after we had settled on charpoys. She explained that there are two sets of clothes for the entire year and that women were happy staying in the desert while men travelled to the city in search of jobs.
Eventually a very pregnant woman, Geeta, also came to sit with us. I was certain she was given special treatment or help with her tasks owing to her condition but I was wrong. A Thari woman has to work hard every day to survive, no matter what her physical condition. It was therefore even more important to ensure that Thar had internet connectivity under the banner of MST, which in turn has enabled people to connect to affordable healthcare from the comfort of their homes.
During our team’s on-ground health awareness sessions, the stark contrast in our lifestyles became even more apparent. Since the start of the pandemic we have heard some messages so often that they have been ingrained in our brains to the point where we think they are universal. When we communicated the importance of washing hands with water for 20 seconds as per WHO’s guidelines, the women asked us for alternatives to water.
Many such instances made us stop in our tracks. While we would get temporary respite from the heat in the coaster that was transporting us, I could not help but think how this is the reality for the Tharis. For them, there is no respite and no escape. I wished we could do more for them. Despite social workers coming here, local lady health workers told us there was barely any improvement in the living conditions of the Tharis. Projects are usually oriented by strict timelines, while the problems of Thar are complex and have no short time solutions.
As we traveled to some more villages to conduct interviews about our health interventions, particularly mental health, I realised that through MST we managed to do something unique and unimaginable for many.
No matter where they are in the world, human beings are intrinsically the same. Who would have thought that our mental health sessions would get a positive response from the local people? Through MST, our team managed to educate the Thari community on mental health and wellbeing. We trained our community health workers to be trauma-informed and approach Thari women to curb the social isolation they may be facing. The women were first screened for mood disorders and other mental health conditions. Later, clinical psychologists and therapists provided six to eight therapy sessions via the internet.
More than half of the target population tested positive for depression, stress, and anxiety. But what changed the equation for us was the winning attitude of these women. They were upfront and vulnerable about their circumstances. There were no excuses, no pretence, only the determination to fully avail an opportunity that would at least change one aspect of their lives.
We interviewed several women about how these sessions had impacted them and all of them were over the moon. Like most people, these women just wanted to be seen and heard without the fear of judgment. There was only gratitude that something like this had been possible in their villages. I also felt grateful, because through the programme I met many beautiful people, who fortified my belief in the resilience of human beings. I learned to be open to new experiences and taught me the true value of having dreams. The Thar desert maybe barren but it is not empty and I left it a changed woman. But is change coming fast enough in Thar? No. But change is coming. And we helped sow the seeds for it.