An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Sept 19, 2012.
Islamabad – Comrade Ghulam Rasool Sehto, president of the Sindh Hari Committee, was shifted to the Polyclinic Hospital on Sunday night after he fell unconscious at his protest camp outside the Islamabad Press Club.
Sehto has been on a hunger strike for almost 120 days to protest the water shortage faced by farmers in the Khairpur district of Sindh.
Dr Fareedullah Shah, the duty doctor at the hospital, said Sehto is suffering from severe weight loss and potassium deficiency. Sehto’s immunity is disturbed, which could make him vulnerable to infections, Shah said.
The medical staff tried to feed him through tubes, but Sehto resisted.
Sehto spoke slowly but resolutely from his hospital bed in the medical ward. His short, clear sentences were punctuated with periods of silence in which he would close his eyes, sometimes giving the impression that he had passed out with exhaustion. He’s emaciated, but when he spoke about his struggle his eyes lit up with a passion men willing to die for their cause sometimes possess.
He’s also protesting against the over 400 out of order tube wells in Khairpur district and the almost 41,000 non-functional primary schools in Sindh, but his most important demand is to end water pilferage in the province, in general, and Khairpur in particular.
It’s an artificial shortage created in some 30 canals because influential feudals and elected representatives steal water from the canals through manmade water courses, he alleged.
“In 20 years, the farmers in the Khairpur district have only received water once,” Sehto said. “The affected farmers are forced to become labourers or beg for money.”
Sehto started his hunger strike in Khairpur some three months ago. He moved to Islamabad on Eid in August when the local authorities didn’t respond to his demands.
Sehto said he’s called off three previous hunger strikes after promises were made by the provincial and district officials, but no work was ever done to fulfill those promises.
“Supreme Court is the only hope I see now,” Sehto said.
On September 11, the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry took a suo moto notice of the water pilferage and asked the Sindh irrigation secretary to report on this issue.
Sehto said according to his information the irrigation secretary has told the Supreme Court that a case regarding the water shortage is pending in the Sindh High Court.
He said the High Court case is a “drama” staged by local officials and influential feudals to prevent the Supreme Court from following up on the issue. He said he had called off his previous hunger strike after Khairpur’s district commissioner had promised him a hearing in the High Court, but the court didn’t even hear the case on the appointed date.
“These bigwigs, these feudals, they play with the law,” he said.
Member National Assembly Dr Nafisa Shah belongs to the Khairpur district. In a phone interview, she told the Express Tribune she wasn’t aware Sehto was in Islamabad, but said she was willing to meet him if he’s willing to call off his strike.
“Some of his demands are relatively OK and the Sindh government has moved on them,” she said.
Sehto, on the other hand, said political parties have tried to avoid the water shortage issue despite protests all over Sindh. He thinks Rangers should be sent to the areas suffering from water pilferage.
“Rangers should patrol these areas and see who is stealing the water,” he said. “The feudals are afraid of the Rangers.”
Shah said this is an unreasonable solution. She said she agrees with Sehto that over the years some areas have gone dry perhaps due to mismanagement and she’s also taken up these issues with the irrigation staff herself.
But she claimed that some areas have natural water shortage and because of water logging, it’s not possible for 100 percent of the tube wells to be operational at all times.
“Some water issues rise up again after they are resolved, sometimes because of theft of equipment and sometimes because of maintenance problems,” she said. “The strike is not going to prove beneficial for such daily issues.”
Meanwhile, Sehto said he’s not going to break his hunger strike until steps are taken on the ground to provide relief to the Sindhi farmers and he’s ready to die if that doesn’t happen.