Against All Odds: The Story Of Dominic Stephen Of The Thar Desert

Against All Odds: The Story Of Dominic Stephen Of The Thar Desert
Dominic Stephen is founder of the Participatory Village Development Programme (PVDP) hails from Parkar, a distinct landscape of the Thar Desert. He was born on 20 December 1945 in Gorsar village, near Umerkot, Sindh. The scenic topography, folklore, traditional wisdom, flora and fauna of Thar always attracted him. He learned that all development interventions have to be aligned with the prevailing situation of the area – none of the ideas could be long-lasting if they are above the ground realities, ditto copied or borrowed and planted. His work taught him that development is neither a one-time intervention nor a spread occurrence. Therefore, he always advocated that development is interwoven, interdependent, and spiral phenomenon.

In the early 1990s, he was one of the development professionals in Sindh who criticised credit projects in the arid zone of Sindh. He argued that there is nothing wrong with the principles of credit intervention, but the question was of relevance. At that time, opposition to credit interventions was not simple. Perhaps the promoters of the credit intervention were too powerful, and their supporters were international donors and financial organisations.

Zaffar Junejo spoke to him about various aspects of his life and the ecology of Thar. Here are some excerpts.


Zaffar Junejo (ZJ): Please tell us about your childhood.

Dominic Stephen (DS): I was born in a Hindu family and was named Madho. Later my family converted to Christianity and I was named Dominic, my father became Stephen from Sona and my mother after being christened was called Cecilia, although her Parkari name was Hanu. In fact, in early 1950s, a Dutch Catholic missionary visited our village. He convinced my father to adopt the Catholic religion and this is how the whole family adopted the new religion. After that, the missionaries helped my father to continue my education. I recall that around 1955, I was put in a hostel in Matli town by missionaries to study in an Urdu medium school, and then I was sent to St. Mary’s High School in Sukkur. Over there, I faced the challenge of adapting to an English-medium school. But, let me be thankful to Father Maynard Moes: he was a Dutch priest and he helped me in learning English. It continued for three months, which changed my life. I am glad that our conversion helped us to uplift from poverty. However, in my personal case, due to additional tutorials from a Dutch Father, I passed my Matric in 1966. I was the first Parkari boy who went to the English Medium School and passed matriculation in the first division. In those days, it was a great achievement, and it helped me to get the post of clerk at St Teresa Hospital, Mirpurkhas.

ZJ: How do you remember life at Parkari village of Thar Desert?

DS: Life at Parkari village was very simple. We lived in a village with no electricity, phone, gas, road, or any means of communication. I used to enjoy village life with other same-age group boys, would go hunting for birds, and rabbits and fetch firewood when return home in the evening. Help parents with crop cutting, collecting, and dumping in the Khara – where all the harvested crop is gathered for threshing and taking the grain out. But, life in the village was very enjoyable. The elders sat round the fire for singing bhajans till late night and I used to sit with them and enjoy tea in the middle of the night. Our family was poor, but we had food to eat and jhuggi/chaura to protect us from the cold and hot seasons of the desert. However, the water was not clean, and usually, after monsoon seasons or drought spells, water-borne diseases hit the children of the village. In such situations, our elders tried desi medicine/totka to cure or called a bhopa to keep the disease out of the village through his spiritual powers.

Improved version of a traditional Nadi

ZJ: How did you acquire a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of the Philippines?

DS: In those days, to get higher education from a foreign land, particularly in business studies was not simple. It was too demanding. However, in my case, the first challenge was finance, and the second equally important task was to match with academic standards of the Philippines. Actually, Sister Felicitas Aranda helped me go to Manila in 1974 to get MBA from Manila University. Due to her pursuance, I went to Manila and left my four children and wife in Pakistan. In my absence, Sister Felicitas Aranda supported my children and wife. Another source of help came from Bishop Bonaventure Paul, who helped me get a scholarship from Misereor Germany to study in the Philippines. I completed my MBA degree in two years; returned in 1976, and rejoined St Teresa Hospital, Mirpurkhas.

ZJ: How, retrospectively, do you describe your employment journey?

DS: As said earlier, I started as a clerk at the St. Teresa Hospital Mirpurkhas in 1966, then moved to Aga Khan Foundation Karachi for two years then to Bishop House Hyderabad as diocesan secretary, then to the Save the Children Fund (SCF, UK based Charity), then Thardeep Rural Development Programme in Tharparkar and finally established participatory Village Development Programme (PVDP) in 1997.

ZJ: In the Islamkot-based SCF project, you worked with John Beaureclerk, and how he shaped your ideas about the development of Thar.

DS: Yes, John Beauclerk was an English man, nowadays, he lives in vicinity of the Oxford University. Honestly, he was a genius man; he had the capacity to adjust to the local environment; he enjoyed the landscapes of Thar. I was very impressed by his personal attitude and character. I still recall he used to say, we professionals have to build on peoples’ knowledge and learn as to how they respond to vulnerabilities. In all situations, he used to remind us that people have a wealth of knowledge and they should be encouraged to share their practices and ways in which they respond the environmental challenges. Another point I remember was his emphasis on collaborative learning and decision-making. So, I would say that working with John Beaureclerk was a precious time of my life. He was a God-given teacher for the Thari people.

ZJ: Why did you leave that project of the SCF?

DS: Perhaps, in 1995, it was thought that from now onwards the project would be a spin-off, and it has to work as an independent organization. Meanwhile, the idea of microcredit also crept into our newly established organisation.

ZJ: What were your apprehensions about credit/micro-financing?

DS: I submitted earlier that microfinance intervention was not suitable for Thar’s economy. Our meagre agriculture is rain-dependent, and another source of income is the rearing of livestock, and third are small shops. The population is thin and settlements are spread out. Thus, I argued that it would be really difficult for people to pay punctually because there is no regular income. On the other hand, mobilisation and recovery costs due to long distance would be high, and how long would external funding sources be continued? Resultantly, we will increase interest rates.

I am afraid to say: what I said 30 years ago is proved now – people are taking their lives due to non-payment of loans. Some micro-financing NGOs have shifted their offices from Thar to irrigated areas, and the Sindh Government has taken some measures to stop exploitation. Sadly, our development friends have brutally commercialised the microfinance intervention, instead of continuing it as a safety net for the poor. If I am allowed to share only one indicator (interest rate), which is moving upward and making it difficult for borrowers to repay the loan. Let’s be honest, it has raised poor peoples ‘indebtedness.’ These were some factors, which compelled me to think anew. Therefore, I thought of founding an independent organization and left the SCF project.

ZJ: For a long time you have been advocating that ethics and development are closely related – how?

DS: Let me share with you that my development and ethics approach has roots in the French economist Louis-Joseph Lebret (1897-1966), who once said that we shouldn’t struggle for ‘development for all persons’ but we have to strive that there should be ‘development of all the persons’ and ‘economy has to be at the service of man.’ In the development-ethical approach, there are some leading points, which are essential to be considered. These are: to prioritise life situations/challenges and list their unfair effects on people, come up with appropriate interventions to change these situations, assure the preservation of public goods, and be non-obligatory in nature. In that broader framework, we always gave preference to the felt needs of poor people. We never compromised on our own set of values and principles, and we didn’t accept outside pressures and always did what was right for people.

ZJ: How is that development-ethical approach aligned with your present work?

DS: In fact, I come up with a community development model called Khushhal Goth Markaz (village development committees). If unpacked, it operates within the broader ideology of the development-ethical approach. However, in practice or at the village level, its functions are problem identification by the community; resource mobilisation through participatory approaches; planning along with the community; tapping the government’s resources and other resources, and all programs have to be research-based interventions.

ZJ: That is fine, but how do that approach and model address the needs of the Thari people?

DS: Our intervention/model roams around the ecology of Thar, and it is built on people’s knowledge. Let me share with you a few practices, that I think will tell a lot about, how our approach addresses the needs of the Thari people. If I prioritise, I would start with the Nadi filter. Nadi is a centuries-old pot used to store water. However, we have added some processes to make its water clean and drinkable; another intervention is the protection of Gaucher land (village/ common grazing land). Similarly, other interventions are to guard natural water ponds/depressions that are filled in rainy seasons, encourage people to raise manageable livestock, promote solar and wind-based technology in the desert, inculcate skills in a changed environment, educate and empower Thari girls and boys to explore new ways of learning and employment and promote agriculture considering the ecology of Thar. In our twenty-five years of development journey - we have learned and practiced that true development is based only on one principle, allow communities to decide, what they want; not resource providers think or plan for them or to impose their untested ideas or unmatched interventions. Presently, along with that frame of mind, our priorities are women, youth, climate change, livelihood, and food security.

ZJ: What about the natural habitats of Thar?

DS: The loss of natural habitats in Thar is a continuous phenomenon. It has a direct relationship with the fragmentation of traditional society, and the arrival of new unmatched projects in the grab of so-called development. In old times, fauna and fora were integral to Thari society. Now standards are changed. In the last few decades due, to various reasons, the Thar region is open to all, so people, along with ideas have stepped in, and they are promoting their own perceptions, cultural practices, and traditions. Sadly, nature, ecology, and habitats are vandalised. I am afraid that soon Thar and Parkar will lose their distinguished natural beauty.

ZJ: Is there any depletion of species?

DS: As I said earlier, the loss of species is also linked with the destruction of habitats. In the 1950s, Thar was a hub of some precious species such as deer, Nilgai, peacock, rabbit, antelope, sand viper, partridge, flamingo, Egyptian vulture, monitor lizard, Jungle lizard, and sand grouse, and nowadays, these are listed as endangered species. Another change that I have noticed is the reduction in the number of migratory birds to the arid zones of Sindh.

ZJ: What are the major causes?

DS: In the Thar Desert, common challenges are global warming and climate change. But we shouldn’t forget that Thari people and their immediate as well as distant wildlife are the evolutionary partners of each other. Therefore, the question is of the balance: the human population is increasing, but the number of wildlife is decreasing at an alarming speed.

ZJ: This discussion reminds me of John Beaureclerk’s ‘Khip Approach.’ Through that approach he suggested for the preservation and revival of the food chain cycle in Thar. Could you elaborate on it please?

Khip is a wild-grown shrub, and it grew after rainfall. John Beauclerk was one of the directors of SC’s project, which was implemented in the surrounding area of Islamkot, Tharparkar. In fact, he promoted the Khip approach. According to him, Khip as a fence will help the land to restore its vitality, discourages over-grazing, and revives the ecology of the fenced area. However, it should not be forgotten that in Thar, Khip was already used in such fashion - people used it to fence their huts, and animal enclosures. He also encouraged nurseries of local trees such as Kandi and Babul – and tried to link them with the desert’s ecology.

ZJ: But over the period, what changes have taken place in Thar?

DS: [He thought for a while and then opened his notebook (which he always carries with him) and told me that he has taken some notes from Arif Hasan’s newly published book Tharparkar: Drought, Development and Social Change. After a while, he mingled the notes with his own experience and told that areas, where the change in Thar could be traced are general communication, newly acquired lifestyles, education, movement of women, narrowed cast-based segregation, change in old ways of living, and cultivation, and connectivity with wider world – due to IT and physical communication. He concluded that it is difficult to hold the change, however, we could channel it through people-center and ecology-focused policies and interventions.]

ZJ: How do you define sustainability in the context of Thar?

DS: Thank you very much for asking such an important question. First of all, we must understand that our part of Thar also has some similar characteristics to other arid zones, particularly the Indian Desert. We should not forget that one of their common characteristics is a fragile and too-sensitive ecosystem. Based on my experience, I say, the sustainability or balancing of resources in Thar depends upon these measures: conservation of soil, stopping its pollution, optimal usage of water resources, natural resources, eco-friendly tourism, and a long-term program for halting desertification.

ZJ: What is your message for young people?

DS: I would say the same thing, which I always advocate: strengthen your capacities, acquire knowledge, use IT, and be relevant to new opportunities. In case of not being sure or unaware, then seek advice or go to the school, open book, or access the internet. However, they don’t forget that in all odds and evens of life, values, and principles are important.

ZJ: And how would you like to introduce yourself?

DS: I am not a regular church-goer but I believe in one thing: ‘Do no harm to anyone.’ This is what I practice in life and I am happy. I help the needy as much as I can and establish peace and goodwill in the community. I trust, practice, and act rightly– ‘they should be known by their character and way of life.’

Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He may be reached at