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UMERKOT, June 27: Thari villagers, social activists and environmentalists have expressed serious doubts over coal exploration process set in motion by the government and said it is without a holistic plan and it seems a technical fraud is being made with indigenous people.

They feared the open-pit mining in Block-VI would disturb all three layers of aquifers, which would spell death and disaster for the desert people who had to treasure each drop of water in order to survive.

They were speaking at a public hearing on social and environmental impact assessment (SEIA) of Thar Coal Block-VI at Ranjho Noon village on Thursday.

The hearing was organised by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) in collaboration with the Sindh Carbon Energy Limited (SCEL).

They said that despite the fact that Sindh Coal Energy Board had not yet finalised land settlement policy, SEPA had issued permission to three companies to start work and permission to the fourth was in process.

Waqar Hussain Phulpoto, director technical of SEPA, said that SECL would be issued permission on condition that it put in place a system for locals to lodge their grievances and get them redressed.

CEO of SCEL Shah Rukh Khan and consultant Hidayatullah Khan briefed the participants on intended operations in the area. The company would follow policies laid down by the government and facilitate people in resettlement, they said.

Prof Dr Rasool Bux Mahar said that the company had not mentioned what would be the mechanism for disposal of refined particles and gases which were likely to be released during digging process but the consultant could not give an adequate reply.

Ali Akbar Rahimoo, a researcher, said that companies were getting non-objection certificates and having SEIAs approved without any rigorous process of scrutiny.

There were some serious gaps in the existing policies and procedures and weaknesses on part of the departments concerned, he said. Therefore, he said, issuance of permissions by SEPA must be banned till policies was finalised.

Shahid Noon, a young villager, said that it appeared Sindh government had no strategic plan and urged policymakers to develop a Thar Development Plan to allay fears and unrest among people.

Partab Shivani, a social worker, said that very few people from the villages that fell within the coal block were present at the hearing and none of them were able to review SEIA report because it was in English and purposely not made public to prevent villagers raising questions on its technical, environmental, social, cultural and economic aspects.

Sajid Bajeer said that SEPA should have announced through local FM radio and newspapers about the hearing. Otherwise, they would be justified in concluding that a deliberate attempt had been made to exclude indigenous people from consultations and keep them in the dark, he said.

Bharumal Amrani, an environmentalist, said that SEIA report said that open pit mining would be done in Block-VI, which would lead to creation of heaps of 88 meters. Dust from the heaps would cause pollution and respiratory problems among residents of surrounding areas.

Manoj Kumar said that it was clearly mentioned in the report that all three aquifers of underground water would be disturbed and dewatering would be done during open pit mining.

Depletion of underground water in Thar, which was extremely scarce and a major source for drinking, would spell environmental disaster for the area, he said.