YOU don’t see Sam Brannan parading through the streets of Chiniot, shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold!” Nor is there a rush of gold prospectors to be seen anywhere in the city. Life in Chiniot, known for its hand-carved wood furniture and gritty leather and textile traders, remains unaffected by the (re)discovery of the yellow metal along with what is being called one of the world’s biggest reserves of iron and copper ores.
The activity suggested by the media frenzy triggered by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to one of the drilling sites in Rajoa is nowhere to be found. “We’ve known about the iron reserves for far too long,” says schoolteacher Arif Ali. “But the claims about gold seem greatly exaggerated to me. What do you say?”
He is, however, happy that iron ore extraction will pave the way for the establishment of a steel mill as promised by the government and create several thousand new jobs for the people of Chiniot and its adjoining area. “If that happens, our children will not have to go to Lahore or Karachi in search of jobs,” he muses.
A policeman guarding the Chinese workers at a site off Jhang Bypass echoes similar doubts: “There are traces of gold in some samples,” he laughs. “But you know as well as I do that there is more noise than gold in these rocks.”
The Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) is drilling boreholes in different places in and around Chiniot to collect samples.
“We have seven rigs installed at different points in the project area spanning 28 square kilometres,” a spokesman for the MCC told Dawn during a chance meeting at one of the heavily guarded drilling sites in Ibrahim Town, a semi-rural locality in Chiniot. He refuses to share project details, saying: “You had better contact the Punjab Mineral Company [a provincial government-owned firm, which is headed by retired nuclear scientist Dr Samar Mubarakmand, set up to fund and oversee the project].” Nor does he give the estimates of gold and copper ores. “Nothing is final at the moment,” he reiterates. “We will be able to share such information only after the completion of laboratory test reports.”
The MCC, which started drilling boreholes in May, will collect samples from 50 sites to prepare the project feasibility report. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Punjab government — or Dr Mubarakmand — from dubbing the Chiniot gold and copper reserves to be much bigger than those found in Saindak and Reko Diq in Balochistan.
The security at all the drilling sites has been tightened since the prime minister’s visit to Dangraywala village site in Rajoa, some seven kilometres from Chiniot; no one is allowed to approach the Chinese and Pakistani workers or take pictures of the machines. Between 450 and 500 elite force personnel have been brought here from Lahore and elsewhere to protect the 40 to 50 Chinese workers deployed.
“You can’t be here, it is a high-security place,” a policeman yells at us as we approach one of the three boreholes in Ibrahim Town. “You need any information, talk to the Chinese company’s spokesman.”
A few metres from the site, villager Allah Yar is worried that the government will acquire their homes and fertile land if the final tests of the samples confirm the presence of precious metals.
“Everyone is anxious,” he says. “We are happy that the discovery will change the future of this country. But what about the people living here and cultivating these lands? The government just takes over the piece of land the Chinese explorers require to dig boreholes for up to three months, without paying rent to the owner.”
A realtor from the area confirms that no one has so far been “compensated for the use of his land” by the Chinese company. “The government doesn’t need to ask for the landowner’s permission. People are keeping their mouths shut for fear of police,” he tells me.
Nazir Ahmed, a resident of Dangraywala, is hopeful that the landowners will get royalty once the economic viability of the project is established and a steel mill is set up. “Still, the landowners here are scared,” he notes. “What if the government decides to acquire the land at the officially notified rate of Rs0.8-1 million an acre rather than paying them the market price of Rs2-5 million?”
At Dangraywala, the policemen let us step inside the designated area and talk to a Pakistani worker. “Four Chinese men and as many Pakistanis work in two shifts of 12 hours each at every borehole site,” he says without giving his name.
“Though we are getting good wages — Rs18,000 a month — there is no concept of a weekly day off and we are not allowed to visit home except for an emergency.”
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2015