At first glance, you would think these people with blue surgical masks covering their mouths and noses and with one of their arms tied up with tourniquets are subjects of some medical test or experiment, or there is an outbreak of a contagious disease here. But on closer inspection they emerge as part of a big environmental protest against Hubco and China Power Hub Generation Company’s upcoming coal-fired power plant.
The tourniquets were not really tourniquets. They were black armbands. And the surgical masks signified what is to come in the form of poor quality air loaded with carbon and sulphur with all kinds of other pollutants. The protesters gathered at Hub during a public hearing, called to hear them out on Monday, were bracing themselves for an unwanted mess.
And temperatures soared further when they realised that the hearing called to understand their concerns about the environmental hazards of such a project was in fact just a formality to acquire a ‘no objection certificate’ for starting work on the plant, needed in accordance with the Balochistan government’s Environmental Act of 2012.
Some 2,000 locals had sent in letters opposing the coal plant for the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study (Balochistan Environment Protection Agency itself admitted that they had not received a single letter in favour of the project). Those who wrote the letters wanted to attend the public hearing, but they learnt that they weren’t welcome. Disappointed, they put up slogans rejecting the project on black banners around the Lasbela Industrial State Development Authority auditorium. But the morning of the hearing they woke up to find most of the banners taken down, reportedly by police. Also the 200 or so factories in the industrial area were kept closed on the day so that the people did not enter the area where the police, Frontier Constabulary and Levies had been deployed to stop them.
“The public hearing is a sham when the public is not allowed to have their say. The authorities are willing to allow only 60 to 70 people inside the auditorium on the pretext of space constraints. The reality is that since the prime minister wants to bring in coal-fired plants here, the project will go ahead no matter what. The people with objections are a hindrance in the way of that and they are being treated as such,” former speaker of the Balochistan Assembly Mohammad Aslam Bhootani said. “All over the world, coal is going out of favour. And here we are embracing it.”
As local and Chinese experts arrived for the hearing with government officials, the protesters who had by then turned into a mob forced their entry. During the scuffle, Mr Bhootani was also manhandled by law-enforcers. Inside, a representative of Hubco termed coal a practicable option when hydel, nuclear, wind and solar electricity generation was either too expensive or took too long to develop. He pointed out how countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, China and India were all generating power from coal.
Another official from their corporate social responsibility side shared their plans to open schools, organise free eye and skin camps, vaccinations for children, besides creating jobs, etc. Someone from their technical consultants Hagler Bailly gave a nice talk comparing coal-fired power plants to cars. “Harmful emissions from engines don’t make us do away with cars altogether. Instead, we look into controlling the emissions. Similarly, there are ways of controlling the air pollution and potential environmental hazards from coal plants such as bringing in the use of windshields, water sprinklers or spray, ash management, treatment plants, provided these measures are implemented,” he said.
The people had forced their way inside by then were getting really charged. Mr Bhootani climbed up the stage to talk. He reminded Hubco of their forgotten promises like those of 20 to 25 years ago when they first arrived in Balochistan. The three goths situated near their power generation plants, which were promised free electricity by Hubco, are still without power. The jobs promised to locals went to people from somewhere else, too. “All Hubco has done so far is deceive the people of Balochistan. The countries they say have turned to coal are in fact turning to alternative sources now. Why go far, in neighbouring India, wherever there are coal-fired power plants, there have been huge increases in stillbirths, infant mortality and chest diseases. And yet, India has a big population. They can still withstand so much loss of life whereas in Gadani, we only have 30,000 people. This coal plant will completely wipe us out,” he said. “And even then the power generated here is not for us. One transmission line from here is going to Faisalabad and the other to Lahore. What are we getting then? Just a health hazard!”
Hearing this, the medical superintendent at the Civil Hospital at Hub, Dr Abbas Lasi, said that before industry came to their area, they only got snakebites and kidney stones as major ailments but now the average age of locals has dropped to around 50 years as they suffered from skin diseases, eye problems, chest ailments, lung and breast cancers. “Factory waste in the form of nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and mercury has had devastating effects on our people. We are seeing little girls of 10 to 11 years with fibroadenomas. We had seen nothing like it before the 1990s. Still, if you are bent on bringing devastation in the name of progress here, then please do one more thing. Ask Imran Khan to build a cancer hospital here, too, because we are all going to fall very ill very soon.”
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2016