It is the season of celebration, with people congratulating one another and distributing sweets.

Mehmood Kot in Muzaffargarh district is jubilant because, after a long struggle, plans to establish two coal-fired power plants in the area have been scrapped.

A couple of days ago, there was a gathering at Wasti Lambi Khaid, attended among others by MNA Jamshed Dasti, who is also chairman of the Awami Raj Party, and who supported the people in their struggle.

Area residents hold a protest demonstration against the installation of coal-fired plants in August 2015. — Photo by writer
Area residents hold a protest demonstration against the installation of coal-fired plants in August 2015. — Photo by writer

Turbans were presented to him and Rana Mehboob Akhtar, convener of the People’s Action Committee — the platform through which the effort against the plants was launched.

The latter told me that while people had joined the struggle, they had had very little hope that their demands would be accepted.

“I, however, had high hopes since we were on a strong legal footing,” he said. “We had the high moral ground and unity among the people.”

He explained that residents of the area were aware of the power crisis in the country, but they had cogent reasons for their apprehensions about the installation of more coal power plants in their area.

Two FIRs were registered against the protesters and three petitions were filed by them while challenging the establishment of the plants, each of them 660 megawatts, by M/s China Machinery Engineering Corporation–PAK GEN (Pvt) Limited, and M/s Kapco Limited.

The district coordination officer of Muzaffargarh issued two notifications under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act 1984 in June 2015 while intending to acquire land in Mauza Gujrat and Verar Sipra of Kot Addu tehsil, and in Mauza Rao Bala Sharqi, Budh and Verar Sipra of the same tehsil for the construction of the two plants.

“If we think of the centre of Mahmood Kot, then within a radius of about 28 kilometres, four power plants have already been in operation for the past 18 years,” said Akhtar.

“The electricity generation capacity of these plants is 3,712 megawatts, of which the capacity of Kapco is 1638MW, the Thermal Power Station Muzaffargarh has 1350MW, AES Lalpir has 362MW and AES Pak-Gen has 362MW.”

He added that another recently established bagasse and coal power plant of 120MW in Sinawan was going to be commercially operational soon, while the district has also been selected for a new nuclear power plant of 1100MW.

The establishment of two coal-fired power plants was not good news for the people of the area, so they decided to resist.

“Concentrating more than 50 per cent of the country’s thermal power generation capacity within the radius of 28km is a strategic blunder of gigantic proportions,” Akhtar said, adding that hundreds of villages and thousands of people were set to be dislocated.

“People are attached to the land,” he said. “Their ancestors’ graves are here, their bones are bound to the land.” Akhtar said he appreciated the government’s decision to cancel the installation of the plants.

Ghulam Hyder, an electrical engineer and resident of the area, also took part in the movement.

He told me that there had been a significant rise in the incidence of skin, liver and eye diseases, with asthma and cancer, as a result of the power plants already installed in the area.

These plants have no mechanism to offset greenhouse gases, he said.

Hyder said air and water quality should be monitored before the installation of new plants and an independent agency should be appointed to study environmental standards in line with the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank.

The first step in the right direction, he said, would be to go for air dispersion modelling to assess the level of harmful gases and particulate matter in the ambient air, and their impact on the health, lives and ecology of people and animals. In this particular case, nothing was done, he said.

“The crux of our demand was to cancel the plants’ installation by rescinding the notifications, as they would jeopardise the lives, culture and living patterns of thousands of people,” he said.

Shoaib Budh, whose name is included in the protesters against whom the FIRs have been lodged, owns 100 acres in an area where a power plant was going to be established.

He said he had no idea that where he would go if his land was acquired.

“We, the people of the area, suffered temporary separation when we were displaced during the 2010 floods,” he recalled. “It was a very tough time for all of us. Even imagining permanent separation is difficult.”

According to a notification issued by the deputy registrar of the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, Muhammad Ramzan, the Private Power and Infrastructure Board (PPIB), in its 105th meeting held on May 3, decided, inter alia, that no new power generation project based on imported fuel would be proceeded upon by the PPIB (except those already approved).

No official approval has been granted for the establishment of either of the plants.

DCO Hafiz Shaukat Ali said the district government had so far not been officially informed about the cancellation of the projects. However, celebrations among the people are already under way.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2016


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