NEAR Gorano village, construction work on a reservoir is in full swing despite protests by the villagers that the project be shifted to an alternative site.
On a recent visit to Tharparkar’s Islamkot, protesters were seen sitting outside the town’s press club.
With banners behind them naming the 12 villages that will be affected by the construction of the reservoir, forcing their populations to move elsewhere, the residents of Gorano say they won’t budge from their stance.
The very first thing Advocate Leela Ram clarifies before speaking about the ongoing protest, headed by him, is that he is not anti-Pakistan or anti-development.
This statement is borne of the fact that for the past few weeks, he has been dealing with accusations of running an anti-state and anti-development protest in Islamkot.
For the past 85 days, dozens of residents from various villages have been sitting outside this press club.
Two days ago, hundreds of them marched 28 kilometres from Gorano village to Islamkot to register their ongoing protest. It is against the development of a reservoir on 1,500 acres of land, of which 532 acres have been surveyed by Engro.
The reservoir is being built to dispose of brackish water taken out of the mining site in Block-II.
Of the 14 blocks identified for development, Gorano village is near Block-II of the current project that is headed by the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company Limited (SECMC).
The construction work began in May last year. In June, Advocate Leela filed a petition in the Sindh High Court, Hyderabad circuit, stating that the SECMC and the Sindh Coal Authority acquired the land under the urgency clause of Sections 4,6 and 17 of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894.
According to Sections 6 and 17, the minion authority can acquire the land only after seeking permission from the owner.
In this case, Engro is arguing that the land is not owned by any citizen as they don’t have the required documents to show for it.
Advocate Leela argues that the residents “never thought of seeking documents for land owned and passed on by their ancestors”.
Lakshman Meghwar is among the residents sitting outside the press club in the afternoon.
He is among the 15,000 residents from the 12 villages who are currently protesting the development work on the reservoir.
This area is basically a PPP stronghold, and a vast majority of the residents of these villages are Hindu, mostly from the Meghwar and Bheel communities.
“Recently, a few PPP MPAs came to meet us, including Mahesh Malani and Dr Khatau Mal Jeevan, who promised to speak to the chief minister of Sindh about our grievance,” says Lakshman. “But we haven’t heard from anyone since then.”
The Arbab Ghulam Rahim group and the Jamaat-i-Islami are supporting the residents in their fight.
Like Advocate Leela, Lakshman is quick to add that he is “not working against the state; this is my father’s land. I’m not a skilled worker so this land provides me with water, grain and fruits my livestock and I need to survive.”
Despite a petition in the court and continuing protests, the work on site, where the outer wall for the reservoir is being built, is carrying on uninterrupted.
Advocate Leela says he is being accused of running an anti-state movement. “It was recently conveyed to me through friends and colleagues that the project is part of CPEC and criticising it can have repercussions.
I was also told that the Sindh government wants to pay Rs200,000 to each villager as a compensation.
Compensation is not the solution when the obvious solution is to look for an alternative route, which the authorities have,” he insists.
The alternative route, according to the residents, is the salt lakes near the Runn of Kutch.
The area is scarcely populated and the lakes “are not in use of people or animals,” according to the residents.
This solution was discussed by consultants at a recent meeting with the commissioner of Mirpurkhas. But so far, no decision has been taken.
The residents also complain of receiving “mild threats”. Lakshman says a few men met him outside the press club and asked him if he has any links with India, which is 35 kilometres from Gorano village.
“I told them I have no links with India,” he says.
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2017