In Thar, who matters more? Coal companies or Tharis?

Published November 14, 2018
Pakistan’s Thar desert contains one of the largest untapped coal deposits in the world.—Photo by Amar Guriro
Pakistan’s Thar desert contains one of the largest untapped coal deposits in the world.—Photo by Amar Guriro

Pakistan’s public officials, politicians and corporate investors routinely boast of the coal mining megaproject underway in Tharparkar, Sindh, asserting how it has already brought major infrastructure transformation and how it is set to boost social well-being in the region and, more widely, economic growth across Pakistan by generating electricity.

The operating assumption is that such projects will serve as a driving force in Pakistan’s development goals.

But in few other countries do public officials so unabashedly brandish megaprojects to promote their own political legacies as in Pakistan.

Politics and development are intimately linked; it is regarded not only as an economic necessity but also a political one as it provides jobs to constituents and revenues to allies, friends and families of politicians in the business community.

However, as these projects generally involve the large-scale displacement of communities and the intensive social and demographic reshaping of an entire region, activists involved in environmental protection and indigenous rights issues in Thar point to the coal mine as among Pakistan’s most socially and environmentally destructive endeavours.

Related: Pakistan's coal trap

The size of lignite coal reserves in the Thar Desert was estimated at 175 billion tons in 1992 and is spread across 9,100 sq km.

As part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Thar Engro Coal Power Project represents the first phase of extensive land acquisition and coal extraction with nearly half a dozen villages being impacted.

As new private consortiums are also being granted licenses to set up coal-fired energy plants, it is expected that the tempo of development will subsume even larger tracts of land in Thar.

Activists also allege that economic benefits are being captured mostly by the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), a joint-venture between the Sindh government and the Engro Corporation to oversee the mining process.

Although, from SECMC’s perspective, which is currently constructing ‘model villages’ for the displaced population, their project is set to change Thar through paternalistic efforts couched in the language of moral responsibility — a subtle form of social engineering — leading to a utopia where employment opportunities, schools, parks, hospitals, model houses and other amenities encourage healthy communities and productive workers.

Comprised of three rooms, a kitchen, a separate sitting area for women and a rooftop, these model houses are espoused by Engro officials as critical to the project of ‘modernising’ Thar and its peoples.

Ironically though, decorated as it is with small wooden cart wheels, matkas, replicas of Sindhi instruments and samples of local embroidery, the whole installation feels more like a museum than a functional living space.

The prospect of resettlement, which is slated to begin in 2019, is still causing anxiety and unease within the concerned communities and until this process is completed in a thorough and transparent manner, we suspect this atmosphere will linger.

A model house as seen from its courtyard.—Photo by Vikram Das and Nirmal Riaz
A model house as seen from its courtyard.—Photo by Vikram Das and Nirmal Riaz

The front wall of the model house showcasing traditional Sindhi instrument, Tamboora, and several pieces of embroidery.—Photo by  Vikram Das and Nirmal Riaz
The front wall of the model house showcasing traditional Sindhi instrument, Tamboora, and several pieces of embroidery.—Photo by Vikram Das and Nirmal Riaz

We certainly cannot downplay the nature of hope that is attached to this development, as conveyed in the aspirations of many Tharis who dream of a better future based on quality education and higher incomes.

While there are conflicting stories about coal mining’s impact on Thar, for activists the major problems concern land displacement, village resettlement and the long-term effect on the region’s ecology — especially the availability of water given climate change.

Economy vs environment: Thar coal and a test of Pakistan's priorities

In fact, the role of activists in Thar has been crucial in bringing these issues to the forefront by raising red flags, pressuring public officials and corporates, demanding accountability and generally challenging the politically dominated, top-down narrative of development.

In this process, activists and villagers have confronted an uphill battle to protect their living spaces and ecological zones against the onslaught of a coordinated, creative destruction of economic development.

This has become a fight against a pervading sense of powerlessness and uncertainty that many households currently face in Thar.

Fragile environment

The coal mining project is located in an arid ecological zone where people rely mostly on livestock that grazes on natural vegetation for their livelihoods and food security.

Typically, people depend on aquifers for groundwater, and when precipitation is constant in a good season in Thar, grasses and other plants flourish, thus supporting robust herds.

In a drought season, the system suffers — as do those who rely on it.

In recent years a large number of trees were cut to make way for the coal projects.—Photo by Amar Guriro
In recent years a large number of trees were cut to make way for the coal projects.—Photo by Amar Guriro

Thar is home to many wildlife species including blue peacocks and antelopes.—Photo by Amar Guriro
Thar is home to many wildlife species including blue peacocks and antelopes.—Photo by Amar Guriro

Moreover, livestock and land cannot be seen simply as economic assets; there is a deep emotional connection between people, livestock and the land.

This is especially the case with gowacher land, or open fields that are regulated based on customary laws by village heads.

Gowacher are used to collect firewood, leaves and summer fruits, and most natural ponds and forests are also found there.

In the villages located in the coal extraction zone, Tharis are deeply anxious given the impending resettlement next year.

They are also concerned about the metallic wires and fences that are being constructed to enclose land and the ensuing disruptions of traditional pathways and routes.

In pictures: Pakistan’s coal expansion brings misery to villagers in Thar desert

With vast tracts of land being appropriated for coal mining, the impact on a fragile environment may intensify risks for the small farmers and pastoralists who depend mostly on livestock for food.

Experts contend that grazing lands across the world are often the most vulnerable to climate change, and with precipitation and temperature volatility increasing in Pakistan, the transformations underway in Thar could trigger unforeseen long-term displacements, for instance further migrations to cities like Karachi.

Forging solidarity

Activists’ struggles are often couched in terms of protecting the commons, communally-held natural resources such as air, water and habitable land.

One method of protecting such land is by engaging in public interest litigation (PIL), meaning litigation whose raison d'être is to provide justice, particularly social justice, to a specific individual, class or community that, because of any personal deficiency, economic or social deprivation, or state oppression, is prevented from bringing a claim before the court of law.

The litigation against the Thar Engro Coal Power and SECMC is led by Advocates Zubair Abro, Ayatullah Khowaja and Leela Ram Manjiani and it focuses on the irrevocable damage that the Gorano reservoir, a dumping site for the effluent waste produced as a by-product of coal mining, might unleash on the community and environment.

This case was brought to the Hyderabad High Court in June 2016 and since then has been stuck in the pipeline with the petitioners unable to get a stay notice and the construction of the reservoir is proceeding unchecked.

Footprints: Looming threat of dispossession

Yet this has not daunted the spirit of protest that Tharis continue to display in a myriad of other ways. A well-documented example is the Islamkot Press Club sit-in by men and women that lasted well over a year from October 2016 to December 2017.

This protest has not been confined to interior Sindh but has also found expression in Karachi where it is bolstered by Tharis who have migrated to the city for better jobs or as temporary seasonal help.

They believe their ancestral land is being grabbed under the guise of development. This was oft-repeated rhetoric in a protest that took place outside the Karachi Press Club on November 12, 2017 where the slogan of the day was “Gorano Dam is unacceptable”.

Since then, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has ordered the preparation of a compensation scheme for Gorano affectees, but there seems to have been no headway publicised so far.

Another form of protest we see emerging is in the academic and cultural spheres of the city, where the state narrative regarding the Thar Coal project and the Gorano reservoir is being challenged rigorously by a wide range of academics, activists and lawyers to create an extensive coalition of citizens who are critical of these megaprojects.

These discussions, carried out in small spaces of debate, the cafes and humanities faculties of Hyderabad and Karachi, prove instrumental in allowing activists from Thar to connect to the city-based, more public writers and journalists who are willing to take up the cause and spread word however they can.

Learn more: The dangers of Pakistan’s coal revival

Much of this activism we have highlighted tends to be marred with accusations of sedition, terrorism and being ‘anti-state’ by the workings of a security-obsessed state.

Yet we need to remember that for the thousands of people and their extended families whose lives and ways of living are irrevocably turned upside down, this is perhaps their only way of regaining a modicum of lost agency.

Thus, while we may see SECMC speaking on behalf of Thar — whether claiming to “give back” to the community or educating its children — and foretelling a changing Pakistan by dint of giving up its ‘treasures’ or natural resources, we should also recognise that Pakistan is simultaneously changing Thar inescapably by assimilating it into a nation-building project predicated on grand infrastructural edifices.

The question that is left for us then is, whose voice do we give more weight to: the corporation whose vested interest is purely economic, or the people subjected to acute precarity and vulnerability, all in the name of the motherland?

Disclosure: This article is based on an 18-month research project funded by AHRC – PACCS.

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