Making sense of Duddar lead-zinc mining project

Updated January 20, 2020

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A view of a tunnel in the lead-zinc mining project in Duddar, Balochistan.
—Photo by reporter
A view of a tunnel in the lead-zinc mining project in Duddar, Balochistan. —Photo by reporter

AT the end of December, the weather in the Duddar area is pleasant unlike the chilly weather of Quetta, which was minus four degrees Celsius on the day we leave. The reason: Lasbela district, where the Duddar lead-zinc mining project is located, is one of the warmest places in Balochistan.

After ten hours of journey, two lights appear on top of a mammoth sun-bleached mountain from a far-off location on the road, which connects Windar town in Lasbela with the project.

A group of journalists from Quetta, including this reporter, was invited on Dec 28 to attend a celebration ceremony of the project for achieving the annual full capacity with 500,000 tonnes, organised by the Chinese mining firm MCC Huaye Duddar Mining Company.

But the picture one got to see afterwards of Kanraj tehsil, the Duddar project’s location, speaks volumes about the state of affairs confronting the area. Despite the fact that Lasbela is the home district of Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani, and his father and grandfather also held the same post, in the words of a local reporter, “Kanraj is one of the most deprived tehsils of Lasbela”.

The picture one gets to see of its location speaks volumes about problems confronting the area

Next day, after the ceremony, Chinese and Pakistani delegations are welcomed by the workers visiting the main project site which is said to be the first such underground mining project in Pakistan with a 7.5-metre diameter shaft of one kilometre depth, comprising a network of mini-tracks to extract the lead-zinc ores out of the mouth of the mountain. The shaft is just like a well believed to be containing high volume of hazardous gases which gushes out of the mountain through tiny holes.

Due to complex nature of underground mining, it is said that the mountain is sinking. Armed with this question, I am heading to meet Nawaz Khan, senior vice president of MRDL (MCC Resource Development Limited) and a mining engineer who has been associated with the project since day one.

In his 80s, dressed elegantly with a sweater, coat and muffler worn over trousers and shirt, a Peshwari cap on his head, he agrees it used to be the case. In the beginning, the project shut down as soon as construction work began in 2005 because mining conditions were difficult, he says. Also, he adds, there was the risk of the mountain falling apart.

“But, unlike the past, in 2014, when another Chinese mining firm, MHD, took over the project there was no such risk. It has a professional Chinese mining team which extracts the ores and refills the empty points inside the mountain immediately,” he says.

I see several local unskilled workers working at the site and corner one of them. According to him, he is paid monthly Rs15,000, a pittance. Other workers come forward and speak to Dawn, saying they are also paid less, as compared to someone, for instance, working in a private coal mine in the province who can earn an average of over Rs40,000 per month.

Over dinner, MRDL officials say the area was unexplored until it began to be systematically investigated for deposits in the 1980s. At first, there was no road up to Duddar from Windar town and machinery would be transported on camels. “The then Balochistan chief minister Jam Yousaf and I went to then prime minister Shaukat Aziz. The government and our company shared the cost of building a road,” recalls Mr Khan, as he puffs on his pipe.

Azeem Khan, another MRDL official, continues to speak on the hardship he and his colleagues endured to bring the project to the present stage. “In Duddar, there is no threat of militancy,” he says.

To our dismay, his colleague reminds him of a snake which had once slithered over his feet to attack him during their first visit.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2020