LAHORE: The Thar coal was called a harbinger of change and a source of cheap electricity that would transform the lives of the people of Sindh and the rest of Pakistan. But there is another side of the picture, which is not as bright as the policymakers presented. The tall claims of the government institutions, politicians and policy makers alike are yet to come to fruition but the side effects of the project have started being felt by the people of Thar.

The issues of the Thar coal project, dewatering and ‘dams’ filled with contaminated wastewater from the coal power plants have been made a subject of a documentary film, Sukhl Khu (Dry Wells), that was screened at Olomopolo on Sunday.

Directed and edited by Usama Irfan, the documentary starts with a woman, Safiran Bibi, a resident of Gorano village, returning home along with four others after they could not draw water from the well whose level had decreased after dewatering.

On the one hand, the underground water level has decreased while on the other, saline is affecting the land due to the Gorano Dam project that started in 2015. A resident of Gorano village laments that he had three wells of his own but all had either dried or contaminated now. He says saline in water was causing different diseases. He had 30 cows and 20 goats when the dam started and now he had only 25 goats and one cow. The rest are dead.

Documentary depicts plight of the people endangered by the project

“What we used to only hear in the past years like the jungle would vanish, water would disappear, the cattle would die has already happened in Thar,” Bheem Raj, another resident of Gorano village, declares.

“We demanded the government not to release the wastewater of the power plants into the dam. Or the water released from the plants should be treated so that it does not damage the ecosystem. But wastewater from four power plants is being released untreated and it’s mixing with underground water, posing dangers to even our future generations,” laments Raj.

Another man says that his fields had been damaged due to dam water so much that the 40 to 50 maund produce that used to have in the past has been reduced to merely 5 to 10 maunds.

The people of Thar held protests against the project and dangers it posed to their life. Seeta Bano says men, women and children from Thar held protests in front of the Karachi Press Club as well as in Hyderabad, Mithi and Badin. An old woman also died during the protests that faced police action.

The documentary shows that even courts sided with the state and disposed of the petition of people of Thar. The RO plant installed by the government is also not enough. When the RO plant has water it’s contaminated and dirty. It depicts the ordeal of not only one village affected by Gorano and Dukkarcho dams but many villages near the power plants and coal mining project.

The stories of the real people of Thar in the documentary have been interspersed with the footage of protests, folk songs and poetry.

Akash, an activist from Thar, has termed Thar one of the fertile deserts of the world, having diverse flora and fauna and wildlife. He says the desert is very diverse, for example you can find sweet water in it at fifty feet and somewhere it is found at 300 feet. He fears that all diversity of the place is in danger since the launch of the coal project. He dispelled the impression created by the media that there is only thirst, hunger and death in Thar, adding that its people are self-sufficient, having eco-friendly environment and their own lifestyle.

PANEL DISCUSSION

During the panel discussion after the screening, Akash said when the coal mining started, the government had no plan for proper disposal of water and it disposed it of into the Gorano area without following any protocols and an environmental assessment report.

“The state forcibly acquired land for the dam. People launched protest sit-ins that continued for 636 days outside different press clubs. The people of Thar demanded the change of location of the so-called dam but the government paid a deaf ear to their demands. Instead they faced police torture and jail.”

Akash said as dewatering was happening, their sweet water was also being contaminated. Now the residents of about five villages were gathering again for agitation against the government.

Syed Ghazanfar of Alternative Law Collective, said that in response to the writ petition of Gorano residents against the water contamination, the Sindh High Court formed a panel of experts to do a survey. He said the panel members had conflict of interests as some of them were working with Engro, the private company involved in the project, and they submitted a report about the filtration plants and other conditions. After this report, the case was still pending. After some years, the high court gave clearance, based on the same report. An appeal is now pending with the supreme court, he said. “The lawyers had got independent analysis of water done by the Mehran University, which showed the highest levels of contamination. On the basis of this analysis, the lawyers filed a petition but the university sacked the earlier analysts and denied its report findings. Another petition is going on in Mirpur bench,” Ghazanfar said.

Asghar Hussain, an expert of satellite data, who was a part of study on Thar, said his firm was collecting data and satellites were recording every kind of data, including population, vegetation and livestock. “Thar is very fertile. Each family in Thar had 60 to 70 cows and life in the desert depended on them. They are also providing dairy products to Karachi. We are now destroying all this.”

Hussain said that under the Thar project a big hole was being dug in the earth and it would remain there after the project. The Gorano and Dukkarcho dams were also getting the water that’s used to wash coal.

Badar Alam, one of the producers, said the documentary was purely a labour of love as all the people involved in the project volunteered for it. However, the Policy Research Institute Islamabad provided production help. He said the relationship of Thar people with water, which was difficult but had some romance attached to it as well as it was a part of their day-to-day life and folklore. This relationship is being affected now, he added.

Amel Ghani also spoke.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2024

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