Thar coal: development for whom?

By Manzoor Chandio
Feb 22, 2010
Shankar Menghwar, a farmer from Nagarparkar taluka of Tharparkar district, may not be much aware of what happens when mega development takes place in any area. Being a simple villager, he is just concerned over occupation of lands by some influential people near his village in the lap of Karoonjhar mountain.
When he was informed about mega projects of coal and granite mining, construction of Sindh coastal highway from Karachi to Nagarparkar, linking Thar with national rail network and construction of airports and expected influx of migrant labour from other parts of the country, he, for a while remained silent and then wondered how such projects would benefit him?
Malook Bajeer, a cook in the district headquarters of Mithi, however, knows what is going to happen. “We have heard that Thar will be converted into Dubai after exploitation of coal,” he said.
Tharparkar is home to about 1.5 million people, a majority of whom are indigenous Menghwar, Kolhi and Bheel communities. They are asset-less people mainly depending on rain-feed agriculture and livestock rearing. For centuries, they have braved desert hardships of famine-like situation, recurring droughts, hunger and epidemics. Though in a sizeable number, they are considered doubly-disadvantaged communities first for being Hindu and then for being Dalit.
The desolate region of Thar had been opened to the rest of the country by constructing roads during the government of Arbab Rahim Bux. Means of transport have changed from khekhras (WWII military trucks) and camel caravans to four-wheel vehicles. Now one can see boosters of mobile companies in Mithi, Islamkot and Nagarparkar. The centuries-old barter system of trade is being replaced with the cash transactions.
Some years ago, no one had imagined exploitation of Thar coal on a large scale and construction of power houses, airports, highways and rail network. But this is going to happen.
“We welcome economic diversification in this underdeveloped region because it will increase employment opportunities, but it should not be carried out at the cost of local communities,” says Dr Sono Khangharani of Thardeep Rural Development Programme.
He said that opportunities must come, but there should be plans that could protect the desert’s peculiar eco-system, socio-economic ethos and the people from being marginalised.
Besides coal, Tharparkar is rich in minerals like china clay estimated to be 3.6 million tons at 35 pockets spread over an area of 125 square kilometres, granite rock formations covering an area of about 40 square miles and more than 50 salt mines.
The roots of alien distrust run deep among Tharis. They still remember when the first influx of outsiders was followed by the Indian withdrawal from Chachhro taluka in the early seventies. Hindus of the area who followed the desert’s particular code of life migrated to India along with the retreating Indian army and Muslims from India settled in villages evacuated by them. The new comers were unaware of local biodiversity and they chopped down all trees on sandy ridges. This not only destroyed sources of livelihood but also wildlife.
The problem of poverty compounded when Thar’s population increased dramatically putting pressure on resources. The population is increasing manifold even these days.
Therefore, there are fears that any haphazard development and the influx of migrant population would cause more land degradation and desertification, destroying sensitive socio-economic fabric of Thar.
Zaffar Junejo of TRDP suggests that local people be trained for all types of jobs in mega projects. For that purpose, he called for setting up vocational training institutes in Mithi, Islamkot and Nagarparkar.
More than that the situation demands adequate consideration for environmental impact assessment for exploiting coal, construction of Sindh coastal highway from Karachi to Nagarparkar and rail network and unchecked influx of migrant labour.
This argument is only reinforced by the grim fact that any demographic influx in Nagarparkar, Islamkot and Mithi towns and labour colonies in eight explored blocks of Thar coal would put more pressure on Hindu minority community which will also bear the major burden of displacement.
The government should carefully study the impact of the mega projects and consequences of any haphazard rush of outsiders to the region.
Under the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency, any project costing over Rs50 million requires an environment impact assessment. Without keeping in mind population-environment nexus, there would be negative implications of development on the people of Thar.
Dr Sono said “we have put in place a master plan for Nagarparkar to turn the region into community-friendly hub” for which “ we are also lobbying with the government. “We’ve surveyed the area and found that there is rich potential for tourism too,” he added.
“The people of Thar, if they are to be made the stakeholders, must be asked about policies on development in their areas which would have impact on their lives,” he said.
Policy efforts should be strengthened, such as increasing government-civil society cooperation to protect marginalised communities and minorities, says Dr Sono.
When asked about a ban on sale and purchase of land in Thar, Dr Sono said every citizen could settle anywhere in the country, but there should be legislation about it and local people be encouraged not to sell their land.
TRDP’s master plan to promote tourism envisages preservation of exquisite heritage sites, including 700-year-old Ghori temple of Jain religion, 500-year-old Bodisar mosque, teerath asthan (vedic pilgrimage place) of Hindus in Sardharo in the Karoonjhar mountain, constructing of motels, guest houses, museums etc.
“We have also planned the setting up of two cultural complexes in Mithi and Nagarparkar to provide some market places for artisans,” he said. The Sindh government also plans building two rest houses for tourists, he informed. There is need for social safety networks and setting up of organisations like the Employees Old-Age Benefit Institute (EOBI) and the Workers’ Welfare Fund to forestall exploitation of simple Thari people.
“Thar’s handicrafts could be considered as one of the best in the country. Thari artisans’ skills at shawl preparing from silk, wool and cotton, goat and camel hair skin rugs, hand-knitted carpets, embroidery of all kinds, blankets from sheep wool and ralies could be displayed in these two cultural complexes,” Dr Sono said.

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