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

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

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 they provide 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.

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