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The real threat to Thar

SEVERAL thousand residents of three villages in Thar are appealing to the conscience of the people of Pakistan, especially of the custodians of power, to save them from ruin, as their lands have been submerged in the waters of the Gorano Dam.

The dam is an artificial lake created in a depression where water discharged after mining for coal is collected through a 35-kilometre-long pipeline. About 1,500 acres of land are already under water and eventually the lake may cover 5,000 acres, belonging to Gorano and two other villages. Many landowners have accepted the compensation offered by the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) while some have not.

The Sindh government is reported to have announced a compensation package of Rs950 million for about 750 households. Each household will receive a term deposit certificate worth Rs1.2m that should yield a monthly income of Rs10,000.

The SECMC also claims to have provided jobs for young men and has opened a school in Gorano. The Sindh government is handing over 37 schools to the company, which has also contributed to the renovation of the Islamkot press club. A family park including a recreation area for children has been built on the highest mound overlooking the lake to attract tourists. At the moment it appears to be a cruel joke, as all that the villagers can see is the land under water that was the source of their livelihood for centuries and which has been taken away from them through means they do not consider fair.

The Gorano story is only a small part of the much bigger threat the people of Thar are facing.

The claims made by the government and the mining company regarding compensation and other help to the affectees may well be true, but a good number of them are not satisfied. They do not like the master-client pattern of dealing with them instead of being treated as an equal party to a negotiated settlement. A few Gorano citizens who had declined to accept the compensation offer filed a petition in the Sindh High Court in May 2016. They are unhappy that no proceedings have taken place on the many dates fixed for hearing this year.

The complaints aired by the Gorano community at a public hearing organised for the National Commission for Human Rights last Saturday made it clear that the matter of compensating all those who have been affected by the creation of the Gorano Dam, or Gorano pond as the SECMC now describes it, is quite complicated.

Alo Kohli, the head of 10 households, claims to have been working on 500 acres and he wants to be given alternative land. Dost Ali wants to be compensated for the house that has collapsed. A peasant wants to surrender his piece of land because the lake has blocked access to it. Shrinkage of gowcher (grazing land) is a common grievance as many villagers depend more on cattle breeding than farming. The fact is that the Gorano Dam is going to disrupt the economy of the villages affected.

Land records have not been updated for many years. In many cases, land is occupied by the grandchildren of persons whose name is given in the record. Above all, the scheme of offering compensation to only landowners is unfair. It is necessary to apply to the displaced people of Thar the World Bank formula of compensating squatters too. The SECMC says it is offering land to landless haris. One should like to know the scale of this plan to be reassured of its adequacy.

It is said that originally the water pumped out for mining was to be stored at Weeravo, close to the Rann of Kutch, but the idea was given up in order to avoid any possible protest by India. The Gorano inhabitants say that as equal citizens of Pakistan they too have a right to be heard.

As the Thar Coal project progresses it will be necessary to create at least one more dam or pond or possibly more. Will the people affected by the new dams fare any better than the residents of Gorano?

The Gorano story is only a small part of the much bigger threat the people of Thar are facing. Several experts have argued that the entire economy of Thar is seriously threatened. Out of the total Thar area of 1,960 square kilometres, 900sq km, a little less than 50 per cent, has been handed over to the SECMC. What will be done with the land not used for mining? If it is not given back to the owners, where and how will they survive? The gowcher area now available for grazing is grossly inadequate for sustaining more than 5m heads of cattle.

Worse, rapid depletion of underground water resources could make the area unliveable for humans and beasts alike. The mining operation is draining not only the entire aquifer of sweet rainwater but also the reservoir of saline water before the coal bed can be reached. Reports of plans to desalinate water twice to make it fit for drinking or even for irrigation do not inspire confidence.

For years now, attention has been focused on one result of Thar’s economic crisis — the death of infants. Concentration on the supply of food and improvement of hospital services will make little difference. These efforts need to be integrated with a Thar uplift programme of employment generation and girl’s education and employment so that girls do not become mothers in childhood and don’t give birth to babies with multiple vulnerabilities.

Besides ill-planned projects, the other threat to Thar is an organised campaign to change the denominational composition of the population.

It is time the federal and Sindh governments put their heads together and draw up a long-term Thar development plan. They may begin by looking at the three-volume development plan prepared by Arif Hasan, the internationally recognised social scientist and authority on architecture and modern habitats, who knows Thar better than any other living expert.

I.A. Rehman, "The real threat to Thar," Dawn. 2018-12-20.
Keywords: Gorano Dam , Artificial lake , Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company , Sindh government , Thar , Human rights , Economic crisis--Thar