At present, just peacocks and infants are dying in the desert. But the days are not far off when people will start dying on a daily basis due to environmental degradation and the dearth of resources.
What should be the exact role of entities working with a view to develop Thar? What form of visible socioeconomic improvement has been brought into the lives of Thar’s people by these entities? Are they truly in the mood to develop Thar? It is difficult to answer these questions because the truth is far from what we are made to believe.
No development can bring progress if the concerns of locals are overlooked. Gaining the approval of some villagers doesn’t mean that an entity that has initiated development initiatives in Thar has won the hearts of the entire populace.
It is important to mitigate all fears that have been expressed from time to time by the majority of Thar’s residents. Only then can we go ahead and tell the world that we are moving mountains for the people of Thar.
Thar has been deprived of basic necessities for 70 years. So, how can an entity provide these facilities to locals within four or five years? After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Lack of shelter, education, health, water and sanitation are some matters of serious concern that need to be acknowledged by the company before it meets the SDGs by 2024. At present, such empty slogans of development will only be considered foregone conclusions.
There are around 52 villages that come within the purview of the proposed project, which is spread over an area of 9,100 square kilometres. This is not only a matter of concern for the populace living in 52 villages but also affects the people of the entire Tharparkar region along with people in bordering districts.
Development work in some villages has been started by establishing reverse osmosis (RO) plants, school buildings and a model village. But such development schemes seem ineffective because building a school in a village that already has one and setting up an RO Plant in a village where sweet water is readily available can never be termed as ‘development’. In order to bring significant change in the lives of Thar’s people, the company should think objectively and develop out-of-the-box solutions.
It seems that those wishing to bring change in Thar want to do so without consulting locals. Thar’s people have also been kept away from key positions and management cadres in Thar-based projects, which is also embarrassing and disheartening.
While we development work is being carried out along with a series of project activities, the main focus of companies is to mine coal deposits and not improve the living standard of the people. The people of this backward region were on the horns of a dilemma in 1992 when the discovery of coal deposits ensued in Thar. They are still dealing with the same circumstances till today.
Let’s assume that living in cone-shaped huts is the way of life in Thar. But this doesn’t mean that we should continue to let them live in such huts and sustain hardships forever. The people of Thar are living under these circumstances because they don’t have a choice. They want to live in concrete buildings; drink safe drinking water; send their children to schools; and avail health facilities at their doorstep. They are not averse to development and are supporters of social change. If the company doesn’t concentrate on the issues of Thar, then who else will listen to their painful cries?
A large number of people from Thar are working away from home in different cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas. This is because locals don’t have job opportunities in Thar – even in the Thar Coal Project. Although a few locals have been hired and are paid daily wages, this cannot address the unemployment crisis in the region. Those who have been hired don’t have any influence when it comes to decision-making because they are daily labourers who only work for six to eight hours and then return to their huts.
We also must not forget that Thar has been home to such organisations for a long time. All these organisations have failed to address the real challenges faced by Thar’s people. This is one of the stumbling blocks to Thar’s development. Viewing the prospects of a ‘prosperous Thar’ through the lens of NGOs will, therefore, achieve little.
It has been observed that such organizations have been sponsoring different cultural gatherings/events rather than paying attention to the issues of Thar’s people, which is its primary objective.
There is a difference between conducting business and addressing the plight of the people. If we plan to develop Thar, then business interests should be kept on the second tier and the focus should be on mitigating the fears of the people.
The writer is a freelance contributor and social activist based in Badin, Sindh.