Where will Tharis go?

December 15, 2019

Some concerns of the communities displaced due to developments in Tharparker

The displaced families are relocated to New Senhri Dars model village.

Dwelling in one of the most arid areas of Pakistan, the people of Thar, locally known as Thari, have learnt the art of living in complete harmony with nature. If the nature was not generous enough to bestow them with an abundance of water, they adopted a lifestyle requiring little of this essential resource. They evolved an intricate indigenous knowledge system about the scanty water and other natural resources available to them and acquired the survival skills, which have been least harmful, if not completely harmless, to these natural resources.

Livestock rearing and rain-fed subsistence agriculture, their primary livelihood sources, may not have afforded Tharis the physical comforts enjoyed by their counterparts in irrigated areas but they allowed them freedom and autonomy seldom experienced by people engaged in market-driven commercial agriculture. Though (drought-induced) seasonal migrations have always been a part of their lifestyle, the Tharis always valued and preferred the peace and freedom of their homeland to the physical comforts of foreign lands.

Sounding like a fairytale, the story of Tharis appears to be fast-forwarding to its end with the advent of huge capital to mine the coal reserves of Thar and produce electricity in Tharparkar district of Sindh province. With 176 billion ton coal reserves having a potential to produce 100,000 MW electricity for two centuries, the district has become a centre of attraction for both Chinese and national investors since 2008 when both provincial and federal governments decided to exploit the local coal reserves for power generation and ‘fast track’ the development. In the last ten years, a number of mining leases and power generation licenses have been awarded to an array of Chinese companies and their local partners.

Out of the 13 blocks, open-pit mining started in block-2 around three years ago. The development of Block-1 has started this year. In Block-2, a mine-mouth coal-based power plant of 660MW has already been completed and linked to the national grid. A number of other power plants in block-2 are either under construction or in the pipeline. A 1,300 MW power plant is going to be installed in Block-1. If things go at the current speed, soon the development of remaining blocks and installation of power plants will start.

In New Senhri, each house built over 1,100 square yards has three bedrooms, a washroom, a kitchen, sitting areas for men and women, traditional Chounra (a thatched-roof hut), a guest-room and an animal yard.

Development of mining blocks and power generation involve land acquisition and eviction of local communities living there. Hundreds of families have already been displaced in Block-2. Five villages — Senhri Dars, Seengaro, Bitara, Aban Jo Tar and Thariyo Halepoto — are set to be displaced due to development of Block-2. Only one village, namely Senhri Dars, has been relocated so far. With the mining in new pits and installation of new power plants, the remaining four villages will also be displaced.

Around 4,880 acres of land, including 3,800 acres of private land and 1,000 acres of Gowchar (common grazing land) has been acquired in Senhri Dars village. The farmers of Senhri Dars were unwilling to surrender their land for Thar Coal Project. Around 172 families of Dars, Kohli and Bheel communities living in Senhri Dars village have been displaced. Dars is a land-holding community while the Kohli and Bheel communities are largely landless and work as farm labour.

All 172 families have left their ancestral village homes and resettled in New Senhri Dars Model Village, which the government of Sindh has built to relocate them. Kohli and Bheel came six months ago while Dars community has shifted there more recently. Since they do not have any Gowchar in their new settlement, their livestock remain in their ancestral village. Some men from each household are still living in their ancestral village while others make daily to-and-fro to take care of their cattle and crops in Senhri Dars.

In New Senhri, each house built over 1,100 square yards has three bedrooms, a washroom, a kitchen, sitting areas for men and women, traditional Chounra (a thatched-roof hut), a guest-room and an animal yard. Besides the power supply from the main grid connection, each house is also solar-powered. In addition to the pucca houses, the model village comprises a primary school, a market of 10 shops, separate community centres for men and women, two reverse osmosis plants to provide an uninterrupted supply of clean drinking water, a mosque and a temple.

In a discussion on their displacement and resettlement, some recently settled men gathered in the market of the apparently spacious modern model village were very critical of their new settlement. ‘Peace of mind’ was something, they insisted, they had left behind in their old village. The ‘freedom’ they enjoyed in their old village was missing in their new settlement, they said. The model village, they said, restricted their freedom in many ways — they couldn’t bring along their cattle there; their guests couldn’t visit them freely late night; and they couldn’t make any alteration to their houses. Shabeer Dars, 26, who works as a watchman in a medical facility in the model village is most vocal among these men gathered in the market.

“The number (172) of displaced families was ascertained on the basis of marriages registered by 2014. The resettlement plan doesn’t take into account the marriages that took place after 2014. In our village, we were free to build houses anywhere on our land whenever we felt the need to do so. Here, we are confined in a limited space. We cannot make even a minor alteration to our new houses. Where will we go when our families grow,” asks Shabeer Dars.

Livelihood disruptions are one of the major concerns among the displaced families relocated to New Senhri Dars. Against the land acquired, the provincial government has paid cash compensation to the displaced families. Almost 75 percent of the families have accepted cash compensation against the land acquired from them. Those having shops in their old village have been given shops built in the small market of their new settlement. Though the displaced families were predominantly dependent upon their livestock, the government has not provided them with any alternative Gowchar. Nor has it paid any compensation to them against their common grazing land.

“The government has promised to provide us Gowchar on 850 acres near our new settlement, New Senhri Dars Model Village. But we are not sure about it since there is no land available near our new settlement,” said Shabeer Dars. Since the displaced families of Kohli and Bheel communities are largely landless, no cash compensation has been made to them. Instead, the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) has offered them temporary jobs as office boys, maali (gardener), etc. But these jobs are highly insecure. Every now and then they are fired from their jobs on one pretext or the other.

This is the story of just 172 families displaced from one village in Block-2. The people of four more villages are to be displaced in the same block. The development of Block-1 has started recently. Thousands of families from Varvai and Talvai villages are going to be displaced in the next phase. The district government and local elected representatives have been holding meetings with the villagers to negotiate their compensation package and resettlement plans.

Spread over 90,000 square kilometres, Thar coalfield constitutes almost half of the district’s area. If the entire coalfield is developed, the population living there will have to leave their homes so as to make way for coal mining and power generation. Even if all of them are provided with alternative houses, none of them is going to have the same Gowchar or the land to till. Where will these displaced Thari families go to earn their livelihood is a question neither the government nor the private companies are paying any heed to.

The writer is a student of anthropology and history

Pakistan's arid Thar: Where will Tharis go?