Visit Thar, if you are sick of the gloomy macro-economic scene and a depressing political economy. You will not regret it
In a country where large projects, public or private, are dreaded for a blatant disregard of the rights of the affected, Thar coal area is something of a surprise.
Coal itself is a word best avoided in these days of climate consciousness. Thar coal, long neglected and condemned as low quality, has started being used by the power-starved economy and the people of Tharparkar, among the most backward districts of the country in human as well as economic development. The pits being dug are to be refilled using the moved earth once the coal is mined.
The Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company has apportioned the area into several blocks. Block 2 assigned to Engro Power Thar Limited is to feed two power plants of 330 MW each. A network of good roads was built by the Sindh government for the mines but the connectivity benefited the people of Tharparkar as a whole as well. Instead of the traditional kekras, the area is now connected with the rest of Sindh by modern transport. More or less, this is what happens in the case of all mega projects.
What is different is the treatment of the displaced population. In the first affected village, Senhri Dars, 172 households faced displacement. They were relocated to a new village with design and construction carried out in consultation with them and by well-known architects and town planners. The result is modern living without compromising the natural ecosystem, social fabric or tradition.
In addition to houses, the new village has been provided a school, clinic, reverse osmosis plants, water supply system and solarised wells, a park, a waste management system, community centres for men and women, a market, streetlights, single unit solar system, a mosque and a temple. The same is planned for the second village, Tharyo Halepoto.
Villages not directly affected have also been serviced through a village improvement plan. These include RO plants, street solar light system, pit latrines, drainage and sanitation facilities, smokeless stoves and solid waste management system.
Stories from Gwadar, dams and other mega projects are common about the denial of jobs to local people. In Thar, women driving dump trucks have become its face to the world, but this is not all. Eighteen Thari women have been trained to operate and maintain RO plants, 12 of them are now employed in Block 2 area.
Employers’ usual refrain is a lack of skills among the locals. As a matter of policy, the villagers displaced in Block 2 have the first right to jobs, followed by people from the surrounding villages, the Tharparkar region, the province and the country.
While employment exchanges have grown rare across the country, Thar has established one. Called Khushal Thar, it is a centralised facility which registers Tharis through a database, linked both to the project for its industrial manpower requirement and to the community for the supply of man-/woman-power.
Once entered, a job seeker is trained and evaluated against jobs. Most of the skilled workforce in the mining and power project is from Block 2 and the communities around. More than 1,600 Thari youths have been trained in scaffolding, masonry, steel fixing, pipe fitting and driving.
To recruit locals in engineering and management cadres, 25 young Thari trainee engineers underwent a year-long training programme at site, in collaboration with IBA Karachi and Carnelian Institute. Seventy-five engineers from Tharparkar and adjoining districts were inducted for training in operation and maintenance of the power plant. Seventy-three completed training and are now employed by the Engro power plant.
Under an IT programme, 25 local students are being trained at Saylani Institute in Karachi to diversify the skill sets. Again, 170 young Tharis are training as diploma engineers on scholarships. A new block was constructed at the Polytechnic College in Mithi to add the relevant discipline of mechanical engineering.
These are not isolated initiatives. Thar Foundation is trying to follow the SDG framework. The plan is to make Block 2 and eventually the entire Islamkot taluka, SDG compliant. SDG-2 related to agriculture and food security is reflected in the introduction of bio-saline agriculture.
Highly saline ground water drawn from a depth of 180-200 metres as part of mining activity is being used to grow fodder and crops. Several plant species like guar, bajra, melon and moong pea, apple beeris and moringa, sunflower, toriyo, and okra have been grown successfully.
Fish breeding in the Gorano Reservoir, where the extracted groundwater is stored by the coal mining company, has to be seen to be believed. Seven fish species are being raised on organic feed. In two years more than 20,000 kilgrams of fish catch was distributed to local villages free of cost.
Under SDG-3, related to good health and well-being, five mother and child clinics have been built in Block 2 and Gorano area and are benefiting thousands. A mobile clinic became operational in 2020. The clinic is managed by Indus Hospital. A network of mobile clinics is planned for the vast but sparsely populated desert.
For tertiary care, a 250-bed hospital is coming up fast, also to be managed by Indus Hospital. Fifteen thousand people have been screened and vaccinated for hepatitis, 5,000 for TB and 3,000 for eye diseases. It is quite a record. Over 100 patients have undergone surgery. Camps are also organised for mammography and family planning. Tele-help counselling is there to deal with the growing tendency of suicides. The Covid-19 response included establishment of an isolation centre, community awareness sessions and distribution of 2,730 ration packages.
The SDG 4, on education, is being implemented through a network of schools, beginning with 30 schools for 5,500 students. Three big campuses of secondary level are being managed by The Citizens Foundation with a capacity to accommodate 1,000 students each. Thar Foundation plans to adopt and operate all government schools in Islamkot.
Currently, more than 3,500 students are enrolled, one-third of them girls. A special initiative focuses on 210 out-of-school children in seven villages. Of great interest is the ongoing work on a mother tongue-based multi-lingual education to design a curriculum to be used at all Thar Foundation schools. Twenty-two students are enrolled in 2-3 years master’s degree programmes in engineering and business management.
Clean drinking water and sanitation are addressed by SDG 6. 17 RO plants, including 10 handed over by the Sindh government are providing WHO-standard drinking water free of cost to a population of more than 30,000.
On climate action under SDG 13, attempt is being made to conserve eco-systems and biodiversity. Vulture conservation is the first step. Next is the promotion of sustainable livestock management practices for reduced use of harmful vaccines.
Thar Million Tree Project has been initiated to achieve the SDG 15 on life on land, with 100,000 trees already planted. An oasis in the desert is there for all to see. A survival rate of 65 percent has enabled the establishment of Sindh’s largest private sector nursery. It provides free saplings to local communities and organisations.
Bashir Ansari Green Park is a beautiful sight; first in the region to promote recreational activities for children and adults on 65 acres, new saplings are planted every day. Conservation of species like ducks, deer and peacocks is serious business. A mini zoo and a purpose-oriented play-area attract children from all over.
Looking to the future, SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities is taken up in the master plan for Islamkot town in collaboration with the Sindh government to optimise future industrial growth, plan residential and commercial areas and guide urban, economic and infrastructure development.
Visit Thar, if you are sick of the gloomy macro-economic scene and a depressing political economy. You will not regret it.
The writer is a senior political economist and president of the Council of Social Sciences (COSS), Pakistan