In a country where major projects, public or private, are feared for blatant disregard for the rights of disaster victims, the Thar coal basin is surprising.
Coal itself is a word best avoided in these climate conscious days. Thar’s coal, long neglected and condemned as shoddy, began to be used by the power-starved economy and the people of Tharparkar, among the most backward districts in the country in terms of human and economic development. The dug pits must be filled in with the displaced earth once the coal has been extracted.
The Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company divided the area into several blocks. Block 2 allocated to Engro Power Thar Limited is to supply two power plants of 330 MW each. A network of good roads has been built by the government of Sindh for the mines, but the connectivity has also benefited the people of Tharparkar as a whole. Instead of the traditional kekras, the area is now connected to the rest of Sindh by modern transport. That’s more or less what happens with all megaprojects.
What is different is the treatment of the displaced population. In the first affected village, Senhri Dars, 172 households were displaced. They were relocated to a new village, the design and construction of which were carried out in consultation with them and by renowned architects and town planners. The result is modern living without compromising the natural ecosystem, social fabric or tradition.
In addition to the houses, the new village was equipped with a school, a clinic, reverse osmosis facilities, a water supply system and solarized wells, a park, a waste management system, community centers for men and women, a market, street lights, system, a mosque and a temple. The same is planned for the second village, Tharyo Halepoto.
Villages that are not directly affected have also been served through a village improvement plan. These include reverse osmosis plants, a solar public lighting system, pit latrines, drainage and sanitation facilities, smokeless stoves and a solid waste management system.
Stories of Gwadar, dams and other megaprojects are common about the denial of jobs to local people. In Thar, women driving dump trucks have become his face to the world, but that’s not all. Eighteen Thari women have been trained to operate and maintain reverse osmosis plants, 12 of whom are now employed in the Block 2 area.
The usual refrain of employers is the lack of skills of the locals. In principle, the villagers displaced in Block 2 have the first right to employment, followed by the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, the Tharparkar region, the province and the country.
While job exchanges have become scarce across the country, Thar has established one. Called Khushal Thar, this is a centralized facility that registers Tharis via a database, linked both to the project for its industrial workforce needs and to the community for male / female supply. .
Once entered, a job seeker is trained and assessed against jobs. Most of the skilled workforce for the mining and energy project comes from Block 2 and surrounding communities. More than 1,600 Thari youth have been trained in scaffolding, masonry, steel fastening, piping and piping.
To recruit local executives in the fields of engineering and management, 25 young Thari engineer interns followed a one-year training program at the site, in collaboration with IBA Karachi and the Carnelian Institute. Seventy-five engineers from Tharparkar and neighboring districts were inducted for training in the operation and maintenance of the power plant. Seventy-three have completed their training and are now employed by the Engro Power Plant.
As part of a computer program, 25 local students are trained at the Saylani Institute in Karachi to diversify skills. Here again, 170 young Tharis are training as a graduate engineer thanks to scholarships. A new block has been constructed at Mithi Polytechnic College to add the relevant discipline of Mechanical Engineering.
These are not isolated initiatives. The Thar Foundation tries to follow the framework of the SDGs. The plan is to make Block 2 and eventually all of Islamkot’s taluka compliant with the SDGs. SDG-2 related to agriculture and food security is reflected in the introduction of biosaline agriculture.
The highly saline groundwater drawn from a depth of 180 to 200 meters for mining is used to grow fodder and crops. Several plant species like guar, bajra, melon and moong peas, beeris and moringa apple, sunflower, toriyo, and okra have been cultivated successfully.
You have to see the fish farming in the Gorano Reservoir, where the extracted groundwater is stored by the coal mining company, to be believed. Seven species of fish are raised on organic feed. In two years, more than 20,000 kilograms of captured fish have been distributed free of charge to local villages.
As part of SDG-3, linked to good health and well-being, five maternal and child clinics have been built in Block 2 and in the Gorano region and benefit thousands of people. A mobile clinic became operational in 2020. The clinic is managed by the Indus hospital. A network of mobile clinics is planned for the vast but sparsely populated desert.
For tertiary care, a 250-bed hospital arrived quickly, also managed by the Indus Hospital. Fifteen thousand people have been screened and vaccinated against hepatitis, 5,000 against tuberculosis and 3,000 against eye diseases. It’s quite a record. More than 100 patients have been operated. Camps are also organized for mammography and family planning. The tele-assistance is there to face the growing tendency to suicides. Covid-19’s response included the creation of an isolation center, community awareness sessions and the distribution of 2,730 ration packages.
SDG 4, on education, is implemented through a network of schools, starting with 30 schools for 5,500 students. Three large high school campuses are managed by the Citizens Foundation with a capacity of 1,000 students each. The Thar Foundation plans to adopt and manage all public schools in Islamkot.
Currently, more than 3,500 students are enrolled, a third of whom are girls. A special initiative is focusing on 210 out-of-school children in seven villages. Of great interest is the ongoing work on mother tongue-based multilingual education to design a curriculum for use in all Thar Foundation schools. Twenty-two students are enrolled in 2-3 year Masters in Engineering and Business Management programs.
Drinking water and sanitation are addressed by SDG 6. 17 RO factories, including 10 donated by the government of Sindh, provide free drinking water that meets WHO standards to a population of over 30 000 inhabitants.
Regarding climate action under SDG 13, attempts are being made to conserve ecosystems and biodiversity. Conserving vultures is the first step. Next is the promotion of sustainable livestock management practices for reduced use of harmful vaccines.
The Thar Million Tree project was launched to achieve SDG 15 on life on earth, with 100,000 trees already planted. An oasis in the desert is in plain sight. A 65 percent survival rate has created the largest private sector nursery in Sindh. It provides free saplings to local communities and organizations.
Bashir Ansari Green Park is a magnificent sight; the first in the region to promote recreational activities for children and adults on 65 acres, new saplings are being planted every day. Conserving species like ducks, deer and peacocks is serious business. A mini zoo and a dedicated playground attract children from everywhere.
Looking to the future, SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities is reflected in the Master Plan of the City of Islamkot in collaboration with the Government of Sindh to optimize future industrial growth, plan residential and commercial areas and guide urban, economic and infrastructure development.
Visit Thar, if you are fed up with the gloomy macro scene and depressing political economy. You will not regret it.
The writer is a senior political economist and chairman of the Social Science Council (COSS), Pakistan