Pakistan’s Thar coal project and its community’s disempowerment

17 Jul, 2021

Written by Noreen Shams

Four hundred kilometers east of Pakistan’s second-largest city Karachi, the social fabric of Tharparkar (Thar) is being torn down to make way for coal.

The desert district of Thar, with sand dunes and scattered vegetation, is one of Pakistan’s most neglected and drought-prone. Unfortunately, it tends to only get media attention for its frequent droughts, acute poverty and poor social infrastructure. 

Fences built within the village’s residential area of Block 1 Village WarWai, Thar, Sind, Pakistan Photo © Noreen Shams

It does, however, hold the world’s seventh-largest coal reserves which total 175 billion tonnes. Its coal fields are divided into 13 blocks, now seen as a key development focus under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative and an investment focus for the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

Mining and power generation began in this region in 2015, in what is known as Block II, through a joint venture of Engro Powergen (EPL), China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), Habib Bank, and Liberty Mills.

Ever since the construction of coal-fired power plants began, countless issues related to forcible acquisition of lands, compensation irregularities, and relocation problems have surfaced for Thar’sits underprivileged residents.

In other blocks, mining is well and truly underway, as is the proposed 1,320-megawatt (MW) coal-fired power station known as Thar Block-I which is owned by Sino Sindh Resources Limited (SSRL). 

The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) had agreed to provide $1 billion in a 10-year loan to help extract coal from block-I of the Thar coalfield.

Together, these developments which make up the That Coal-Power Integration Project are worth a total investment of $2 billion and make up what is seen as a crucial infrastructure partnership between China and Pakistan. As the sole Chinese commercial bank with institutions operating in Pakistan, ICBC along with their own financial advisories and other services have been actively pushing to make the project a reality and fast track its development.

Land acquisition and disempowerment

The villagers of WarWai live close to Block 1, where coal mining began in 2019. The community, who are deeply attached to their land are now dispossessed of the very thing that gives meaning to their identity. When the relocation process began, residents were hoping for compensation packages from the authorities.

Fences around village huts made of thatched straw in Block 1 Village WarWai, Thar, Sindh. Photo © Noreen Shams

“The relocation process in Thar Block-I started in 2017, authorities came for the first meeting and said they are starting a project here, they said they will provide compensation for our lands,” said Ahmed Amin, a 44-year-old resident of WarWai village. 

According to the residents, around 450 families live in 16 different villages in the area known as “Block I”. The government promised to pay each family Rs4.2 million ($26,341) if they could acquire 1,650 acres of land. In addition, they promised to relocate each family, providing basic amenities, including access to schools, hospitals, and housing.

“They haven’t paid us anything. People didn’t receive any money. It was all fraud and lies. Now, local authorities are pressuring us, and all police officials told us to refrain because it’s China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. But they didn’t ask anything from those companies. How can we refrain from it? We have limited resources and rights. How can we step back?” Ahmed lamented.

The whole area located in Block-I has been fenced and the authorities have declared it a no-go site for the community. The report shared by Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), “Thar Coal projects and displacement of citizens” – published in September 2020 – says grazing land for approximately 20,000 animals has also been affected due to an iron fence built around the Thar Coal Block I mining field.

As well as the entirety of WarWai village, nearly 1,650-acres of land of the neighbouring Tilwai village also came within the fence boundary.

“We have the worst situation since we have fences around. It’s like we are prohibited from going home. The check posts have been established to monitor movements around fences… there are torch lights everywhere, it’s hard to move around.” 

Unemployment and economic conditions

Resolving the grievances of local people during the establishment of a massive development project is the government’s responsibility. However, with the investments made by a consortium of Chinese banks, including ICBC, the government seems to have delegated their responsibility to the mining companies.

Sino Sindh Resources Limited (SSRL) holds mining lease rights in Thar Block-I, spread over 150 square kilometers. As part of the deal, SSRL and Shanghai Electric Corporation entered into a coal supply agreement. SSRL was tasked with coal mining and Shanghai Electric Corporation with setting up the power station. 

It all began in October 2019.

Ameer Hassan Rahmon, aged 48, is another resident of what’s now known as a “Block-I Village”. He described how he and his family were trying to make ends meet.

“Our livelihood has always been mostly cattle. We had land for cattle fodder where grass used to grow. Since these coal companies came, our villages have been closed from all three sides. This has also closed the way for cattle to come and go to graze the land. We had lands which the company has also taken over.” 

When we spoke about the future, he was worried because their people did not have enough money to buy fodder for their cattle anymore. If this situation continues, there will be an increase in livestock losses which would exacerbate the community’s existing economic losses. 

“We see our future doomed,” Rahmon added.

This is not the future that Rahmon was hoping for. He is not against development —in fact, he wanted to see the region improve. However, he didn’t expect that the region’s growth would come at the expense of its residents. 

“The dream that was shown before by the company says there will be development in Thar. It will change Pakistan. [But] for us, it is nothing. Because when our lands do not remain, the means of livelihood will no longer be there, it is not development but destruction.”

According to Rahmon, the government has not yet made arrangements for land compensation, alternative housing, or employment. He noted that some people have received smaller installments than promised but these have already been spent simply due to unemployment.

While the company began mining in Thar Block-I more than 18 months ago and has already broken ground building the coal-fired power plant, no one in Rahmon’s village has been hired to work on either project. 

This has not gone unnoticed. Civil society representatives have begun to support the villages in Thar, over what they believe represents a series of irregularities and human rights violations in the ongoing land acquisition and resettlement processes. 

Mohammad Ali Shah, Coordinator, Pakistan Economic Social Movement, has worked in Thar to speak out against the ongoing land acquisitions.

He wants to support the locals. “We want local people to lead the campaign about any issues they face in Thar because if they won’t take any initiative for themselves nobody else will.”

However, many locals have reported they received bribes and even threats to prevent them from protesting.

Inequality in relocation payments

Before the discourse on coal power plants began, Thar had long been a national news feature, as it has been a hotspot for an ongoing debate on religious conversion. For some, there’s the belief that the history of religious discrimination has continued into this project as Hindu villages in the region have been treated far differently from Muslim villages.

Aziz Qadri, activist and spokesperson of the newly formed “Thar Samaji Tehreek” (Thar social movement) consisting of residents of several villages, informed us about the discrimination against the Hindu community in Bhabutar Village that has 150-180 houses.

“Those houses are under the same circle of those fences, the community just like others demands a relocation settlement. But instead of promising $26,341, authorities are offering them only $1,850 per household, which is sheer discrimination against the Kohli Hindu community,” Qadri said.

A woman in her late 30s named Babri, a member of the Kohli Hindu community, also shared this sentiment.

“I can’t walk freely; my family is having a hard time, we don’t have water and firewood. We are very poor. We will relocate if we get something. If we get the money we will run away from here. But what could we do with $1,850? This amount does not even build a bathroom! Where will our house be built? Give us a house, or give us money so we can leave!”

A future with or without coal

In his address to the International Climate Ambition Summit in 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised that there would be no new coal plants in Pakistan’s future. This gave many activists hope that the problems in Thar will not be repeated anywhere else, but it does little to support those suffering from plants already under construction, like Thar Block-1. 

According to the data shared by Pakistan’s Energy Ministry, there are additional coal power plant constructions are planned to total 2,640 megawatts across the country. This includes a 660-MW plant built by a cement company in Karachi — expected to be completed in March 2021 – and an additional three coal plants should be up and running in the coal-rich Thar desert by June 2022. Those three alone would add a combined capacity of 1,980-MW of coal-fired power.  

Two other projects were issued permits, but construction has not yet started. 

For the activists, there is hope that the Prime Minister will keep his word. “We only demand that when the project term is over for these existing plants, these should not be renewed, and there should be no new coal power plants. Hence, only the existing plants can complete the duration and during this time, whatever promises they made with the local government must be fulfilled,” Shah added.

But for many locals in Thar, like Ahmed Amin, the future looks unclear. 

Before the Thar Block-1 coal plant was funded, many locals looked forward to the promise of development for their region. When you travel to Thar, as I did, and talk to local farmers inside their houses, you’ll notice there’s no electricity, no easily accessible gas, and no drinking water anywhere near the residential area. 

However, none of the residents I spoke to expected that the promise of development would ever happen. 

Coal power plants have heavily weighed on their lives. Despite the hardships, these people can’t go anywhere. Whenever droughts and widespread hunger strike their land, the residents of Thar don’t think of leaving their hometown. 

Children standing in line to fetch water from wells, access to drinking water often means a very long queue for women and children in the Thar Desert, Sindh, Pakistan. Photo © Noreen Shams

As Rahmon said, “we can’t go anywhere, we don’t like to live anywhere else, so give us back our lands. Because when our lands will not remain, then for us development is destruction.”

In the last 12 months, the world of coal financing has shifted dramatically. Even ICBC themselves have indicated that they are moving away from the high-emissions fuel. However, for the residents of Thar, vague hopeful statements of the future will not change the real, tangible heartbreak they are going through at the moment. 

For Rahmon, he imagines development as a process to create growth, progress, and add to social harmony across Pakistan. But right now in Thar, he concludes, “it can’t protect people from cyclones, it can’t give us shoes to cover our feet, and it can’t help people to afford a decent meal…what kind of development is that?”

About the author:

Noreen Shams, Pakistan

Noreen is a Karachi-based multimedia journalist, contributing to different outlets worldwide, covering global politics, social issues and environmental stories.

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This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.