Why the sufferers of the Thar Coal Project are organizing people’s tribunals as the last resort to protest their grievances against coal corporations?
Since the government-backed coal companies came into play in Thar with the slogan ‘Thar Badalega Pakistan’ – ‘Thar will change the fate of Pakistan’, the issues of locals have been doubled in the desert. Hence, the governmentally neglected masses of Pakistan’s development-drought region have started organizing people’s tribunals as the last hope to cope with the grave threat hanging on their heads.
Under the scorching sunlight, people of village Warwai have gathered in a giant tent set temporarily besides their cone-shaped straw huts to attend a people’s tribunal on injustices of mining companies excavating coal under from their land.
The tribunal commenced with the recitation of poetic verses from great Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s ‘Sur-Marui’ mentioning the cries and pain of a Thari girl namely Marui who was once abducted and imprisoned by a cruel ruler Umer of Umerkot. After that a group of villagers performed a theatre for highlighting the issues being faced by the locals owing to the mining work. In the last part of that tribunal affectees were invited to talk.
“If you are told to vacate your ancestral village otherwise be ready to face the music. What would you do?”, questioned Sanaullah Rahimoon – a resident of village Warwai – in that people’s tribunal. This village is sited in Thar Coal Project’s block-1 and to be displaced first among some other villages soon by Sino Sindh Resources Limited – a Chinese mining company.
In the same [people’s] tribunal, another villager Khemoon Kolhi expressed his grievances in this way, “We thought that one day when the water of coal corporations’ injustice would about to be climbed over our heads, the government will come to rescue us but it has proved as our daydreaming. We have knocked every door [carrying our cries] but no one tried to pay heed to us so we realized that people’s tribunals may be the ultimate step.”
Everyone who is participating in such tribunals possesses similar sort of questions and a plethora of grievances regarding their future/existence in poverty-stricken Thar but sadly there happens to be nobody from either the government or coal corporations who could listen or answer those cries. Poor unheard Tharis have adopted this unusual practice/method of protest as a last resort to gather all the sufferers of Thar Coal Project on one platform of their struggle against the coalition of government and coal companies which are about to pull land from under their feet.
“Sindh government has given this land to a Chinese company (SSRL) on 99 years lease without thinking of future of its inhabitants. We are being forced to the wall by the multinational coal companies in the name of so-called development which will never bring any change in our dark lives”, argued Atta Muhammad Rind when asked has Thar been developed.
Thar is totally a rain-dependent area which means everything in this desert is directly linked with rainwater but since a decade or so Thar has never received a good amount of shower that could bring a glimpse of joy on the dry faces of the Tharis. Meanwhile since the coal corporations began excavating coal under the barren sand dunes, the action is posing some serious socioeconomic and environmental hazards, only the local communities have been witnessing.
Whatever little quantity of health hazardous underground water previously the locals had in the desert have been disappearing rapidly. In village Tilawayo, underground water in 2 wells has suddenly disappeared or in other words it can be said as it has gone further deeper. Same is the situation in villages Jeando Dars, Thahrio Halepoto and Senhri Dars.
The fodder of livestock is also rarely available in the desert but some grazing grounds where locals use to send their animals for grazing have been blocked by the mining companies. Now poor people have no other choice left to graze their cattle. Many of them have sent their animals to adjacent districts or incase if they are very poor they have sold them.
The Gorano effluent pond is making the life of people, animals and plants in many surrounding villages hazardous as this is the place where dirty wastewater of the coal power plant of Block-2 is being dumped. Gorano village’s groundwater was sweet before construction of this reservoir which have turned brackish now. People in many surrounding villages have been found infected with different skin and water-borne diseases. Additionally, the groundwater has become more contaminated and its level has raised to a dangerous level in villages Gorano, Laly Ji Wandh, Suleman Hajam and Shevy Jo Tarr.
Besides all these environmental harms, the displacement of indigenous Tharis is one of the major issues people can’t stop thinking about. They are at sixes and sevens since they have listened that they are about to be relocated. Neither they nor the coal corporations are sure that where and how they will be resettled.
Pakistan Peoples Party’s top leadership including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Murad Ali Shah on different occasions of their visits to Thar repeatedly said that nobody will be suffered/harmed from this project – not even a tree – and they ordered the coal corporations publically about providing resettlement plan for the effected people but since the inception in 2016 nothing could be done by the concerned entities regarding facilitating poor people.
The last hope
A series of people’s tribunals have been kicked off by the locals in different effected villages of Thar with the collaboration of Thar Coal Action Committee (TCAC) and Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) for raising their grievances against injustices of coal corporations.
So far, 6 out of total planned 10 people’s tribunals have been organized in different villages namely Ranjho Noon, Thahrio Halepoto, Warwai, Gorano, Ahmed Khan Noon and Kharo Jani of Tehsil Islamkot by this alliance. While remaining four tribunals are to be held in village Sonal, Umerkot, Hyderabad and Karachi cities in near future.
“We sat on the longest strike of Thar’s history in front of Islamkot press club for successive 635 days. We also carried out protests in almost every city of southern Sindh including Karachi and Hyderabad against the injustices of these companies. What we didn’t do? but the government every time turned the deaf ear to our concerns. Hence we thought to do this as a last hope,” said advocate Leelaram Meghwar, a local social activist.
Muhammad Ali Shah, Chairman PFF told, “When governments fail to address the issues of people, they make their own tribunals for seeking justice. We are collecting testimonies from the sufferers of TCP by holding such tribunals and present them as a case in the last people’s tribunal to be held in Karachi in which environmental experts, retired judges, writers and intellectuals from social, economic and political backgrounds will be invited.”
Charter of demands
Tharis taking part in these people’s tribunals have some basic-cum-appropriate demands from both the government and coal corporations but this charter will only be applicable incase if the government agrees to approve a resettlement plan for them in light of their demands. Some major points of this CoDs are:
1. A new survey of the effected (to be displaced) households should be conducted fairly and every effected family must be given a separate house in case if the government/mining companies think/plan to resettle them.
2. At least one job should be provided to one person from every household.
3. Gowchar (Grazing grounds) should be allotted according to number of households and animals in the surroundings of new settlements.
4. Whoever [Household owner] wants to take money as compensation for leaving his house, he should be given the money instead of including him in resettlement plan forcefully.
5. Every household should be given a summer pump.
6. Local workforce should be utilized and prioritized in construction process of new houses.
7. Masques and Mandirs should be built in the center of households Mohalla-wise where everyone can access easily.
8. There should be a ban on selling those newly built houses.
9. A lighting rod should be installed in every house so that the families can be saved from lightning strikes.
10. Already present plants/trees in the area should not be harmed.
11. The original names of all villages should not be changed and no village would be named as new or old.
12. Health facilities should be provided in new settlements where a doctor should remain present 24×7.
13. Every household should have a separate electricity meter.
It has already been observed that in Thar Coal Project’s Block-2 where the operating company Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) had provided the effected families with a 172 households-new colony and named it ‘New Senhri Dars’, there aroused many mishandlings on the part of the concerned company as it has failed to fulfill its own promises.
The incompetency and levity of the mining company (SSRL) operating in Block-1 can be gauged from the fact that since inception of work in 2017 it could not have even formulated any resettlement policy for the people who are going to be disturbed/displaced owing to their actions. The said company does not even have Human Resources, Administration and CSR departments yet.
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