Gulaban, a 25-year old mother of three, adjusts a fan before driving a 60-tonne truck, during a training session of the Female Dump Truck Driver Programme in Islamkot, Tharparkar, September 21, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Coal mining: Thari women receiving the ash of the black gold

The coal-bearing district of Tharparkar is the classic example of development-led chaos and impoverishment.

Zahra Naeem April 01, 2024

Home to nearly two million people and eight million domestic animals, Tharparkar boasts a predominantly agro-pastoral economy. Despite largely arid, drought-prone and desert climate, the local Tharis have managed to sustainably create livelihoods without undermining the natural resource base for centuries.

This delicate interdependent balance between humans, animals, underground water and plants is existentially threatened by Pakistan’s relatively late decision to mine the 175 billion tons of coal underneath the desert. Developed under China-financed CPEC initiative, Thar Coal Mining and Power Generation was conceived as a guarantee to Pakistan’s energy security and a solution to save much needed foreign exchange in the wake of severe 2022 financial crisis. Currently generating 3,300 megawatts, the Thar Coal initiative has significantly undermined the environment, underground water, sources of livelihood like grazing lands claimed by coal miners and a host of other issues.

Severely impacted are the lowest of the low in Tharparkar like Kohlis and Bheel, the scheduled castes who lack private land and are largely reliant on common grazing lands and labour. Women, who form half (765,862) of the district’s total (1,647,036) population and have traditionally played an active role in major livelihood activities like grazing, water fetching, household care and labour, are receiving myriad health, safety and socio-economic challenges brought by Thar coal development.

A recently launched report ‘A study on the environmental impacts of coal mining and coal-based power generation in Tharparkar’ by Policy Research Institute for Equitable Development (PRIED) enumerates various health-related challenges like skin diseases, animal deaths due to consumption of coal ash-laden plants, lack of water and stunted childbirths unknown to the region before coal mining and power plants. Women’s lives are marred by problems like forced labour migration, reduced agricultural and grazing lands, diseases and thwarted mobility due to presence of outsiders. In an economy marked by lack of division of labour or specialisation, such issues are detrimental to household well-being and livelihood since they deter half of the population to contribute in conventional livelihood tasks.

The coal plants' emissions, including particulate matter and other pollutants, have led to respiratory issues, skin ailments, and various health complications among women. This situation on the ground contrasts sharply with the mainstream media narrative of coal companies that are shown to have empowered women through jobs like truck driving. The accelerated social change brought by Thar coal has caused ripples within social structures. Alizeh Kohari recounts in her moving report how unemployment, broken visions of bright future and a pervasive despair has resulted in a sudden rise in suicide rates unparalleled in ratio with the district’s sparse 1.7 million population. More women, says Kohari, died by suicide in the district as anywhere on the globe in 2020 with 63 per cent of total deaths happening among Hindus that constitute 40 per cent of the population.

Moreover, reports indicate that air, water and noise pollution from Thar coalfield blocks disproportionately affect women in villages around coal mines and plants. Women in these communities express heightened prevalence of physical weakness (caused in some cases by RO plants’ water according to locals), blood pressure and anxiety. Moreover, they recount issues such as premature births, reduced birth rates, and a surge in neonatal and maternal health problems, including previously unseen congenital abnormalities among the newborns.

The externalised and largely unaccounted environmental, economic, social and psychological costs of development in Tharparkar are borne by its poorest sections, i.e. scheduled caste women and children. While 500 children died of various diseases and complications in 2020, the number spiked to 600 in 2021, with most deaths attributed to inaccessible healthcare. Home to billions of rupees of energy projects and adding more than 3000 megawatts in the national grid, the coal-bearing district ranks the lowest (0.21) at the Human Development Index, barely above Balochistan's Awaran district.

With its traditional economy disrupted, its protected grazing lands claimed without compensation, its women and children lacking enough food, water and healthcare, Tharparkar is the classic example of development-led chaos and impoverishment. One wonder how far the state has seriously considered rationalising the private profit through coal mining and power generation with social spending and healthcare provision for Tharis facing only the ash of the black gold (coal) underneath their land.

While experts question the state narrative of coal-generated electricity as being cheaper with calculations that show it to be 37 per cent expensive than solar options, the fossil fuel lobbies and an extractive developmental vision seem triumphant as Pakistan plans to transport the planet warming coal across the country through rail. The greatest casualties of this energy policy are not just Pakistan’s international commitments but the also the women and children of Tharparkar.

We need to correct this myopic vision led only by financial indicators and opt for energy and development policies that protect environment, women and children especially of the lowest social ladders.

Zahra Naeem

The writer is a campaign manager at the Policy Research Institute for Equitable Development (PRIED).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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