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Bloom in the desert

It is said that the people of Thar, no matter where they are located in Pakistan, will almost instantly return to their desert home when news of rainfall comes. When the desert blooms after the rains, overnight the barren landscape transforms into something magical. People celebrate the rain and wait for it to come and transform their lives because with rain comes prosperity owing to increased agriculture and economic activity.

But sadly, rain is rare in this otherwise fascinating part of Pakistan with the result that there are few moments of celebration here in this dry and otherwise barren part of Pakistan. Of late, Thar has been known more for its droughts and its deaths. But things may be finally changing for the better here, once seen to be the least developed part of the country.

It seems now there are plans for a permanent bloom in Thar. Last week, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari inaugurated the Thar coal power plant. It is a unique project.

The power plant has the capacity to generate 660 megawatts of electricity and consists of two power generation units of 330MW each. The first such unit came online this month. The project is a coal-fired power plant in Tharparkar district, 25 kilometers from the town of Islamkot near the village of Singharo-Bitra.

The project is being developed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (a joint venture between the Government of Sindh and Engro Corporation) and China Machinery Engineering Corporation in the Thar Block-II of the Thar Coalfield. For this project to move ahead, the Sindh government provided a sovereign guarantee of $700 million.

It is believed that this project will change the fortunes not only of Thar but of Pakistan as well given how indigenous fuel is being used to generate the much-needed power for the national grid.

The social aspects of this project seem to be also looked after. The villages of Senhri Dars and Thareo Halepoto are being relocated. Developers of the project also have pledged to refill coal pits once coal reserves are exhausted, and have also pledged to “plant hundreds of thousands of indigenous trees to maintain the natural ecosystem of the desert.” Nurseries have already been set up for this purpose.

This isn’t on paper. It has become a reality. At its peak, it is expected that 3,000 unskilled workers — mostly locals — will be given employment. It is very encouraging to see these people working in different positions side by side with others from all over Pakistan. We are also seeing the establishment of a campus of NED University of Engineering and Technology in Thar to help enhance skills of local people.

But to get to this point was a struggle. In his speech at the inauguration of the power plant, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah recalled how time and again the Sindh government and interested parties were told that this project would not succeed. It took sheer grit and determination to push through and make this project succeed finally and change the fortunes of the people of Thar and Pakistan. One wonders how many more of such projects are being denied by the babus in Islamabad for reasons best known to them.

Whether it is the Islamkot Airport or the artificial lake that has been created 26 kilometers away to drain the saline water extracted from the coal mines, the Thar coal site continues to impress not only because of the technology used but also how it has started to change the lives of the people living here.

There is much to see here. The women drivers of dumper trucks who bring the coal to the power plant. The amazing sight of the open cut coal mine. The power plant itself — with its chimney — is believed to be the highest man-made structure in Pakistan today.

Thar coal is not just an achievement of the Sindh government but of Pakistan. That is why it was sad to see that no one was there from the PTI or from the Centre to celebrate the inauguration of the power plant. Old mindsets seem to continue to proliferate in the new Pakistan. We need to think of Pakistan.

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