KARACHI -- Projects linked to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Sindh Province are drawing protests from residents in the Thar Desert region.
The Thar Desert bordering India is populated by a Hindu majority and is one of Pakistan's poorest areas. The region in 2019 endured its third consecutive year of drought.
Two energy projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have been launched in the desert -- the Engro Thar Block II Coal Fired Plant and the Surface Mine in Block II of the Thar Coal Field.
Hundreds of residents of Tharparkar and Umerkot districts arrived in Karachi on December 22 to protest injustices caused by the BRI-linked projects.
The Bheel Intellectual Forum, an independent group working for the rights of the Scheduled Caste community, organised the protest, which saw hundreds of demonstrators marching from Mazar-e-Quaid to the Karachi Press Club. Most of them were from the Scheduled Caste Hindu community.
CPEC and its projects are not benefitting residents and are instead destroying the area's climate and traditional economy, said demonstrators.
No jobs for locals
The majority of the residents in the Thar region rely on rain-dependent agriculture and livestock, and the CPEC-related coal projects are not recruiting local residents, protesters said.
In 2018, the Tharparkar district administration wrote to then-Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah noting that CPEC projects were not honouring their commitment to create jobs for the region's residents.
The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), a parliament-mandated body, in December 2018 asked the Sindh and federal governments to review the entire Thar coal project after considering social benefits for the community.
Residents of Thar "were unwilling to embrace a massive change that was being imposed upon them without their consultation" and "feared ecological degradation in the area compromising their livelihoods and triggering major social changes", the News International reported in 2018, citing the chairman of the NCHR.
"As part of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the CPEC projects are obligated to provide jobs, quality education and healthcare facilities to the local residents, but sadly, the mining firms have been showing stubbornness," said Lala Bheel, one of the protest organisers.
Because of unemployment, severe resentment and despair have spread among local youth and many have taken their own lives, he said.
At least 133 suicides occurred in Tharparkar and Umerkot districts in 2019, according to statistics compiled by regional police.
Families are often hesitant to report suicide and a large number remain unreported, according to activists and police officials.
At least 198 suicides occurred in the region in 2018, up from 97 in 2017.
Illegal acquisition of land
The projects have also illegally acquired land from villagers in the Thar region, according to protesters.
Gorano village is one of 12 villages affected by the construction of a reservoir for holding unwanted salt water originating in the project mining sites.
Construction work began in May 2016 and has since ended. In June 2016, residents filed a petition in the Sindh High Court, stating that the land was improperly acquired under the urgency clause of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 without the approval of landowners. The case is still in court.
The Gorano villagers, including women and children, organised a series of demonstrations from June 2016 to July 2018 in various parts of the province, including Karachi.
Dozens of private security guards -- none of them local -- now guard the completed reservoir.
The land was "acquired forcibly and in a deceitful way", said Bheem Raj, a leader of the Gorano affectees who joined the December 22 protest in Karachi.
Residents have lost land to which they had a legal and inalienable natural right, said Raj.
Protesters have raised concerns over who will be responsible if anything happens to the reservoir and other planned reservoirs through natural or man-made disasters, according to Raj.
Such an incident "will harm the villagers living near the reservoir. The area has now turned into a barren, chemically poisoned territory", said Raj.