Democracy in Action: Petitioning the State

Democracy in Action: Petitioning the State

March 6: A session on democracy, examining the mechanisms which citizens use to voice their concerns in the context of the Thar Coal Project, was held at Aman CED. The panelists for the talk were: Bheem Raj, a Lecturer at the Karachi University who has been involved in litigation for environmental justice in interior Sindh; Sohail Sangi, a veteran journalist who also teaches in the mass communication department at Sindh University and has published articles in several journals including Awaami Awaaz and Dr. Raza Gardezi, project manager at Shehri, a citizen-led initiative in Karachi. The moderator for the session was Dr. Nausheen Anwar, author of a recently published book ‘Infrastructure Redux’ and a Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Professor at IBA.

Dr. Anwar began the talk by expressing gratitude to Dr. Faiza for organizing this session and thanked the panelists for coming to IBA to speak on this topic. The first speaker, Mr. Sohail Sangi, then spoke about the issues in the Thar Coal Mine Project. Development schemes commenced in Thar in the late 1980s. Thar has an area of approximately 21,000 square feet, out of which 40 percent comprises of coal mines. However, land acquisition is done on the basis of an Act from 1884, which is more than two hundred years old. Moreover, the benefits of development are not given to the local population. In many oil and gas fields in Sindh, the land has been taken on lease. In the case of Thar, the land is being taken from the people by the government. Mining of these coal fields will also lead to a shortage of water in this area. Thus, both water and land are being taken from the people; nothing is being left for them. ‘How can this be development?’ questioned Mr. Sangi. ‘It is a form of destruction instead.’ Mentioning how this project is not benefitting the locals, he said that only 5 workers in the Engro team are from Thar.

The next speaker, Dr. Raza Gardezi, spoke about the low level of awareness amongst citizens regarding the Thar project. This is in stark contrast to the essence of democracy. The people of Thar cannot take a stand; it is a marginalized society. Therefore, we have to take a stand for them. There are two litigations in Thar currently – one filed by a seven year old girl and the other filed by Mr. Leela Ram. However, large corporations such as Engro have immense power which favours them in these cases. ‘Apart from having outdated legislation, Pakistan is also an overly legislated country – before the commercialization of land a public hearing is held, before charging parking fees on a road, a public hearing is held,’ stated Dr. Gardezi. ‘Public litigation does help, but each of us has to do our bit.’

The last panelist, Mr. Bheem Raj mentioned how the lives of Tharis will be affected because of this project. Only the Hyderabad Judicial Committee is working on this cause. The compensation scheme has also not been decided on and Engro has announced that they will not resettle anyone despite stating that this area will be uninhabitable in the future. ‘There is no hope for us, which is why we are protesting,’ said Mr. Bheem Raj.

The floor was then opened for questions enquiring about the number of companies working in the Thar Project and whether this has generated local employment. The answer to the latter question was that none of the locals have benefitted from this project. The session was quite insightful and one hopes that the Social Sciences department organizes more of such thought provoking talks.