The underside of coal

Jawaharlal Nehru once famously called large dams as temples of modern India. It took decades for India to realise that mega development thinking sits on a temple of understanding whose keys are lost. Such models of development are now increasingly seen as ultimately unreliable templates of conventional economics, based on erroneous estimates of the power of technology.

Thar coal development is a big project fortified by narratives of development and national progress. Coal is one of the most polluting minerals. It can cause economic and environmental harm at every stage of its lifecycle. Coal-based projects are being rolled back in many countries. Pakistan, however, continues to invest in its own coal projects.

The narrative structure shouldering projects like Thar coal includes references to nature as a resource. Koilay kay zakhair (coal reserves), ma’adni daulat (mineral wealth), tail aur gas say maalamaal (rich in oil and gas) are not only textbook expressions but also recurrent terms in the mainstream media. Such understanding solidifies attitudes toward nature that makes it impossible to understand it in non-extractive terms.

Mainstream economics serves another narrative whereby extraction is eulogised in seemingly rational accounting that considers only monetary values, ignoring socio-environmental, livelihood and health related costs. Slogans like local coal is cheaper and, hence, can provide cheaper electricity are a direct consequence of this one-dimensional economic rationality.

Such narratives bestow a welfare tinge on basically for-profit extractive activities of the companies involved. Only by understanding coal companies as dedicated profit makers can one explain things like the absence of urgency on allocating alternative graziers, non-provision of promised free electricity units and livelihood compensation to relocated villagers and arrogant ad hoc designing of houses that ignore vital aspects like free movement and spaciousness.

Thar coal development includes open-pit mining whereby large amounts of the earth’s upper crust are displaced to reach the coal beneath it. This coal is impossible to retrieve without dewatering all three aquifers in the water-scarce region.

Claiming 9,000 square kilometres of 19,000 square kilometres of Tharparkar’s area, full materialisation of the project will impact the whole ecosystem of the region. Some reports suggest that the impacts are evident. Whether the mining companies will refill the gaping pits after the coal reserves are exhausted and what will be the long-term consequences of such refilling are difficult questions to answer.

Wayward disposal of contaminants generated by coal-based power plants is polluting air, land and water. A 2022 study of 190 families living around Thar coalfield by the Policy Research Institute for Equitable Development (PRIED) reported that 75 percent of the people attributed reduced water quality and quantity to coal mining. 93 percent of those living around Gorano wastewater disposal reservoir reported salty water. Besides no amount of financial compensation can replace livelihood losses through displacement.

A 2021 study, Thar’s Changing Hydrology, by the PRIED estimated that there had been a 90 percent reduction in the numbers of cattle, cows, donkeys and camels owned by displaced and relocated residents of the Senhri Dars village. From 3,000 goats and 500 cows, they went to 150 sheep and 50 cows.

Senhri Dars was relocated after the original land was acquired by Thar Coal Block-II. The resettlement in 2018 refused to recognise marriage contracts registered after the survey held in 2014, forcing many newly married couples to migrate permanently. During a recent visit to Thar coalfield, the residents reported insecurity on account of pending ownership settlement, stress and sudden deaths.

The coal companies initially intended to use the underground water acquired through mine dewatering. A study by Paul Winn of Hydrocology Consulting warned of “gross overestimation and a staggering gap between amounts of water needed to cool coal-based thermal plants and the available underground water.” It said that “Thari people will lose access to reliable water supply for generations.” Costly projects aiming at piped water provision to coal plants are now underway. These will claim 200 cusecs from the Nara canal, depriving the farmers downstream.

Simon Nicholas of the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reported in mid-2020 that Thar coal was locking Pakistan into unsustainable capacity payments. Several coal plants running currently have not resulted in reduction of electricity prices for the end-consumers. Costs like damage to public health due to increased pollution, transportation of coal, capacity payments, underground water impoverishment and livelihood losses make the project value dubious.

The real beneficiaries of these projects are neither electricity consumers nor the state but the independent power producers polluting the local ecology. Environment-friendly and reliable renewable energy projects are necessary to avert capacity payment burdens and save the Thari people from inevitable impoverishment.