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Fast-Tracking Pakistan’s Grid Modernity: Exploring the Politics of Infrastructure Development in Asia’s Frontiers

Dr Nausheen H Anwar & Dr Amiera Sawas (Publications forthcoming)

In Pakistan today, infrastructure is a site of renewed political attention. A key reason is the planning and construction of numerous infrastructure projects under the USD $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an appendage to China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). CPEC is constantly characterized as a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan, due to high expectations for it to boost national and regional economic development. The CPEC represents a powerful vision of a ‘rising Pakistan’ and emphasizes not only the importance of mobility, speed, and hyper-connectivity through a surge in infrastructural investments, but also the fundamental promise of progress entrenched in infrastructure’s future orientation in which the narrative force of development is amplified.

As this new modality of ‘connectivity’ materializes on ground, frictions emerge across some of the spaces where infrastructural projects are sited. These frictions are infused with entrenched relations of caste, class, ethnicity, and gender, as well as aspirations and legal and political claims to citizenship, modernity and regional identity. Our research has mapped the discursive and material trajectories of these projects, as well their impacts on the material underpinnings of everyday life. Our research also looks at how these infrastructural projects/spaces represent different manifestations of uncertain urban development trajectories, from contested land uses to speculative frontiers of property making.

The people, both residing in and outside of these spaces, articulate a range of on-going concerns and future predicaments; from land dispossession, livelihood displacement, ecological degradation to anxieties over securitization and surveillance, as well as anticipations for development.

The empirical foci of ongoing research are two mega infrastructural projects that aim to lead Pakistan in energy self-sufficiency.

  • The Thar Engro Coal Power project is a 660MW coal fired power plant owned and operated by the public-private partnership Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) in District Tharparkar, Sindh. This project has two components: open pit coal mining and electricity generation that are being developed for approximately $2 Billion. The size of lignite coal reserves in the Thar Desert is estimated at 175 billion tons spread across 9,000 km², with approximately 25% of Thar’s population residing within the thirteen concession blocks. The Energy Department, Government of Sindh and the Sindh Coal Authority that oversee allocation of blocks to investors, envision each block will have its own mining area, power house, and transmission line connected to the national grid. The SECMC has been allocated 100 sq. km in Block II of Thar coalfields to extract 1.57 billion tons (1% of the entire reserve) to produce 5,000 MW of indigenous energy for fifty years.
  • The 1200 MW Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park – the first in Pakistan – spread across 10,000 acres in District Bahawalpur, Punjab, cost USD $131 million to build in 2015. The solar project was initially financed by the Government of Punjab and built by Turkish and Chinese companies. It has now been privatized despite some pushback by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

Two seemingly contrasting energy sources – high-tech photovoltaic panels and coal dependent energy – have become symbols of Pakistan’s energy crisis. Photovoltaics are associated with clean-green or renewable energy, futuristic sustainability, ultra-modernity and international political energy consensus. Coal mining and fossil fuel-based energy conjures images of unsustainability and pollution. In Pakistan both are coping strategies for a nation negotiating the crisis of a degraded grid, energy shortfalls, rising electricity consumption, and a mounting current account deficit due to reliance on imported oil. Both projects have been constructed on a ‘fast track’ basis to draw investors and are situated in remote regions: the Thar Desert, which covers the eastern Sindh province and the southeastern portion of Punjab province, and the Cholistan Desert, which adjoins the Thar desert spreading into Punjab and India.

Our Project

These ecosystems are under threat of climate change with rainfall patterns shifting and long spells of hot weather and droughts impacting pastoral livelihoods. A significant number of agro-pastoral communities inhabit these regions and land holds special meaning in their social worlds.

The projects are built on public and private land that has been used for residential purposes as well as subsistence farming and livestock grazing by different communities: the Hindu scheduled castes of Meghwar, Bheel, and Kolhi as well as Muslim Chounra and Sangrasi in Thar, where pastoralists are popularly known as dhanaars; and the Muslim, Seraiki speaking Channar and Shaikh castes in Cholistan, District Bahawalpur. The Channar pastoralists are often referred to as cheru. The single most important issue that has emerged from our research interviews was people’s perceptions about the livelihood impact from the acquisition of land for these projects. Respondents regularly articulated that their life is directly/indirectly ‘linked to land’.

Our research has relied on various published government documents and consultant reports as well as in-depth interviews, informal discussions, questionnaire surveys with a stratified sample of 626 respondents according to identity markers such as gender and caste; focus groups with various stakeholders and villagers involved in or affected by the projects. We also conducted media monitoring of the projects in major newspapers (English, Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi). Participant photography was included where villagers were encouraged to take pictures and share stories about anything they felt important in their lives along the themes of ‘fears, anxieties, future’ related to land and livestock. Interviews with communities represent Hindu and Muslim castes and ethnicities and occupations in the villages in both Thar and Cholistan and were selected based on initial discussions with key informants, such as a village head, who facilitated access to communities. The digital storytelling in Thar was facilitated by Karachi Urban Lab’s Senior Research Associate, Mr Vikram Das, who is from Tharparkar and is currently pursuing his PhD in Anthropology at Humboldt University, Berlin; and Research Associate Ms. Nirmal Riaz, who is from Sindh and is now pursuing her MPhil in Anthropology at Heidelberg University, also in Germany.We share a digital storytelling based on the participant photography of a male pastoralist MS Meghwar [pseudonym], whose hamlet of Khetji ji Dhani is in the village Gorrano, where a large reservoir has been constructed on 1500 acres of land to contain the discharged underground water flowing from the first phase of open-pit coal mining in the Block II coal-field area. The Gorrano reservoir is a contested site between the SECMC and the villagers with competing narratives: the SECMC and the Thar Foundation promoting the area as a site for ecotourism, while the villagers contend ecological destruction and land dispossession. Here, SM Meghwar’s digital storytelling captures not only the ongoing transformation from the perspective of a pastoralist, but also conveys a sense of how new routes, boundaries, walls are assigning new meanings to spaces and instigating localized understandings of economic and social uncertainty.

Some of our findings: Participatory Digital Storytelling

SM Meghwar is a dhanaar (pastoralist) who lives in the hamlet Kheji Ji Dhani, in village Gorrano, Thar, Sindh. SM owns 6 cows and 15 goats. When Vikram met him during fieldwork in November 2017, SM consented to participate in a photography project to capture visually a story about the transformations underway in his village due to the construction of the Gorrano reservoir. Hamlet Kheeji Ji Dhani is located near the boundary of the Gorrano reservoir as well as a bypass road that was under construction. As a dhanaar, SM regularly visits with his livestock and other pastoralists - especially in the bheelar season of vaskaro - the marha (valleys) and gauchers (common land). In bheelar season, people in Thar harvest crops and the agricultural and guacher fields are readied for animals to feed on grass, bushes and remains of crop. For the villagers, the bheelar season is significant because it enables the livestock to feed freely and become healthy and fat. At the time, SM was waiting for the onset of the bheelar season.

From 2nd to 8th November 2017, SM captured numerous images from a digital camera: the water flowing from the Gorrano reservoir; the agriculture fields; a neighbor’s burial; animals feeding on guacher land; a bypass under construction; and the familiar routes that are disappearing. In his own words, SM narrates the significance of the images, highlighting his anxieties about an uncertain future due to the construction of the reservoir. SM’s descriptions are provided in the original dhatki with English translation.

These are pictures of the Gorrano reservoir. The water is coming from Block II and has impacted villagers’ crops. These are khejrees or kandee trees that lie in the pathway of the water. Very soon, these trees will die. The leaves are a source of animal fodder in the winter and summer seasons. In summer, the trees yield the sengryun fruit that is used as a vegetable for cooking and for animal fodder. We dry and store this fruit and consume it as a dried vegetable in the early season of monsoon.

Ae dam ra photos ahen, ae paani block 2 man aae to ae paani asaan ja gaan wara ra fasal tabaah kare chaden ah. Ae khejre ra wan ahen jiko dam mahena awen pea jiko suke jaseen and khatam the jaseen. Aeaan wana ra pan unhaare aen seare me mal re khaen ro zareo ahen. Unhare me aeaan wana me barhae sengreen thaen ten. Aen oo 2 mahena bajeen b thaen ten aen 2 mahena maal ro charo be the to. Ooe khan elawa aseen sukaoon ta and rakhaan to jiko kherniyan taen khata rahoon ta.

I have taken photos of our dhanaars. We also rear animals at night time in the bheelar season. When animals finish eating grass, then we dhanaars take rest. In winter, we build a fire and sit near it to warm ourselves. We also make tea at night. In the coming year, these kinds of activities will disappear because in our fields, the water level is rising, and we won’t be able to cultivate these lands. There will be no bheelar and no nights on our ancestors’ land.

Ae dhanaar ro photos kadhayan ahen, aseen bheelaran me raat re time maal charan ta. Jadhan maal dhoo kare to and bese to tadhan aseen be besaan ta. Seare me jadhan besaan ta tadhan tando baran ta and pase me bese see udaaon tta. Aen chahen b karan ta. He agalaan saalaan me haree raaten kahaen, jadhan dam ro paani mathi aase aen khetar pokhe ko saghaan. Aen bheelaar be ko hoen aen ahre raateb b ko thaen asaan ji maitana khetraaan me.

Cows eating dry grass in bheelar season.

Gaaen khetar chutan khan pache bheelar khae rahe ahen.

I took this photo to show how water is flowing into our area from the open-pit mining. This is a brackish water stream that is now a barrier for our animals to cross. We must take alternative routes that are longer. Before this, our animals were free to cross from wherever they wanted.

A men photo ooe re kare kadheo ah t dekhaaran khade man paani aawe peo, a nadee hek wade rukawat ah asaan jo mal mate kotho saghe, aseen beja gans leyan ta jiko wado phero ah. Ae khan agme t maal re marze hate jaha aae jaha jae.

Animals take rest after eating grass and crop remains.

Gaen bheelar khae dho karan khan pache bese rahen ahen.

Animals drink brackish and saline water left by the company.

Ae janwar kharo paani peon jiko kharo paani company chadyan te ah dam me.

This chonra and a dug well are lying in the pathway of the reservoir. We rely on them the whole year. The dug well was a source of drinking water for the animals during summer and monsoon seasons, when farmers used it to fetch water instead of bringing water from their villages. Now both have been sunk by the reservoir water.

A chonro aen tarho dam mahena awe peo, ae bae sajo saal istmal thrntaa, unhaari, seari aen vaskare me istmaal the to. Tarho unhaari me hek e zareo ah maal na paani pearan ro, vaskare me haari naari istmal karta aen ghara paani ko khani aata. He bus dam re pani me bude gaya.

See Saen Vikram! We tried to build mud walls to save our crops but couldn’t stop the water flow.

Dekho Saen Vikram !! asaan paani na band de fasal bachaen re koshish kare par paani jam hato aen tabahi machae chaden.

These bulldozers are constructing a wall for the reservoir. But this has spoiled our fields, our gaucher and our sand dunes. We have never seen such giant machinery; in seconds, the machines pull our big plants from their roots.

A doozer saal theo ah dewaar daen pea, eaan asaan ra khetar, gaucheren aen dara aen marha. Asaan agme kade ahren machinen ko dithen, ae wada wan parhaan sodho secondaan me chike kadhen ta.

Saen Vikram!! This is our traditional route that links our village with other villages and with Islamkot. Our animals use this route in winter and summer. But this route too is coming inside the Gorrano reservoir. We have a lot of memories attached with this route. When water comes from the coal, this area will drown, and we won’t be able to cross from this route!

Saen Vikram !! ae asaan jo purano rasto ah, jiko salamkot aen bajan gaman na gandhe tho, asan jo maal unhaari aen seari me ea raste jae to. He ae dam mahena to awe, ae raste sen asaan je jam yadeen ahen, jadhan paani ghano ayo ae bharje jase aen aseen eha mate ko saghaan!

This is a bypass road under construction, and it links with the main road to Islamkot. But it is also close to our homes. Due to this road, hundreds of trees have been cut down. Before this road construction started, we used this place for open defecation. Now we can’t come here and must travel farther out for open defecation. Also, this bypass is being constructed in a zig-zag fashion and this means our travel time will increase.

Ae bypass rasto thahe peo, its linking with salamkot road aen asaan je gharan re vejho mate peo, ae re kare sowen wan wadhje gaya. Aae khan agme a jagah uthean besan lae istmal karta, he aseen ith awe kotha saghan bejan gach pandh kare jaano pe to. Ooe khan elawa ea raste me wado phero ah aen gach phero khae jano pase.

A villager died of tuberculosis and is being buried in the village graveyard.

Ae asan jo gothano mare geo hato TB me, ae ooe na qabarstaan me dharte dakhil karan pea.

Rituals of dharti dhakhil are taking place in the village graveyard.

Ae marh na dharti dakhil qabarstaan me dharti dakhil karen paya.

These are pictures of the Gorrano reservoir. These are the tire prints of giant machines.

Dekho Vikram. Ae dozer mate ah ooe ra chitar ahen.

Saen Vikram! They have destroyed our fields and gaucher. Everywhere, they have made new routes, cut local trees and dug holes with giant machines. No grass will grow in these new holes and routes.

Saen Vikram! ae coal waran asaan je seem and khetar tabaah kareon ah. Har jagah ooaan rasta thahe chadeon ah, dozraan ra raste e rasta ahen, khadad ae khada kare chadeon ahen, wan wadhe. He aae hand gaah ko the.

These are our homes (chonra). You can see the bypass crosses near our homes. Our chonras are constructed from the bushes and wood we bring from the fields. When there are no bushes and wood left in the fields, then there will be no more chonras.

Aae asan ra ghar ahen, Oo dekho bypass b wejho mate to. Aseen khip aen likren aen chonra re khetran me le aata. Jadhan he khetar ae ko hoen to, khip aen lakren be ko hoen, to ae chonra be ko rahen.