by Misbah Saba Malik
Pakistan's Thar Coal Mining Block II project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has helped improve rural people's livelihood in the Thar district of the country's southern Sindh province by offering business opportunities, jobs as well as healthcare and education.
The project was launched in April 2016 in Thar district with an aim to tackle energy deficiency by generating electricity through coal.
A joint venture was formed under the project between China Machinery Engineering Corporation, the Sindh government and Pakistani private companies. Recently, a pit-mouth coal-fired power plant in the project was tested and energized both of its units of 330MW.
Initial estimates of the Thar coalfield block II revealed that the reserve has approximately 2.4 billion tons of coal resources.
Echoing a famous saying among local people that "Thar will change Pakistan," many local economists believe that CPEC will be the game changer for the Pakistani economy.
It is believed that the coal mine project would not only alleviate the energy hunger of Pakistan, but also bring prosperity to the country, particularly in Thar region.
Thar is one of the hottest areas in the country where mercury rises over 50 Celsius degrees in summer. The occupation of majority of the population are animal husbandry and agriculture, but due to absence of rain in the subtropical region, both professions become very challenging for locals.
Safoora Bibi cooks over 20 kg of food with her two assistants everyday, and people from the project transport the food to local workers at the project site. Bibi is happy that she earns a good sum of money by staying at home and doing the job she loves.
Bibi has a daughter who is studying English. By working as a caterer for the project, Bibi is hopeful that she will be able to send her daughter to a good university in the provincial capital of Karachi and get a good job in the future.
Raj Kumar, assistant manager of Small and Medium Enterprise with the project owner Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), told Xinhua that they provided training to Bibi and her assistants from a professional chef, and signed a contract of 3 million rupees (about 21,000 U.S. dollars) with Bibi, and they are planning to further expand Bibi's business as she is a diligent worker.
Meanwhile, the development of the project has brought tremendous improvement in the education sector of the region. Since the launch of the coal mine project, 12 schools including three with a capacity of 900 students each and nine with a capacity of 180 students each have been built in the remote village of Thar, where the literacy level was traditionally low.
Ashok Bakhtani, assistant manager of Corporate Social Responsibility (SCR) under the Thar coal mine project, said they are providing free education to some 2,300 children from nearby villages, and all the teachers are local women.
"The boys and girls are now the 'radiance' of the schools built under CPEC. Now they come to school everyday to learn languages, science, arts, math, history and social mannerism," said Bakhtani.
Sankar, a worker in one of the schools, said he used to work as a laborer in the village and sometimes his family had to sleep hungry because he could not make enough money to feed them. Now both he and his wife work in the school and have good income every month.
"I couldn't afford to send my son to school earlier, but now he is studying free of cost here. Now we can eat to our full and buy clothes whenever we want," he said.
Under the project, a medical center was also launched where locals are provided with free medical facilities. A pediatric, a gynecologist and a general physician provide free medical check ups to locals. Tests and laboratory examinations are also provided in the hospital free of charge.
Fehmida, the gynecologist in the hospital told Xinhua that people's perspective about healthcare has changed a lot since the hospital was built.
"Initially people resorted to self-medication for every disease. Taking pregnant women to hospital was not a general practice of the local community as they would rely more on village mid-wives, due to which the number of mother and neonatal mortality was high, but after we started medical center here, number of pregnant women visiting the hospital increased greatly."
Clean drinking water is also a major issue for locals, as there used to be only a few wells in the area. Women used to walk a long distance every day to fetch drinking water in temperature as high as 50 Celsius degrees, and the water was usually non-drinkable, causing many water-borne diseases in local people. But now clean drinking water is provided to local people near their homes under the Thar coal mine project.
Talking to Xinhua, Naseer Memon, general manager of Corporate Social Responsibility in the SECMC, said they are also working to protect local handicrafts by buying products directly from local people on market rates, thus improving the financial condition of local craftsmen.
He said they also trained a number of unskilled laborers from Thar to give them opportunity to reap the harvest of CPEC by getting employment.
The general manager said many of the laborers were later hired by other companies because of their expertise learnt from the project, and they filled the slot by training more people.