Balochistan Diary: Chamalang project: bury the past, buy the future

Balochistan Diary: Chamalang project: bury the past, buy the future

By Saeed Minhas

Chamalang has many historic projections. This area was the scene of a major battlefield between tribal guerrillas and the army in September 1974. Tribal chiefs thought they would be able to crush the army onslaught by gathering their reserves in the rugged mountains of Chamalang. But equipped with traditional warfare skills and lesser arms, the Pakistan Army managed to teach the tribals a lesson.

Survivors of the six-day war that crushed more than 12,000 tribal women, children and guerrillas – mostly Marris, but also Lunis, Mengals and others – later fled to Afghanistan and were allowed to return only after getting a clean chit from state actors and state agencies in the 1990s.

The Marris, who reached an agreement with the army and the Lunis in December 2009 for resuming the Chamalang coalmines, are considered a breakaway faction of the main Marri tribes and are facing pressure from within their tribe to cut their ties with the army. But, so far, they are happy and are handling these pressures as long as the army stays there and they get their share of the “treasure” from the mines.

The presence of huge coal reserves was first discovered by the adventurous British Army in 1885, when they used to stop over, either on their way to attack Afghanistan or after sustaining repeated defeats in the Afghan lands – when the great game concept surfaced for the first time to block the Red Army from reaching the warm waters.

The Chamalang reserves, however, remained untapped until the 1980s when work started to extract “black gold” from these white mountains, but after the initial excavations, tribal rivalry halted it. Fighting between the Lunis (Pashtuns) and the Marris (Baloch) claimed 53 lives, as the Marris, being the owners of the land and the Lunis being peasants, developed differences over the ownership and profit sharing. The project remained shut for over 30 years.

In the post-Bugti scenario, when the army, along with the strong presence of the Frontier Constabulary had to enforce Musharraf’s iron-fist policy, they were approached by the locals to explore this ready-to-be-tapped project, and eventually they pushed the rivals to forget the past and cash the future. Finally, in December 2006, a tripartite agreement under the army’s supervision was reached in Quetta and the project started production again in early 2007, thus allowing economic activity in the area.

Since the beginning of 2007, more than two million metric tonnes of coal has been extracted from the Chamalang coalmines (worth over Rs 8.5 billion) and more than 70,000 people are employed for the project.

According to the agreement, the army gets Rs 475 per metric tonne for carrying out various development works and social sector initiatives such as free education, technical education and health dispensaries. The Marris, being the owners of the lands, get Rs 420 per metric tonne, out of which they have had to spend Rs 220 in the name of security and social development to maintain the presence of the army, FC and Balochistan Levies and pay for their 200 tribal Levies personnel. The Lunis get Rs 275 per metric tonne for being stakeholders and inhabitants of the land. Other shareholders in this project are the federal government, which collects Rs 100 per metric tonne as GST, the Balochistan government gets Rs 60 in the name of royalty and Rs 5 as excise duty.

The average sale price of coal per metric tonne is around Rs 4,000 to 5,000. Local officials don’t have consolidated figures, but some of them said roughly the Pakistan Army, including the FC, has collected around Rs 900 million since 2007 (out of which around Rs 73.38 million is spent on free education, some on technical education and the rest on reconstruction/rehabilitation). The Marris have so far collected around Rs 800 million (out of which Rs 420 million has been paid for various security services and social programmes under the army). The Lunis seem to have fetched around Rs 500 million, the federal government Rs 220 million and the provincial government Rs 140 million, and the provincial government, in the form of EOBI, has so far collected another Rs 350 million from around 50,000 labourers in the mines’ area.

Locals, according to the officials, are hardly interested in working in the mines, they would rather like to fill all the administrative jobs to get easy money.

With an unplanned town already in place and catering to the daily needs of over 70,000 people, there are hardly any civic amenities available there. Due to mining activities, the water level has further fallen in the area and the availability of drinking water is likely to remain an issue. Electricity poles have been erected, but the availability of power remains an issue.

Health facilities for the namesake are available, but neither the provincial nor the federal government has any data available on the health or working condition of the labourers working in these mines. So far nine deaths have taken place, while the provincial government’s local mining inspector informed the media that five doctors-cum-paramedics (read paramedics) have been employed for the project, who were not seen throughout the visit. Nevertheless, an official briefing from the mining inspector revealed that they have treated 47,000 patients since 2007, but again no record was available to substantiate the claim.

An official briefing and an aerial view, however, revealed that four labour colonies for 220 families have almost been completed and would soon be allotted to the labourers, but how that will be done, none of the officials knew. Locals feared that the chiefs would recommend them mostly for the Levies – belonging to the Marri tribes – and the rest will go to some supervisors and government officials.

Interestingly, this new developing city is a typical immigrants’ den where they are settled without families, and hence no female is seen in the entire town. Local Marris and Lunis live in nearby greener pastures and the two towns are not allowed to mingle due to traditional reasons.