Abid Nohrio alias Almas, poet and resident of Thar Desert, has been in jail since April 2017 under the Anti-Terrorism Act — for demanding compensation for his land he lost to a coal power generation project.
The Sindh government and authorities of Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), the company excavating coal in Thar, have claimed that power generation will start in the next couple of years. However, the victims of this project have yet to be compensated.
The SECMC and government departments have lodged cases against those demanding compensation. Among them is also Abid Nohrio. He is presently in Hyderabad jail.
Thar coal power project needs 300 cusecs of fresh water, for which authorities have planned to take the water from Makhi Farash Regulator in Umerkot district on Nara Canal. To take the water to the Thar Coal Power Project, authorities have planned a lined channel from Farash Regulator to the coal site in Islamkot through Nabisar town. And at some places a pipeline is planned for the water flow. The lined channel and the pipeline pass through private lands.
The 31-kilometre long pipeline between Nabisar and Weenjhaar village passes through a portion of land owned by the family of Nohrio. In March 2016, when workers were busy constructing the pipeline, Nohrio, along with his cousins, forced the construction workers to stop the work.
“Engineer Shaukat Malkani, an official of the pipeline construction company, assured us that we would be compensated within 15 days. But, even after the passage of more than a month, we haven’t received the money. So, we stopped the work,” says Anwar Nohrio, cousin of Almas.
Anwar Nohrio adds the contractor of the pipeline project belongs to the ruling PPP from Umerkot. “The contractor talked to the uncle of Almas and another elderly person of the village, Bhorilo Manthar Nohrio, and assured them that they would get compensation, and if the government does not pay, the contractor would pay them from his own pocket.”
On Friday, April 15, 2016, the pipeline caught fire and villagers rushed to extinguish it. “We do not store water in our village. But, on the day of fire, there was a wedding ceremony in the village, and a freshwater tanker had arrived. We asked the tanker driver to help us douse the fire. But two employees of the contractor asked the tanker driver not to douse it as they have called the fire brigade,” says Anwar Nohrio, adding that due to the long distance, the fire brigade reached after two hours.
On that unfortunate day, Almas Nohrio was attending the Hyderabad Literature Festival in Hyderabad.
A day after the fire, the police registered a case against Almas Nohrio on the complaint of sub-engineer Aamir Shah under sections 147, 430, 506, 427, 435 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which states that the accused attempted to change the flow of irrigation water, resorted to riots, issued threats to kill and caused financial damages.
Nohrios were also accused of having explosive material.
The police later charged them under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).
On April 16, the police raided the village to arrest Anwar Nohrio, Ghulam Hussain and Muhammad Khan for setting the pipeline on fire. When Almas reached the Anti-Terrorism Court in Mirpurkhas for acquire a pre-arrest bail, the judge rejected his plea and sent him to jail. He was set free from jail after seven months when Sindh High Court issued his bail.
On March 29, 2017, ATC Court reopened the case and ordered 10-year imprisonment to Almas, Ghulam Hussain and Muhammad Khan. “In the FIR, it was said that the pipeline was set on fire with petrol, however, chemical report clearly stated that the pipeline was not set on fire with petrol, diesel or alcohol,” says one cousin.
Thar coal project has impacted lives of many villagers in Thar Desert. Locals from villages Gorano to Thario Halepoto, which got affected in the first phase of SECMC excavation, have been protesting for many months. The SECMC is constructing a dam near Gorano village to dump the highly contaminated groundwater that will be extracted during excavation. The victims of the dam, along with women and children, have held a series of protests in Islamkot, Hyderabad and Karachi.
In reaction, poets of Thar Desert have started writing poetry of resistance. Among them are Imamuddin and Almas Nohrio. Their poetry of resistance is available in audio and text form. People of Thar have also started a Facebook campaign in support of Almas Nohrio.
Almas Nohrio is an active member of NGO Thar Sujag Sath that works aggressively against the anti-environment projects, including the Thar Coal Power Project.
In 2014, the social and environmental impact assessment report of the pipeline project, spread between Nabisar to Weejhyar, was reviewed. Ali Akbar Rahimoo, Executive Director, Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) who attended the public hearing told The News on Sunday that the venue of the public hearing was Mirpurkhas, far away from the affected villages. No one from the affected villages could participate. “The announcement to hold the public hearing was made a day before the hearing,” he says.
The assessment report stated that the project will empower the locals, but it was not clear how the company will ensure that empowerment. Interestingly, the company started working two years before the public hearing.
The locals say that for the construction of the water reservoir near Weejhyar village, the contractor selected a lush green pastureland. When the locals protested, the company registered police cases against the villagers.
Recently, a group of people, led by Pir Haleem Jan Sarhandi, protested against the SECMC demanding the promised compensation. However, the company officials lodged criminal cases against them.
To get the official version of the SECMC, an email was sent to Chief Executive Officer of Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) Shamsuddin A. Shaikh, but despite the passage of almost two weeks, no reply has been received.
Since Almas Nohrio is in jail, his family is suffering financial hardships. His father, a primary schoolteacher, has taken Rs0.7 million as loan on interest to plead his case in court. His father had to resign from his job so that he could pay the loan from the retirement money.
Sindh Irrigation Department is responsible to pay compensation to the affectees through the Revenue Department, a government official said. The government had completed the survey but not yet paid the compensation.
Almas Nohrio has moved the court to appeal against the imprisonment. “I am sure, he will soon be freed by court,” said Sachal Awan, lawyer of Almas.