Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A miracle called Chamalang

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Kamal Khan of the Nasir sub-tribe of Pushtuns hails from Loralai. In the year 2000 he begged and borrowed from everyone he knew to invest Rs 20 million in the Chamalang coal mines in Duki sub-division of Loralai district. In 2002 young Kamal Khan absconded with over Rs 18 million outstanding as debts against him.

No one, save his nearest family, knew where he was and over the next four years he returned home just once on Eid to meet his aging mother. He came surreptitiously under cover of darkness, remained hidden in his home and departed equally furtively. His family knew he was hiding away in Darra Adam Khel, an island of Federally Administrated Tribal Area between Peshawar and Kohat where the writ of the Pakistan government does not hold. There he worked as a clerk for a coal merchant and knew he was safe from his creditors.

Late in 2006 he heard some encouraging noises coming out of Chamalang where he had sunk his fortune. He returned home, assured his creditors that he intended to pay back all he owed and set to work anew. In just about a year, he had repaid every single paisa of his Rs 18.2 million debt and had moved on from earning a paltry Rs 13,000 rupees as a coal contractor’s clerk, to again being a mining contractor employing over five hundred men. Ask him how much his aggregate monthly income is and he smiles a shy smile to tell you that he employs fifteen jemadars (foremen) each of whom heads a team of about forty miners. His jemadars each receive a monthly salary ranging from forty-five to fifty thousand while each miner gets thirty thousand rupees.

‘Nobody has yet complained that I am either late or niggardly in paying my staff,’ says Kamal Nasir by way of explaining his own income. This is the miracle he and some fifty thousand coal miners, contractors, store keepers, lorry drivers and sundry ancillaries know as Chamalang coal mines.

As the desert buzzard flies, the elongated coal-rich hill of Chamalang lies about forty-five kilometres northeast of Kohlu, an equal distance northward of Barkhan and some ninety kilometres due east of Duki town. At a height of 1000 metres above the sea it is a harsh region of blistering summers and freezing winters with virtually no tree cover. Only thorny grasses grow here. Here the few streams are either dry that run with the infrequent shower of rain or are tainted with minerals that make the water unpalatable. Potable water is available at a depth of no less than two hundred metres. Ethnically this region is divided between the Pushtuns who live north of the thirtieth parallel of longitude, with the Marri Baloch occupying the country around the towns of Kohlu and Barkhan.

In 1973 this unforgiving land was discovered to hold Pakistan’s largest coal deposit. Not only that, it contained less than three percent sulphur which is markedly lower than the sulphur content of coal mined elsewhere in Pakistan. In other words, this was the best coal thus far discovered in the country. And the cherry on the icing was that the seams lay practically exposed on the surface.

Shortly after the discovery, Balochistan descended into unrest and it was not until 1980 that the deposits could be tapped. The Luni Pushtuns of Loralai district traditional claimed ownership over Chamalang, consequently the chief of this tribe obtained a license and began mining. His kinsmen thought him a fool when he offered to lease their properties in the coal-rich hill against royalties of a mere Rs 150 per ton. But when the black gold began to be taken out by the lorry-load, they wizened up and demands for an increase in royalty led to serious conflicts. As a result, mining activity in Chamalang came to a halt in 1983.

If the conflict had been restricted among the Lunis alone, it may have resolved itself. But the Bijarani sub-tribe of Marris also believed they had a right over Chamalang. For hundreds of years, according to their elders, they had used the region as a grazing ground for their herds. Moreover, the Chamalang hill was nearer to their home ground than it was to Duki or Loralai.

In accordance with a request from the Bijaranis, in 1994 the Government of Balochistan organised a jirga of Luni and Bijarani elders in Quetta. In order to resolve the conflict and as a gesture of goodwill Tahir Khan, the Luni chief, gifted a portion of the coal-rich hill to the Bijaranis. Once again work started off fitfully with the Baloch and the Pushtuns mining in their respective areas. Within a few years the two groups clashed when the Bijaranis, dissatisfied with the gift, began to encroach into Luni mining areas.

By 1998 Chamalang was in serious trouble with a coal lorry being blown up by a land mine every third day resulting in a death or two. Small arms fire began to be regularly exchanged between the Baloch and the Pushtuns, with occasional use of rocket launchers as well: miners were actually working under a regular battle situation. The Quetta Jirga award of 1994 had come to nothing in less than four uneasy years.

In June 2001 another round of arbitration took place in the Punjab-Balochistan border town of Rakhni. While two influential Marri landowners accepted the concessions granted them by the Rakhni Arbitration, there were others who did not and who demanded additional allotments for the entire Bijarani sub-tribe. Twenty days after the accord was signed, conflict broke out once again. When ten days later the smoke cleared, fifty-two good men were dead and twice as many seriously injured with loss of limbs. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the district Nazim of Loralai banned mining activity in Chamalang in July 2002.

That was when young Kamal Nasir fled with his outstanding debt. He was not alone. Innumerable others too thought themselves fortunate to have made off with their lives to work not as contractors, but as ordinary miners in other areas. Yet others left home to work as day labourers wherever they found work in Pakistan.

In January 2003 Frontier Corps, Balochistan made an attempt to reopen Chamalang. For some inexplicable reason, the Marris were kept out of the negotiations and when the Pushtun workers went in, landmines began to go off wholesale. Before the end of April that year, many more deaths had occurred including that of a colonel of the Loralai Scouts.

Undaunted, the Inspector General Frontier Corps tried yet again in early 2004 to get the Marris and the Pushtuns to work together. This agreement guaranteed a payment of Rs 120 per ton to the Bijarani Marris for them to permit the Lunis free hand in coal extraction. As well as that, the Marris were to handle all security issues. Even before it could be implemented however, the situation arising out of the tragic sectarian killings in Quetta during the month of Moharram put paid to the accord. Those who had made huge investments in Chamalang knew they were sunk.

In January 2006, the General Officer Commanding of Quetta-based 41 Division began a fresh initiative. One pre-condition laid down was that the stake holders, that is, the Marris, Lunis and the contractors were to put total trust in the army’s mediation. Misgivings ran high and it goes entirely to the army’s credit that it got the parties talking at all. The Lunis and Marris each claimed that they were the legal owners of Chamalang. However, scrutiny of the first-ever Settlement Record undertaken by the Raj in 1876 clearly made the Lunis owners of Chamalang. This was iterated by subsequent settlements of 1911 and 1936. There were nevertheless some Marri holdings in the area as well which were duly acknowledged by the Pushtuns. That was step one.

Negotiations were painfully long-drawn out. With the Bijaranis in Kohlu and Barkhan; alone at first and then with greater tribal representation. By and by two other sub-tribes, the Gazaini and Loharani Marris also joined in with their own claims, much to the discomfort of the Bijaranis. Then with the Pushtuns in Loralai and Duki on similar lines. And then there were the mining contractors with huge investments in Chamalang. Finally, the Baloch, the Pushtuns and the contractors met under the army’s stewardship and a final agreement was hammered out in December 2006.

In broad terms, the issue of casualties was to be settled by payment of blood money; while the major mining activity was owned by the Pushtuns, the two Marri-owned companies were to continue operations; concerns of Marri sub-tribes other than the Bijaranis were to be addressed to their satisfaction. Security was to be initially ensured by the army and Frontier Corps and basic facilities like accommodation, electricity, water and health were to be provided to the workers. One proviso that had been neglected by all previous accords was now incorporated: in case of breach of agreement, tribal elders of the offending party were to be held responsible.

As well as all that, a force comprising entirely of Marri tribesmen was to be raised to provide security after withdrawal of the military. Initially 1300 Chamalang Guards (CG), as they are now called, were recruited but even as you read these lines, their number now stands at some two thousand. With a salary of Rs 6000 per month, these men are stationed in two perimeters around the Chamalang coal fields. This perfectly suits the Baloch tribesman’s nature: a free ranging man of barren mountains and deserts who abhors the closeness of the town; who would be distressed in the cramped darkness of a mine shaft, he is the happiest on a lonely hilltop scouring the countryside with his trusted AK-47 across his knees. He is in his element and being paid for it. It was this same man who minded the sheep of the local wadera for a monthly compensation of a mere one thousand rupees per month.

The issue of blood money took a little more doing. Death was to be compensated for by a payment of Rs 400,000; serious injury resulting in loss of limb with half as much while Rs 50,000 balanced off minor injuries. A seed fund of Rs 29.36 million was provided by the Government of Balochistan to get the scheme going. And so, when mining activity took off in March 2007, they who returned to work in Chamalang came, for the first time, without fear of being shot at or blasted to kingdom come by landmines.

By March 2008, Chamalang had reimbursed the provincial government’s loan and was fiscally entirely on its own. The daily output of coal today stands at six thousand tons, with the current selling price of Rs 6000 per ton. For every ton mined at Chamalang, the contractors plough back Rs 430 for social sector development. It is this money that is paying for the upcoming hostelry to house 4400 mine workers, a hospital, shopping centres and allied facilities. The provincial government, meanwhile, collects Rs 165 per ton in royalties. As facilities improve, the daily output is expected to level off within a couple of years at 25,000 tons per day. If there is ever a mega-project in Balochistan it is none other than Chamalang.

As things stand today, there are some 50,000 men of every profession under the sun employed at Chamalang: miners, truckers, shop keepers, welders, turners, mechanics, barbers, dhobis, electricians, what have you. While the coal workers’ township is still a few months to completion, a bustling bazaar of mud brick hovels and wattle roofing hums with incredible activity. At the local public call office in the bazaar, the Marri CG having come in on relief from his outlying post calls his family in Kohlu on a cell number – something he could never imagine when he kept his wadera’s flock for a pittance.

But the best thing to happen for the Marris is their children’s schooling. Today there are just over two thousand Marri children in various army public schools in Balochistan as well as in such far off places as Mardan, Okara, Pano Aqil, Hyderabad and Multan. Their education, sponsored by the army, is entirely free. In addition, the Chamalang social development fund provides them with two pairs of school uniforms, books, school bag as well as a stipend of Rs 500 per month. Students outside Balochistan are also given free transport home for vacations. It is envisaged that before the end of 2008, the number of Marri children in school will have tripled and grow in sequence with the increasing coal income.

In fifteen or twenty years the Marris may well be counting the benefits of education when their children begin to work as doctors, financial managers or computer experts. Others will very likely boast of the modern city that is even now in the process of springing up from the barren wasteland of Chamalang. One wonders however if someone will measure the national integration brought about by sending these young people away from home to discover a Pakistan they never knew existed.

Tall and well-built Mohammad Hussain Hazara worked a mine in Mach three hours southeast of his home in Quetta. He moved to Chamalang last year not only because the salary was better owing to the higher selling price of this good quality coal. There was another reason as well: ‘In Mach I worked in a 600 metre deep shaft. When something goes wrong at that depth, you die.’ He says without emotion. Here he is happy to be working at only thirty metres below.

With a smile crinkling his Mongol face, he says he much to thank the Pakistan army for. And he is not alone.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 July 2014 at 22:11, Blogger M.Farooq Ramay said...

A virtuous effort for improving the lot of common tribesmen!

At 28 June 2015 at 21:49, Anonymous Khushi said...

I heard what u have written all over this page but mind u nobody has ever taken any interest in building up chamalang..All of them who came here took benefits from here only. And the mining which is been done is too ill here as i can see lot of deaths and injuries due to poor mining facilities. The road and communication is almost below par in conjunction with poor living and survival, however few colonies have been constructed but they have high wages. Overall i can see just thieves in progress of looting..
Thanks and regards


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days