As Pakistan bets on cheap coal in the Thar desert to resolve its energy crisis, a select group of women is eyeing a road out of poverty by snapping up truck-driving jobs that once only went to men. Such work is seen as life-changing in the dusty region bordering India, where sand dunes cover estimated coal reserves of 175 billion tonnes and yellow dumper trucks swarm like bees around the country’s largest open-pit mine. UK news agency Reuter has reported.
The imposing 60-tonne trucks initially daunted Gulaban, 25, a housewife and mother of three from Thar’s Hindu community. Up to 400 trucks may be needed once digging is done deep enough to reach mineral, and a driver can earn Rs40,000 a month “At the beginning I was a bit nervous but now it’s normal to drive this dumper,” said Gulaban, clad in a pink saree.
Gulaban – who hopes such jobs can help empower other women facing grim employment prospects – is among 30 women being trained to be truck drivers by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), a local firm digging up low-grade coal under the rolling Thar sand dunes.
Gulaban has stolen the march on her fellow trainees because she was the only woman who knew how to drive a car before training to be a truck driver. She is an inspiration to her fellow students. “If Gulaban can drive a dumper truck then why not we? All we need to do is learn and drive quickly likes her,” said Ramu, 29, a mother of six, standing beside the 40-tonne truck.
Until recently, energy experts were uncertain that Pakistan’s abundant but poor-quality coal could be used to fire up power plants. That view began to change with new technology and Chinese investment as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key branch of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to connect Asia with Europe and Africa.
SECMC, which has about 125 dumper trucks ferrying earth out of the pit mine, estimates it will need 300-400 trucks once they burrow deep enough to reach the coal.
Drivers can earn up to 40,000 rupees a month. Women aspiring to these jobs are overcoming cultural barriers in a society where women are restricted to mainly working the fields and cooking and cleaning for the family. Gulaban’s husband, Harjilal, recalled how people in Thar would taunt him when his “illiterate” wife drove their small car. “When I sit in the passenger seat with my wife driving, people used to laugh at me,” said Harjilal.
But Gulaban, seeking to throw stereotypes out of the window, is only focused on the opportunities ahead. “As I can see our other female trainees getting paid and their life is changing,” Gulaban added. “I hope…for a better future.”
Earlier, journalist Mr. Hanif Samoon reported in June this year, reported in ‘Dawn’ that in a first in the country’s history, Thari women will be employed to drive dumper trucks at the Thar coalfields.
The Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) has reportedly received an overwhelming response for their Female Dump Truck Driver Programme, which the company introduced near the town of Islamkot in Thar.
After a screening process, 35 women have already been shortlisted for different tests in the first phase. The women have been inducted, but will formally begun their employment only after they complete one year of training.
They will then be moved into a regular job, where they will receive “all basic facilities”, SECMC said. “I know it was a difficult decision, but my husband encouraged me to go for it and that’s why I am here,” Sawitri, a female candidate who came for the interview, said. Sawitri, 25, is a new mother. She is optimistic about getting selected for the job.
Ganga, another hopeful from Nangarparkar, was of the view that women can do everything. “Thari women are very hard working. When they can already do stone-breaking for under-construction roads, dump trucks should not give them much trouble,” she said.
When contacted, SECMC chief Shamsuddin Shaikh said: “We had to come up with an out-of-the-box solution to help women benefit truly from the development taking place in Thar. It was difficult – we had a lot of skeptics – but we will make it work because the social and economic empowerment of Thari women is the only way to bring Thar out of poverty,” Shaikh added confessing ” We did not expect female candidates to turn up in such large numbers.”
Sharing further details of the programme, Jahan Ara, an official steering the SECMC programme, said: “A total of 70 women applicants, especially from the low-income group, were interviewed for the job, out of which 30 successful candidates will be inducted into the programme.
“The second phase of the programme has started and around 45 women are scheduled to be screened for the selection of another group of 25-30 women, who will undergo a one-year training program before driving Pakistan’s biggest 60-tonne dump truck.”