Thursday, February 12, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Feb 13, 2015

Jackpot? The search for iron ore deposits in the area of Rajua, around three kilometers south of Chiniot in Punjab has yielded a virtual jackpot of not only iron ore but also gold and copper deposits. This treasure has been discovered after initial studies in just 28 square kilometres of the area, which have indicated the presence of good quality deposits in around 2,000 kilometres surrounding the site. If the prospects prove true, according to Punjab Mineral Company Chairman Dr Samar Mubarakmand, the find could prove bigger even than the gold and copper sites at Saindak and Reqo Diq in Balochistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif received a briefing on the find, and his euphoria was reflected in the statement that this could help Pakistan break the begging bowl. Without meaning to sound like a party pooper, perhaps we should reserve judgement until the reserves are properly assessed. While the prime minister in his address on the occasion spoke of security and energy as the biggest challenges facing the government, he appreciated the hard work and dedication that had gone into the project in Chiniot. And while Dr Mubarakmand, who seems to have made a seamless transition from nuclear scientist to mining expert (note his interventions in the gold and copper projects in Balochistan and the Thar coal project in Sindh), and the representatives of the Chinese Metallurgical Company and German consultants were all in attendance and basking in the glory of their achievements, a sour note was reported in that the officers and experts of the Geological Survey of Pakistan, who had initially led the exploration of the site, were nowhere to be seen. In fact, they were reportedly not even invited. This is bad form, but hardly unknown in Pakistan’s culture of jostling for credit and approbation, if need be at the expense of those equally deserving of recognition. Nevertheless, the achievement of the discovery and the completion of the feasibility report of the project in half the time envisaged are impressive credentials. Dr Mubarakmand told the gathering in his briefing that the presence of copper pointed the project in the direction of focusing on this metal that fetches $ 5,000 per tonne in the international market currently, as opposed to iron ore that garners only $ 100 per tonne. Certainly the testing in internationally acknowledged laboratories indicates a rich and relatively pure deposit of copper, silver and gold, apart from iron ore. But international prices of these minerals notwithstanding, perhaps it is jumping the gun to start pointing in the more profitable directions. Let the reserves and their composition be scientifically determined. On present knowledge, it seems the site will prove a multi-mineral find, and there is no gainsaying the advantages to be gleaned from all these minerals once brought to extractable state. The Chinese Metallurgical Company has already shown interest in setting up a steel mill on the site; other domestic and international investors may follow, at least that is the prime minister’s hope and invitation. While a ripple of excitement at the find and its potential is understandable, hyped up claims of breaking the begging bowl and overcoming poverty should perhaps be tempered by the experience of similar claims in the past about Reqo Diq and Thar coal. The former is still bogged down in a legal dispute with an international exploration and mining conglomerate. The latter has revealed its difficulties as interest in its potential has grown, including the quality of the coal (low grade lignite that cannot easily or safely be transported because of spontaneous combustion), distance from infrastructure that would have to be built, etc. Both these examples are enough to prove that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Certainly the project in Chiniot should be pursued with the same speed, energy and despatch that attended its early days. The rest, meaning its actual value to the country, undoubtedly positive, should perhaps still be left to hopes for good fortune and further studies.

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