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 this dusty southern region bordering India, where sand dunes cover estimated coal reserves of 175 billion tonnes and yellow dumper trucks swarm like bees around Pakistan’s largest open-pit mine.
The imposing 60-tonne trucks initially daunted Gulaban, 25, a housewife and mother of three from Thar’s Hindu community inside the staunchly conservative and mainly-Muslim nation of 208 million people.
“At the beginning I was a bit nervous but now it’s normal to drive this dumper,” said Gulaban, clad in a pink saree, a traditional cloth worn by Hindu women across South Asia.
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 Pakistani 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 dump truck then why not we? All we need to do is learn and drive quickly like 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.