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Indigenous residents protest huge coal mine plan in India

West Bengal government’s dream to develop the world’s second-largest coal mine becomes a nightmare as elections loom

Sunita Hansda almost broke down at the thought of being evicted from her home and farm at Baromasia, a hamlet in Birbhum district of West Bengal.
She lives on top of what is claimed will be the world’s second-largest coal mine.

Hansda, 45, and her husband grow paddy on their two-acre farm, around 200 kilometres from state capital Kolkata. “Our family of five depends upon this small piece of land. We have been farmers for generations and have never thought of doing any other work or shifting anywhere else. But recently, we have been hearing about the proposed coal mining in our area. It has been forcing us to spend sleepless nights as this land is our sole source of income and we are not ready to part with it at any cost. We are quite happy with our lives and do want any coal mine here,” she said tearfully.

Hansda does not know the details of the coal reserves below her farm. The Deocha-Pachami-Harinsingha-Dewanganj block has an estimated reserve of 2,102 million tonnes of coal, according to Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal. She has said it can bring investment worth INR 12,000 crore (USD 1.63 billion) and generate around 100,000 local jobs.

Indigenous population against land acquisition

But to get to the coal, the state government has to confront the residents, who are refusing to accept any compensation or rehabilitation package in exchange for their land. The proposed mine will be spread across a little over 11,200 acres. Of that, over 9,100 acres belong to residents, most of them indigenous.

Khokon Mardi, 40, an indigenous rights activist who lives in Sagar Bandi, another of the 53 hamlets in and around the proposed coal mine, claims that around 70,000 people are likely to be displaced by the mine. “The government has been claiming just 784 families will be displaced, but the figures are fudged as the mining will be done in a large chunk of area that will devour water bodies, forest, agricultural land and houses. Where we will go? They are simply trying to cajole us to rehabilitate in some other location but what about our livelihood? They simply have no answer.”
Residents say they are already experiencing environmental pollution from the dust caused by stone quarries and crushers, mostly illegal; coal mining would add to their woes. “We are already facing severe water shortage and health issues due to the illegal stone quarries and crushers that have mushroomed across villages. During the summers, water is not available even at 600-feet depth and we have to walk to other villages to collect water, resulting in skirmishes because of the long queues at the tap. Coal mining will aggravate our problems and make survival almost impossible,” said Saraswati Mardi, Hansda’s 25-year-old neighbour in Baromasia.
Older residents say they often suffer from respiratory diseases. “It becomes difficult to keep our windows open even at night because of the dust in the air,” said Bilti Mardi, a 65-year-old resident of the same hamlet. “We face problems in breathing and suffer from respiratory ailments, but no one is bothered. Children are also suffering from severe ailments because of the poor quality of water.  Nobody from the administration has ever come to enquire about our hellish condition and now the government wants to develop a coal mine. They should simply kill us before coming up with a new project as we cannot be counted among the living any more.”

Loss of lifestyle and culture

“We depend on the land and forest for our livelihood. Coal mining will not only snatch our houses but also reduce us to paupers,” said activist Khokon Mardi. “For us, the forest is a major source of firewood, leaves and medicinal herbs. The mining will clear away everything. We do not need any sort of monetary benefit or compensation from the government. We consider the forest as our deity and worship it. We will not allow anybody to destroy it.” Mardi described the assurance of the administration to give local youths jobs in the mines as eyewash.

Environmental activists running a campaign against the coal mine allege they are being threatened by the administration to stay away. “The government is planning open-cast mining which will wipe out everything,” said Swaraj Das, general secretary of Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), an environmental conservation organisation campaigning against the project. “We started our campaign last year by painting the exterior of houses and village walls to create awareness of the project, but the administration has been constantly threatening us to stay away or face severe consequences. They have also whitewashed the walls to stop the campaign. The government should look for renewable sources of energy rather than depending on coal for power generation.”

Residents have started to protest against the proposed mine. On September 9, around 1,000 people held a demonstration in front of a local police station for around three hours.
Last December, Chief Minister Banerjee acknowledged that eviction was a problem for the coal mine, saying, “We have decided to start mining where there is no eviction problem. There are some areas where we can start extracting coal. If we start work shortly, we will start to get coal within 24 months in Dewanganj and Harinsingha, where we have got clearance from the centre. In the near future, coal will ensure the next 100 years of power generation in our state.”

The political balance

In September 2018, India’s central government and the state government-owned West Bengal Power Development Corporation signed an agreement which allotted the land to the corporation.
Two years on, the state government has failed to start work on the ground. The Trinamool Congress, the party in power in West Bengal, is aware that attempts to acquire land by force was a major factor in the defeat of the earlier state government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Banerjee had led protests against the acquisition of land for industry.
Now, with polls to the West Bengal assembly scheduled next year, the Trinamool Congress has to balance angering the large number of indigenous voters in the state with portraying itself as a pro-industry party that creates jobs.

Administration tries to woo locals

For months, officials in the West Bengal government have been trying to allay residents’ fears. They have had little success so far. On July 9 this year, Rajiva Sinha, then chief secretary in the state government, held a meeting with residents, trying to convince them that the project would lead to their overall development and also of the state. Refuting allegations of high-handedness and forceful eviction of residents by the administration, Sinha made it clear that the government was working on a rehabilitation plan. “We are not evicting anybody from the land. The focus is on rehabilitation and steps are being taken in that direction,” he said.
The same day, Chief Minister Banerjee tweeted that this would be a “model” for large projects all over India. State government officials have said nothing more concrete about the compensation or rehabilitation package, except that it will be “appropriate”.

bullrushes along stream, india
The autumn flowering of bullrushes along one of the few still-unpolluted streams in the area; locals depend on these streams flowing clean [Image by: Gurvinder Singh]

The economics of coal

Aside from the issues of displacement and damage to the environment, experts are questioning the economic prudence of investing in coal mining. In India’s online electricity marketplace, power from solar and wind energy suppliers is cheaper than from coal-fired plants for much of the day.

Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia said, “Renewable energy is now more reliable, cheaper and cleaner than producing electricity by burning coal. It makes no sense to use coal, especially when you consider the costs to health and environment that people have to pay when someone uses coal. Investing in coal now shows lack of leadership. Coal must be left in the ground. There should be a non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels as for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.”

Gurvinder Singh is a journalist based in Kolkata