Indigenous Peoples Oppose Asia's Largest Proposed Coal Mine
The proposed Deocha-Pachami coal mine in West Bengal's Birbhum could be the world's second-largest coal mine but the local indigenous and lower caste population is protesting the mine for the impact it will have on the environment and on their rights over land.
"If we ask Mamata Banerjee [Chief Minister of West Bengal] to leave her home, will she do it?" asked an agitated Sumi Tudu at a remote village in West Bengal's Birbhum district in eastern India.
She is a resident of Kendapahari, one of the 19 villages that fall inside the area marked for the proposed Deocha-Pachami and Dewanganj-Harinsingha coal blocks in Birbhum's Mohammedbazar CD Block. As per the Government of West Bengal, the two blocks, comprising 3,400 acres, contain 2,100 million tonnes of coal and once operational, they can together reportedly be Asia's largest and the world's second largest coal mine.
"We don't want any project. We are farmers and live a peaceful life here. The government is saying we will be rehabilitated but it will not provide us with land to grow crops. We are Adivasis [indigenous people] and we need land and forest to survive," 36-year-old Sumi told a group of seven-eight women who had gathered at her house when this correspondent visited.
Sumi is a member of a group called Project Affected People's Association (PAPA). It describes itself as an "environmental organization working against the climate crisis and fighting for people affected by projects" and consists only of people from indigenous and Dalit communities. Dalits are at the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder.
Sumi Tudu (third from left among seated), and her neighbours, resist the proposed Deocha-Pachami coal mine project.
Born out of a movement against a private coal mine in West Bengal's West Bardhaman district in the late 1990s, PAPA has spread its wing across the Raniganj Coal Field (RCF) region, educating indigenous and poor people affected by coal projects about their rights and the impact of mining on their health and on the environment.
It is now supporting the indigenous people who are opposing the proposed Deocha-Pachami and Dewanganj-Harinsingha coal mines.
The region has witnessed large scale protest ever since the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL), a company owned by the West Bengal state government, began its preliminary works following the allotment of the coal blocks to it by the Union government in December 2019. PAPA has been at the forefront of the resistance.
Beside WBPDCL, in the initial stages, Karnataka Power Corporation Limited, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, Bihar State Power Generation Company Limited, Punjab State Power Corporation Limited, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited and Uttar Pradesh Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, were also allocated chunks of the two coal mines to run thermal power plants in their respective states.
With time, all other state-owned companies backed out of the project and the Government of India handed Deocha-Pachami and Dewanganj-Harinsingha coal blocks fully to West Bengal. The West Bengal government had initially planned to supply coal from the blocks to four thermal power plants in Murshidabad, Purulia and Birbhum districts.
Even though it's not clear if more power plants in the state would be supplied from Deocha-Pachami as the state has been given ownership of the entire 2.1 billion tonnes of estimated coal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in June 2021 that the proposed mine would usher in a golden era for the state and West Bengal would not face scarcity of coal for the next 100 years.
WBPDCL has started constructing a power station in the initial phases of its work in Deocha-Pachami.
"At a time when the Indian government is aiming to cut emission intensity of our GDP by 45% by 2030, it is absurd that a state government has been allowed to begin working on the world's second largest coal mine when we all know what coal power plants do to our climate," said Swaraj Das, PAPA's general secretary.
According to a 2020 report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India's coal-based power plants generate 2.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, that is 1.1 gigatonne of CO2 every year. A third of India's GHG emissions and almost half of India's fuel-related CO2 emissions are also due to coal-fired power plants.
The inability of existing coal-fired power plants in West Bengal to control pollution as found by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has only exacerbated PAPA's fears. CREA reported in December 2022 that not a single coal-based power station in West Bengal has installed sulphur dioxide emission control technology.
More than 40% of West Bengal's coal-based power generation units have not even awarded contracts for installation of flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) to eradicate sulphur compounds from exhaust emissions, CREA said. The remaining 60% have also failed to retrofit SO₂ control measures.
We reached out to the West Bengal Pollution Control Board for its comments on CREA's claims. Public Relations Officer Arup Guchait had not responded to our phone call or our email by the time of publishing. We will update the story when he responds.
For those who will be displaced if the coal mines become a reality, the West Bengal government's rehabilitation package includes a 700-square-foot house or Rs 7 lakh ($8,459), Rs 13 lakh ($15,710) per bigha (0.33 acre) and government jobs for landowners.
PAPA, with 20 years of experience in struggling for resettlement and economic rehabilitation for affected people, is wary of government promises.
A look back at its history
PAPA came into being informally in 1996 when a group of indigenous and Dalit people came together to demand jobs for locals in a coal mine operated by Bengal EMTA Coal Mines Limited (BECML), a joint venture company of the West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) and WBPDCL, in the then undivided Bardhaman district.
Even though PAPA had failed to ensure jobs for locals in the Bengal EMTA mine, their experience came handy when the RP Sanjiv Goenka Group-owned Integrated Coal Mining Limited (ICML) came to the area.
At least 700 families lost land due to the project. But due to PAPA's struggle, one member from every family that lost land was given a permanent job at the ICML mine, while several others were also hired on a contractual basis. "We managed to get jobs for almost 300 people," recalled Swaraj Das.
The RP Sanjiv Goenka Group-owned ICML coal mine in West Bardhaman district's Asansol area.
Even though tribals form about 8.9% of India's total population, a 2014 report by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said among 2.55 million people who were displaced by mining projects in India between 1950 and 1998, 1.33 million--52.5%--were tribals. Only 25% of them were resettled by the government.
Since 1973, CIL and its subsidiaries displaced 86,728 people, of which 14,487 were tribals.
According to a 2021 paper jointly published by the Calcutta Research Group on Migration and Forced Migration, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna, and several other institutions in India, more than a million people have been displaced in the Jharia-Raniganj coal belt of the Damodar valley, which straddles the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal.
"Eastern Coalfields had acquired about 30,000 acres of land in Jharkhand between 1980 and 1985, displacing more than 32,750 families, whereas only 11,901 displaced people could be offered jobs," the paper noted.
It is due to this experience of mining companies that local communities fear and suspicion prevails over the government rehabilitation package in Deocha-Pachami.
Swaraj Das claimed landless indigenous people have never benefited from rehabilitation and resettlement schemes. "While land losers [those who used to own land] get rehabilitated into dingy quarters far away from their homes and are given an underpaying job, most Dalits and tribals don't have proper documentation to claim ownership of lands they have tilled for generations," he explained.
In case of loss of homestead, Coal India Limited has to, as per its rehabilitation and resettlement policy, pay cash compensation after valuation of the land and structure as per the method prescribed under the Land Acquisition Act of the concerned state government. Rs 3 lakh ($3,268) is also to be paid if CIL cannot provide an alternate location.
Landless tribals, who are dependent on forest produce, are entitled to receive 500 days minimum agricultural wage and 25% higher rehabilitation and resettlement benefits if moved out to a separate district.
However, landless tribals rarely receive those benefits. A 2017 paper by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRD&PR), an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Rural Development, that studied West Bengal's largest coal producer, the Sonepur Bazari mine, found that tribals rarely construct pucca [brick and mortar] houses for themselves and the valuation of their kuccha [mud and thatch] houses amounts to little.
"With no land rights and their livelihood snatched, landless tribals are left with a meagre sum at a faraway location from their home. Thus, begins a new challenge to restart a new life," explained Swaraj Das.
Most of them do not even qualify for 500 days of minimum agricultural wage. They need to produce a tribal identity certificate issued by the local Sub-Divisional Officer. The NIRD&PR paper found 80% of tribals don't have that identity proof.
Indigenous peoples in Deocha-Pachami have written such slogans across walls in the region.
Learning from the past, PAPA is now educating tribals in the bDeocha-Pachami region about the importance of tribal identity cards and patta (title deed) of their lands. The demand for land rights has taken centrestage.
Maku Hasda, a landless indigenous woman and a member of PAPA for over two years now, fears her family will be on the street if the Deocha Pachami coal mine is turned into reality.
"I have been demanding patta [title deed] for the small patch of land where I grow crops. Other than that, my family has this mud house. How much do you think this would fetch me?" she asked, while showing her home and cattle shed in Mohammedbazar CD Block's Dewanganj village. Local media reports suggested Birbhum district administration was distributing patta to people who have agreed to give away their land for the Deocha-Pachami mine.
Birbhum Additional District Magistrate (Zilla Parishad) Koushik Sinha, who is overseeing the issuance of title deeds for the Deocha-Pachami project according to the District Magistrate's office, said he was not authorised to speak about the issue to the media. District Magistrate Bidhan Roy also refused to comment on why only landowners were being given title deeds when the demand for it was raised by landless tribals.
Even if she is offered the patta of her land, Hasda is not ready to leave her home for a new place. "How much money will we get? It would only be a lakh or so for one katha (about $1,200 for 1,361 square feet) as per the rate offered by the West Bengal government. We cannot buy another piece of land at that price. But the one we have now is an asset. After our death, our children would at least have something to work for."
This is a fear shared by most Adivasis in Deocha Pachami. For forest dwellers, staying away from agriculture and forest lands turns their life upside down. Thirty-year-old Hasda has found a new voice with her association with PAPA.
"The government doesn't care about our culture. We worship forest and despite knowing that, they are destroying it for a mine. Remains of our earlier generations are buried where they are planning to dig holes."
Like Sumi Tudu, she was also among women who were allegedly beaten by the police for taking part in protest marches. She believes her activism with PAPA is a reason why her patta is not being granted, while it has been granted to hundreds in the region.
"It can't be a coincidence that my husband [a daily wager] can't also find work anymore since I started working for the organisation," Hasda alleged. Her husband used to work in an illegal stone quarry, a major source of livelihood in the region. About 3,000 such workers are also entitled to compensation from the state government.
She said PAPA made her and her neighbours aware about the importance of land rights and she said she wouldn't leave her village without resistance.
Maku Hasda (in red saree) now educates her landlesss neighbours about what the proposed Deocha-Pachami coal mine could mean for their sustenance.
Indigenous peoples, even if they don't resist a mining project, are subjected to occupational dispossession before physical eviction, said the 2017 paper by NIRD&PR. It noted, "The continuous processes of land acquisition have reduced the availability and quality of agricultural land."
The paper further noted that mining authorities begin to convert uninhabitable lands first for mining, creating an "economically depressed area for the survival of the adivasis". The landless communities are thus indirectly forced to move to non-agriculture based sectors, mostly as daily wage labourers.
"[Since landless tribals] are not absorbed in the formal mining sectors. The status of daily wage labourer [sic] remains the same, whereas a shift is found from agriculture-based sector to non-agriculture based sector." Substantiating the same, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs report noted, "[Landless indigenous people] who lost their livelihood due to acquisition of CPRs [common pool of resources] and forest land were probably not considered eligible for compensation."
A similar situation could unfold in Deocha-Pachami as well. The Government of West Bengal has officially identified 3,010 families for rehabilitation so far. But local media reported in 2020 about allegations raised by locals that WBPDCL missed several households during its social impact assessment survey. Locals fear many people would be left out for compensation.
The 2011 Census estimates the number of households in the marked 19 villages to be 4,400 with more than 21,000 people, including over 9,000 tribals.
But with mining engulfing every other source of livelihood, locals--especially poor tribals and Dalits who fail to secure a formal job in mines for being landless--are forced to become part of the casual labour force involved in illegal mining activities flourishing across coal belts in India, explained Manik Bauri, one of the founding members of PAPA in West Bardhaman's Barabani. The NIRD&PR paper referred to coal belts as a "single industry region".
Illegal coal trade and smuggling
"A very tiny percentage of locals is formally inducted in coal mines here, while some are engaged in petty daily wage jobs under local contractors. As a result, most take refuge in the illegal coal mining sector. We don't have any other source of livelihood," said Manik Bauri.
According to a 2019 media report, there are about 3,500 illegal coal mines in Asansol Raniganj area, employing about 35,000 people directly and another 40,000 indirectly.
"The decline of common pool resources such as forests and grazing land in a mining region is directly responsible for unauthorized mining," wrote researcher Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt in her 2018 paper titled 'Unintended Collieries: Theorizing People and Resources in India'.
"Generally, women or children collect coal from leftover soils that companies dig out for open cast mines. Some also cross fences to steal directly from mines. We then sell it to either middlemen or directly to buyers across Asansol," explained L. Soren in Itapara.
Residents of the village have been deprived of all kinds of welfare measures and benefits under government schemes. Jamini Tudu, a neighbour of Soren, claimed villagers do not get work under MGNREGA despite having job cards, have not received cash compensation to build a house under the PM AWAS Yojana, and have not been provided with free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme either.
"The mine has destroyed our jungle and farmlands. Our place of worship is also gone. Our family is now dependent on stolen coal. If the company cannot resettle us and give rehabilitation, we are not moving anywhere," said Jamini.
Tapu Bauri, a worker at the Itapara gram panchayat, said that most residents don't have their job cards and gas books linked with Aadhar. "We have been telling them to link their Aadhar cards with everything, but they don't listen to us. And what can I say about the Awas Yojana? Everyone knows what's happening across West Bengal," Bauri said, hinting at the alleged corruption in the housing scheme.
Jamini Tudu in conversation with a few Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers from the local panchayat.
Professor Lahiri-Dutt wrote that other than the direct conversion of farm and agricultural lands, environmental decay due to mining has also resulted in cessation of agriculture activities in the region.
Formal mines can at least be taken to the National Green Tribunal or any other court of law if any violation of environmental or forest laws is observed, said PAPA's Swaraj Das. "What can you say against stakeholders of the illegal coal trade? They can only be stopped by security forces."
Legal or illegal, coal mining of any form starts damaging our ecosystem as the process of land acquisition begins, wrote Sribas Goswami, of Serampore College in West Bengal's Hooghly district, in a 2013 paper.
Compensatory afforestation, which mining companies must undertake for converting forest lands into coal mines, does not help either as "no forest can be compensated in a year or two".
"Damage to greenery results in more barren land, more erosion, and loss of surface water bodies by siltation, hence decrease in irrigation potential of the region which triggers the cycle of land degradation."
In another paper, published in 2015, Goswami said unscientific cutting of shallow coal seams by illegal miners causes problems on the surface, massive dust and noise pollution and underground fires resulting in huge emission of noxious gases and burning of coal seams.
Environmental degradation and ecological changes caused by coal mining are directly associated with the health and safety of people living along collieries and miners. They are subjected to extreme environmental hazards that aggravate the problem of ill health, Goswami wrote.
"Majority of the children suffer from moderate malnutrition and are found to have vitamin and iron deficiencies in particular. Mining communities, who have inferior access to balanced diet, easily fall prey to the chain of malnutrition, poor health and weakness which make them prone to diseases."
Another major threat posed by illegal mining is land subsidence. According to a World Map Forum paper, 43% of homes in the Raniganj coalfield area suffer cracks due to earth subsidence incidents.
The philosophy of "More Coal, More Hole" has led to unscientific mining across the coal belt, resulting in land subsidence. When centuries-old abandoned and closed underground tunnels are exploited with unscientific mining operations of present days, land subsidence incidents occur, an IJRDO-Journal of Business Management paper, co-authored by former director (personnel) of CIL Anup Krishna Gupta with two Jadavpur University professors, noted.
Instead of CIL's R&R policy, victims of land subsidence incidents are entitled to rehabilitation under a 'Master Plan' approved by the Government of India in 2009 on the direction of the Supreme Court. However, claiming benefits is easier said than done.
PAPA is currently leading a movement to get about 150 families, including 50 indigenous households, in Andal CD Block in West Bardhaman district rehabilitated under the 'Master Plan' after a subsidence incident in 2020 destroyed their homes.
With the aim to stop the perilous impact of mining on environment and pollution caused by it, PAPA is demanding 'No More Coal'. Apart from fighting for rights of people affected by mining projects, PAPA is now educating them about the effects of coal mining on climate and their health.
"Adivasis are very protective of their forests. But due to lack of education, they are mostly unaware about a forest's geological importance. They experience pollution and scarcity of groundwater once a mining project starts but fail to associate them with the colliery," said Swaraj Das.
"We are now trying to make them aware about climate change, effects of mining on their forest and farmlands and Indian laws about forest and environment. Having an idea about them would give them bargaining power and companies won't be able to brush them off."
PAPA's efforts were visible when representatives from more than 30 villages across West Bardhaman district attended a meeting in Asansol town. Swaraj Das and other senior members of PAPA took note of the issues brought forth by visitors. PAPA has also found encouragement from like-minded organisations in the coal belts of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
The group now plans to file a case at the National Green Tribunal, demanding closure of all newly-announced coal mines and coal-based thermal plants.
"We now have technology to generate power from green energy. The Government of India has invested in green hydrogen. PM Modi wants to achieve net zero carbon emission by 2070. Then what's the logic of announcing 99 new coal mines across India? They have to be stopped for the sake of our climate and for the sake of poor tribals and Dalits," Das said at the meeting.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network as part of its 'Environmental Justice Reporting Story Grants for Asia-Pacific Youth'.
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