More than 2,000 trucks daily pass through the Raigarh-Sundargarh highway spewing coal dust on the houses, crops and water bodies of 45 villages. The promised coal corridor is still missing, yet the Kulda mine has got permission for expansion.
There is currently no requirement to consult affected communities before land acquisition.
“This is how we will die”, she said, “Buried under coal”.
Fifty-year-old Jyoti’s despair isn’t unwarranted. Her house is situated beside the Raigarh-Sundargarh highway, overlooking the Kulda open cast coal mines, operated by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL). These coal mines have been active since 2007.
More than 2,000 trucks pass through this highway every day, carrying coal from Hemgir tehsil in Sundargarh district of Odisha to Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) in Raigarh, Chattisgarh. Every night Jyoti sleeps through the deafening noise of multi-axles and wakes up in the morning to find coal dust settled on her face.
Predictably, the walls of her house are dilapidated and blackened but she is grateful they are still standing and supporting the roof on her head. “Some of the residents of the neighbouring Kulda village had it worse”, she told me. “The walls of their houses have crumbled down from the impact of the blasting in the mine”.
Jyoti said she wanted to move elsewhere, build a house away from this ‘black empire’ of overburdened dumps and coal heaps, where she could sleep without plugging her ears with her fingers and breathe fresh air that does not smell or taste of coal dust.
But while the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited has formally “acquired” villages like hers since 1987, compensation has still not been paid to most of the villagers. Having formally lost the ownership to their lands, they can’t sell it or hold it as collateral against loans. The only option is to stay put and wait. “Only if the coal ran out”, Jyoti whispered, aware of the irrationality of her wish. The Ib Valley Coalfield in Odisha, which is owned by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, has reserves of 22.3 billion tonnes, the third highest in India. That is a lot of generations breathing and eating coal dust.
But while the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited has formally “acquired” villages like hers since 1987, compensation has still not been paid to most of the villagers. Having formally lost the ownership to their lands, they can’t sell it or hold it as collateral against loans. The only option is to stay put and wait.
“Only if the coal ran out”, Jyoti whispered, aware of the irrationality of her wish. The Ib Valley Coalfield in Odisha, which is owned by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, has reserves of 22.3 billion tonnes, the third highest in India. That is a lot of generations breathing and eating coal dust.
Hemgir tehsil is constitutionally recognised as a scheduled area, being home to particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) like Khadiya, Oraon and Gond. These communities are highly impoverished and struggle to earn a living. Harvests from their paddy fields flanking the highway on both the sides, sell for Rs 5-7 per kilogramme (kg) in the mandis instead of Rs 11-13 a kg because of discoloration and inferior quality.
Villagers blame environmental pollution for the poor crop produce. Water bodies are muddy from the run-off of mine-waste, groundwater is drying from the seepage into the open-cast, schools struggle to teach in the noisy and suffocating environment.
The Kulda mines had been granted environmental clearance for a 40 per cent capacity expansion from 10 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) to 14 mtpa for only a year in 2018. Then given a one-year extension in 2019, followed by a lifetime extension in 2020.
In January 2021, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommended another 20 per cent expansion of the mine to 16.8 mtpa. While the environmental clearance had been granted on the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited claim of transporting coal through a separate, special corridor which bypasses the neighboring villages, in reality, the claimed corridor never existed.
In 2016, villagers from nine gram panchayats sought legal intervention and the High Court of Odisha ordered a coal corridor be built on war footing by the end of 2018. A year later, a multi-technical committee confirmed there was no special corridor built.
In December 2020, villagers organised themselves into a body called Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad to protest against coal dust pollution and conducted a foot march (pad yatra). After walking 35 kms and across the affected villages, they submitted a letter to the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited demanding trucks should not pass through their eleven villages.
Earlier this year in January, residents of the nine affected panchayats reiterated their demands in a letter to the EAC. Having had no success on these fronts, on January 19, more than 5,000 people from 45 villages staged a peaceful protest at Taparia on the Raigarh-Sundergarh road, blocking the trucks transporting coal.
In February, section 144 was imposed at Taparia prohibiting Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad from protesting. At least 150 protestors were taken into police custody under preventive detention. Charges were filed for “attempt to murder”, “dacoity”, “extortion” among others. The protests shifted to another location called Kandadhuda in Sundergarh.
Next month, in March 2021, while most arrested protestors waited for their bail in prison, their children continued the protest. Eight platoons of police force arrived at Kandadhuda on March 23 and took 40 school children in the age group 12-14 years into custody at Hemgir Police station. They were kept there for thirty hours and were asked to stop protesting if “they don’t want their parents to be jailed (sic)”.
As per the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, public hearings are an integral part of the process of obtaining environmental clearance, before a mining company begins operation. At public hearings, locals are given an opportunity to discuss their concerns, which are supposed to be addressed by the company before an expert panel decides on appraisal of the project.
Public hearings held in 2018 and 2019, regarding Kulda, Basundhara and Siarmal mines, clearly show how the locals declared the hearings null and void because of previously unaddressed grievances related to pollution and unemployment.
The lived experience of the locals is substantiated by the 2019 audit report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) titled “Assessment of Environmental Impact due to Mining Activities and its Mitigation in Coal India Limited”. It mentioned that water sprinklers were not installed in the Kulda-Basundhara mining sites as agreed upon by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited.
The report also said that the ash content of coal supplied to thermal plants ranged from 40 to 43.8 per cent (way above the permissible limit of 34 per cent) because the coal company had not commissioned ore washeries yet and its residential colonies still had not installed a sewage treatment plant.
The CAG report also stated that between 2013 and 2018, about 5.9 million kilo litres of untreated water was discharged into the water bodies by Basundhara mines of the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, thereby contaminating the groundwater. This untreated mine water contained arsenic, lead, copper, etc. The local villagers are dependent on the groundwater for meeting their drinking water needs.
A ground truthing joint report published in 2018 by Centre for Integrated, Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD), and Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Program has documented the specific provisions violated by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited. The report stated that the measured total suspended solids (TSS) of the discharged wastewater was 428 milligram per litre (mg/l) against the prescribed limit of 100 mg/l), and the suspended particulate matter (SPM) was 724 while the prescribed limit is 500.
In 2013, an overburden dump near Basundhara mines killed 13 people and injured many more. Yet, despite the history of negligence and non-compliance, the EAC recently approved the expansion of the mines in the “national interest”.
Meanwhile, tribal communities in scheduled areas continue to suffer. For instance, land acquisition for coal mining by the government is carried out under the The Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, which pre-dates the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, commonly known as PESA, by almost 40 years.
This means that even in scheduled areas, there is currently no requirement to consult affected communities before land acquisition. The Odisha government has further weakened the requirement of consultation with gram sabhas under the PESA Act by designating the zilla parishad (at district level) as the body to be consulted and not the gram sabha.
Rather than acknowledging the hardships faced by tribal communities in mining areas, and mitigating them by constructing a separate coal corridor, the state government has sanctioned funds under the District Mineral Foundation, meant for the welfare of the local communities, for sound-proofing and air-conditioning schools located on the Raigarh-Sundargarh road!
Bijaya Biswal is a medical doctor and a public health researcher, currently exploring the causes and implications of health inequity across Odisha. Views are personal.