India’s largest coal block will displace thousands but may not be viable after all - The Probe

India’s largest coal block will displace thousands but may not be viable after all

The West Bengal government has initiated the process of acquiring land for mining a huge reserve of coal detected in the Birbhum district. The Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block is being touted as India’s largest such project and the second in the world. It has great economic value for a state where large scale industrialisation is the need of the hour.

The government website describes Deocha-Pachami coal block as “India’s largest coal mine located in the south-western part of Birbhum Coalfield in West Bengal. Spread over approximately 10 sq km, in-place reserves of coal is estimated at 2,100 million tonnes with an investment potential of rupees 20,000 crore (US$ 3 billion)”.

A protest held near the Birbhum district magistrate’s office against the Deora Pachami coal project | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

There are apprehensions in certain quarters about the financial viability of the project considering the depth of the reserve and also the technology at hand to mine the thick seam. “There is a huge reserve, and the amount may finally even out the cost. The project could be viable in the long run,” said Partha Bhattacharyya, former Chairman of Coal India Limited (CIL).

“However, the machinery, the technology and the expertise to go through such hard crust is not readily available in India. We don’t have the experience in drilling such rocky overburden (the space from topsoil to the reserve),” he added.

Coal mining in India | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Bhattacharyya was CIL Chairman from October 2006 to February 2011. CIL is a coal mining and refining corporation under the Ministry of Coal, Government of India, headquartered in Kolkata. It produces around 83 per cent of India’s overall coal production.

“CIL did not initiate any mining attempt. The project would require a suitable consultant and mine development operator – with expertise and equipment. Only then can a feasibility study be done,” said Bhattacharyya.

The location of Deocha Pachami coal block in Birbhum, West Bengal | Photo courtesy: Google Earth

In 2016, the Centre invited applications for allocating the project. It was decided that the block would be divided among six states and the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN). The latter is a public sector undertaking involved in hydroelectric power generation and transmission. The states were Bihar, Karnataka, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. But it was finally awarded to West Bengal in 2019, reportedly since the others did not participate.

Now it is for the state to get the project thoroughly studied, which includes the exploration, collection of inputs for mine data, followed by a mine plan. The mine plan would determine suitable technology and experts.

Activist Prasenjit Bose claims that he had filed a Right to Information (RTI) application related to this project. He sought details of expert groups or committees appointed by the state to evaluate the project and their recommendations. The RTI also sought information related to the social impact assessment report and social management plan for the proposed coal mine project and the environmental impact assessment report and the terms of reference.

It was filed in early January with the office of the District Magistrate and Collector of Birbhum. Bose was informed in February that “the said ‘improper’ application has not been accepted”.

‘Extraction Difficult’

The state government is emphasising that the first phase of the Rs 35,000 crore project, announced in July 2020, will be on land owned by it. At the time of the announcement, the country was under lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had tweeted that the residents of Mohammad Bazar Block in Deocha were consulted and the project had been explained to them.

 

This block has a thick coal seam trapped between equally thick layers of rocks, mostly basalt. It is estimated that some 1,400 million tonnes of basalt could be found there.

A screengrab of the written reply in Rajyasabha by Santosh Bagrodia, former MoS, Ministry of Coal | Photo courtesy: https://rajyasabha.nic.in

Answering a question in Rajya Sabha in December 2008, the then Minister of State in the Ministry Of Coal, Santosh Bagrodia, stated in a written answer, “As per the Geological Report (based on Regional Exploration) prepared by Geological Survey of India, the Barakar formation of Deocha-Pachami area contains four thick seam-zones besides many local coal seams. The seam zones vary in thickness from 9 metres to 80 metres containing non-coking, high moisture (1.2% to 7.5%), high ash (22.9% to 52.4%) coal of C to G grade, mostly in 300 to 1200 m depth range. The `indicated` reserve of coal has been assessed as 2026 million tonnes. The area is covered by 3 to 5 layers of basalt flows (Rajmahal traps), with a total thickness of about 52 to 195 metres”.

He further admitted, “Exploration for coal deposits of Deocha-Pachami Block will be a routine coal exploration except for drilling through a thick cover of basalt which is a very hard rock.”

Also, the maximum depth at this coal belt is 850 m. This was confirmed by the then Minister of State in the Ministry of Coal, Shripratik Prakashbapu Patil in Lok Sabha in March 2011. He stated in a written answer: “The Deocha-Pachami Coal Block (area about 10 sq. km.) is located in the southwestern part of Birbhum Coalfield, West Bengal and has been regionally explored by the Geological Survey of India. Four coal seam zones have been identified in the block. However, the coal seams are concealed by a thick cover of Trap formation. An indicated category of coal resources of 2025 mt. has been reported in Deocha-Panchami and adjoining eastern sector in Grade-C to G and up to 850 m depth.”

A Geological Survey of India (GSI) report published in May 2016 noted that while the reserve may be “quite tempting for mining, at least theoretically… this is not easy to mine with the currently available technology of both underground as well as opencast mining…”

The report observed: “Because of the presence of intervening bands, there will be a further dilution of coal grades, from the indicated grade-wise reserves, during the mining operation.”

Geological Survey of India report published in May 2016 | Courtesy: https://www.gsi.gov.in

GSI mentioned in the report, under a heading – Evaluation of the property for mineability – “This is a unique type of coal deposit which has no parallel in Indian coalfields, because of the special structural features already mentioned. In such a situation, though the reserve of coal, which is nearly 2 billion tonnes and quite tempting for mining, at least theoretically, for the construction of a large mechanised mine of phenomenal output, this is not easy to mine with the current available technology of both underground as well as opencast mining.”

Compensation

The state government has held negotiations with some 4,000 families who will lose their land because of this project. The West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL), which was allotted the block by the Ministry of Coal in December 2019, has identified 3,010 households for rehabilitation. But some reports, quoting the last census of 2011, claimed that over 21,000 people reside in this area comprising 4,400 households. Nearly 12,000 of them are said to be from Scheduled Tribe or Scheduled Caste communities.

A protest held at Birbhum against the coal project | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The state government has offered a generous compensation package, perhaps unparalleled in the history of such relocation and rehabilitation schemes. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly reassured that there will be no forcible land acquisition. At the same time, she emphasised the importance of the project, saying that it would generate employment for over one lakh people.

The relief and rehabilitation package promises a landowner in the area some three times the market value of his holding. Such persons will be given Rs.13 lakh per bigha. Another Rs. 7 lakh is being offered as relocation expense and a 700 square feet house set up by the government at a rehabilitation colony. These figures were scaled up from Rs. 5.5 lakh as relocation expenses and a 600 square feet home. A one-time assistance of Rs. 50,000 has also been included with a guarantee of 500 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Additionally, about 3,000 labourers working at existing crusher units will get a ‘maintenance charge’ of Rs. 1.5 lakh as annual maintenance.

“But, looking at the 2011 census, the 19 villages in these coal blocks – Deucha, Bahadurganj, Alinagar, Mokdamnagar, Kabilnagar, Saluka, Kendapahari, Tetulband, Nischintapur, Patharchal, Talband, Harinsingha, Harmadanga, Dewanganj, Mathurapahari, Gobarbathan, Barmase, Sagarbandi, Pathaprara and Saldanga – are home to over 2,600 agricultural labourers and almost 4,000 salaried workers, including main and marginal ‘household industry workers’ and ‘other workers’, who will be rendered vulnerable by the proposed coal mine,” claimed a news report.

While some families have accepted the compensation and are in the process of relocation, several are claiming forced eviction and expressing reservation over future uncertainties.

Apprehensions

The project is likely to displace around 20,000 people living in 4,300 households. Of the total affected population, approximately 50 per cent are from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 18 per cent from Scheduled Caste (SC).

More land may be needed in the vicinity to dispose of the waste, and a unit for coal washing is considered necessary in view of the presence of non-coal bands, as mentioned in a Geological Survey of India report.

The excavated basaltic trap rock during mining is also said to have huge potential. Basalt can be marketed for road making, for railway ballast, and in the construction industry to meet the entire requirement of the state and even other states, the GSI report added.

Trade in basaltic rock is already thriving in the area, where activists claim that most are illegal – under the control of powerful syndicates. Reports indicate that many legal and illegal stone quarries and crushers operate in these areas. Apart from basalt, these are mainly used to mine china clay and fire clay. Non-Adivasi entrepreneurs and labourers earn a source of living from these quarries.

Adivasis have been protesting over the dust that these quarries and crushers create which destroys their land and envelopes all objects. In 2010, violence erupted at one such protest site and five people had lost their lives. The state government imposed certain regulations, and soon such illegal quarries were shut. But today, 400 stone-crushing units are operational, out of which only 100 are registered. Local people also claim that it will pose a threat to the ecology. Activists allege that the government is pursuing the project without assessing its possible environmental and health impacts.

Sources in the government say that the process for obtaining a green clearance is currently being worked out. It is mandatory for such projects to obtain clearance from the Centre. They also asserted that appropriate study is being conducted and that the state is committed to generating jobs.

Political Slugfest

In a state where land is an emotive issue, where a number of violent protests have erupted over acquisition, it is evident that the latest incident will attract political outrage.

Thus, political parties are engaged in trying to drum up support in favour or against the project. Emissaries have been sent to meet residents, followed by visits from politicians, activists and even celebrities to the villages.

In West Bengal, the Communist Party has been leading peasant agitation. The ‘Tebhaga’ movement was a significant milestone in 1946-47. The Left affiliated farmers union Kisan Sabha led the stir on behalf of sharecroppers. Claiming that while the latter toiled, a major part of the produce went to landowners, the protestors demanded that the landlord’s share be reduced to one-third. As violence erupted, the owners either gave in or fled.

During the initial period of Left rule in West Bengal, it initiated specific land reforms. Beginning late 70s and till the 80s, ‘Operation Barga’ was introduced to record sharecroppers’ names and facilitate their landowning.

In the later part of its rule, the Left Front went out to woo industrialists. But most were wary of the trade unions, and protests at Singur and Nandigram did not augur well for the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.

The government then allegedly forced the takeover of 997 acres of farmland at Singur in the Hooghly district. Tata Motors was to build a factory to manufacture the Nano car. The opposition united in an aggressive campaign, and the Tatas had to withdraw in 2008.

Soon after, violence erupted in Nandigram in East Medinipur over land acquisition, where the state government intended to set up a special economic zone. Almost all opposition parties united against the then Left Front, and an anti-eviction committee was formed with local villagers. This facilitated the resurgence of the Maoists in the region.

It also heralded the ascent of Mamata Banerjee. She quickly became the face of protests and led the protestors with her characteristic dogma that included a 26-day hunger strike in Kolkata.

Now it is a literal role reversal with Mamata Banerjee government’s first-ever major land acquisition initiative being resisted by the Opposition, including the Left.

In December 2021, Opposition leaders like Abdul Mannan of the Congress and Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya of the CPI(M), with other politicians and lawyers, held a protest at Dewanganj village of Birbhum under the banner ‘Save Democracy’. Residents from half-a-dozen villages in the area also joined them.

While addressing the gathering, Bhattacharyya urged women to pick up sticks against “police atrocities” and “attack of musclemen”. Ironically, as a lawyer, he led the Left Front government’s defence over Singur in courts.

The Birbhum Jibon, Jibika O Prakriti Bachao Mahasabha or Birbhum Association for Saving Life, Livelihood and Environment have been formed by a group of politicians and activists in support of indigenous people facing eviction due to the contentious coal mining project.

The association has been organising meetings and protests over land acquisition. On February 20, it organised a similar event at Dewanganj football ground. The night before the meeting, police denied permission to the organisers via a WhatsApp message, stating that the owner of the land objected to a protest on his property.

Nine of the protestors, including Prasenjit Bose, were arrested after the meeting, but the district court later granted them bail. “The coercive manner in which land is being acquired for the Deocha-Pachami coal mine project is flawed and illegal,” stated Bose. According to him, their protest is based on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

“The government never bothered to seek their consent for the project in a transparent, democratic manner before announcing the so-called compensation package. This has angered the locals, both Adivasis and other sections, who are apprehensive of large-scale displacement, livelihood losses and environmental damage,” he added.

“The Chief Minister had said that Deocha-Pachami would not be another Singur. But if forceful acquisition (of land) continues, it will become another Singur,” warned Bose.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) delegation visited the area last year and interacted with residents. Leaders claimed that they would not allow the project to take off as it would “affect the poor”.

In September 2019, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee personally invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to formally inaugurate the coal block. But state BJP leaders were against such recognition. Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, in a letter to the Prime Minister, raised a number of complaints against the state government. He claimed the plans are at a very early stage, and there has been no study of its likely social and environmental consequences. Raising Adivasis’ concerns over the consequences of coal mining in the area, he alleged that land sharks with political backing are already eyeing the Adivasi land.

All eyes are now on Mamata Banerjee to see how she executes the project. She has to step out of an anti-industry image projected after spearheading stirs against forcible land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. And land has always been an emotive subject in this politically volatile state.

Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.

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