Villagers in Jharkhand, India Protest New Coal Venture, Refuse Land Acquisition Surveys

Agricultural land in Gondalpura. Photo: Sushmita
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Gondalpura, Jharkhand, India

Villagers in Jharkhand, India Protest New Coal Venture, Refuse Land Acquisition Surveys

The people of Gondalpura, Jharkhand, brought in the new year the same way that they had seen out the earlier year: with protests against a proposed mining project by Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL), the flagship entity of the multi-billion-dollar Indian conglomerate.

The villagers stand to lose prime agricultural land and about 4,029 people – a conservative estimate based on the 2011 census – are likely to be displaced if the project is implemented. Probable pollution from the mine will also lose them the river they depend upon for bathing, agriculture and watering their animals. And just as bad, it appears to the people of Gondalpura that the government, having promised the coal industry at the time of the coal auction that it would expedite the clearances required to make mines operational, may be about to dilute certain environmental rules that had previously held back other mining companies from starting operations in the block.

Promised land

Located at the edge of the Damodar and Brahmadiha rivers, Gondalpura is a village in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. The Badmahi, a tributary of the Damodar river, separates the area into three geographical regions, with different mining giants at work in some of these areas. This entire region is part of the Damodar Valley and the North Karanpura coalfields – a region outlined by colonial British geologists as long ago as 1869-70 for its mineral resources. A kutcha road, roughly three kilometres long, connects the block to Badam village, which in turn is connected by a fair weather road to Barkagaon village on the Tandwa-Hazaribagh metalled road.

The Adani group had won the Gondalpura coal block in November 2020 during the commercial coal auctions by making a final revenue-sharing offer of 20.75%. With geological reserves of 176 million tonnes of coal, the block proposes to take up 513.18 hectares of land, of which 219.65 hectares is forest land. The estimated cost of the project is Rs 99,800 lakhs.

With the government’s assurance of fast clearances, AEL’s activities around the proposed mining areas were expedited even through the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometime in the third week of August 2021, an Adani vehicle drove through the area, its passengers taking pictures of the fields as it went along, while the forest department marked and counted trees. More recently, according to the residents of Gondalpura, more Adani staff have been seen in the area than ever before.

“There has been a lot of activity. Company people [from AEL] have been coming every day for something or the other. One day, they came for the demarcation [of the coal block],” said 70-year-old Parmeswar Mahto, a resident of the village.

Parmeswar Mahto, a resident of Gondalpura active in social movements since the 1970s. Photo: Sushmita
Parmeswar Mahto, a resident of Gondalpura active in social movements since the 1970s / Credit: Sushmita.

Since the first visit of AEL officials to the area, several meetings have taken place amongst the people of the impacted villages – Gondalpura, Phulang, Gali, Hahe and Balodar – to try and end this activity. In a meeting on September 9, 2021, the Gram Sabha at Gondalpura vowed that no Adani officials would be allowed in the area. Then, when Aditya Kumar Anand, the district collector (DC) of Hazaribagh, issued a notification later that month for the consultancy services of NABARD (the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) to conduct a social impact assessment of the land, the villagers wrote to the DC, stating their objections to the proposed project and opposing their likely displacement and the destruction of the forests.

When there was no response from the DC to their letter, the villagers gathered together again on November 7, 2021, this time in Gali and along with residents of several nearby villages which have been impacted by other projects. At this meeting, they resolved not to allow surveys for the purpose of land acquisition. Ever since then, they have involved themselves in protests every day.

The distance of the coal block from Hazaribagh town is about 35 km. As the road to Gondalpura gets bumpier, tracts and patches of land where mining is going on, ostensibly by other companies, can be seen. But these mines, according to locals, are possibly illegal extensions by private players and contractors of existing mines operated by JSW Steel Limited, which was allocated the Moitra coal block in 2015, and the National Thermal Power Corporation, which received the Badam coal block in 2019. Because these extensions are possibly illegal, taking out a camera to record photographs of the agricultural land abutting these extensions could be dangerous, the locals say.

Ahead of Badam, there is a seemingly endless horizon with huge tracts of cultivated land, a stunning display of chrome and ochre yellows and sap greens. Crops such as sugarcane, mustard and wheat glisten in the winter sunlight and dance in the crisp winter breeze. This is Gondalpura, with the Badmahi river to its north. The proposed mining area of Gondalpur block will take over this land, where people currently work in their fields.

A sugarcane field. Photo: Sushmita
A sugarcane field / Credit: Sushmita.

The agricultural area is surrounded by forests. These forests are fragmented due to various mining projects already in progress, but they are still home to wild elephants and boars. Should AEL’s mining project come to fruition in Gondalpura, none of this will exist ever again.

The first fight

This is not the first time that the people of Gondalpura have fought a mining operation. In 2006, the block was allocated to TVNL (Tenughat Vidyut Nigam Limited), an unlisted private company incorporated on November 26, 1987. TVNL, which was classified as a state government company and is located in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, was to be the principal developer and Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) its associate.

Mahto, a leader from the village who has been active in social movements since the 1970s, remembers the villagers’ interactions with the then district collector, Manish Ranjan, about the coal block.

“As mining seemed imminent around these villages, the DC, Manish Ranjan, invited community leaders and senior persons to his office to tell us about them,” said Mahto. “I carried a piece of coal in one hand and some jaggery in another. I held both hands out to him and asked, which would you prefer to eat – the coal or the jaggery?”

Mahto had then said to the DC, ‘Sir, you talk about displacement. You’re appointed here, in Hazaribagh. If you get transferred elsewhere, would you go and see the quarter (apartments allotted to government employees), or would you simply start packing up your belongings and leave?’ This metaphor, according to Mahto, was meant to convey a question: Were there any alternatives available to the villagers before they were displaced due to the mine?

“When Ranjan took a tour of Gondalpura, he acknowledged that this place was a bowl of grain, a bowl of rice,” said Mahto. “The jaggery produced here from the sugarcane is famous. Mining will ruin these fields.”

In 2012, a jan sunwai (public hearing) was held in the Hazaribagh town hall, 40 kms from the village, to discuss the implications of the project on the environment and the people. The fact that this was in contravention of the norms of conducting public hearings according to paragraph 7 of the Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006, which states that public hearings must be held “at, or in close proximity to, the site(s)”, made it clear to the people of Gondalpura that the exercise was less about listening to the villagers than inconveniencing them.

But the villagers did not hold back either, recalled Shrikant Nirala, a ward member and former mukhiya (village headman). “Once, during such a hearing, we occupied the chairs on which the officials were to sit once they arrived. Since the land was ours, so the chairs should have been too,” he explained.

The press was also not as objective as it might have been, Nirala said. While the media did report that the venue was so filled with police personnel that it resembled a police cantonment, it also reported that the jan sunwai had been successful.

“We wrote to the National Human Rights Commission and attached newspaper cuttings, asking how the hearing could have been successful when the police personnel and security forces present resorted to violence,” said Nirala.

Meeting of villagers in Gondalpura. Photo: Sushmita
Meeting of villagers in Gondalpura / Credit: Sushmita.

Given the protests, work on the mining project was frequently stalled. However, TVNL entered into a joint venture with EMTA – a private mine developer which had seen a meteoric rise in the period around 2012 by entering into joint ventures with the state governments of Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh – to develop the block. JVs, as they were called, were ventures where a private player would be hired by the principal developer (the government) to ensure allocations, forest clearances and so on. Many times these companies entered into agreements which clearly stated that their role was to seek in-principle approval of the project.

After the Supreme Court’s intervention in 2015, when several startling aspects of the coal scam came into light, the role of such private players was also investigated.

In 2010, the coal controller organisation apprised the coal ministry of the status of the Gondalpura coal block, saying, “Company is not serious to develop the block and is required to expedite the process of all clearances like forest, environment in order to maintain commitment for starting of production from Gondulpara (sic) block.”

On 24 and 25 October, 2013, a meeting of an inter-ministerial group was held at the coal ministry to undertake a periodic review of the development of coal blocks. In this meeting, the delay in setting up the Gondalpura mine was blamed on a delay in the authorisation of the Tenughat EMTA Coal Mines Ltd. The lack of development of the block was also blamed on the fact that it had been named in the environment ministry’s ‘No-Go’ list.

Go and No-Go

In 2010, while identifying no-go areas in the country, the environment ministry, then led by Jairam Ramesh, had started identifying green cover in nine coalfields, namely Singrauli, Ib Valley, Mand Raigarh, Sohagpur, Talcher, Wardha Valley, Hasdeo-Arand, North Karanpura and West Bokaro. The Gondalpura coal block, which is part of the North Karanpura mining block, also then fell into the no-go zone.

The policy measure defined Category A (No-Go) blocks as those having either more than 10% weighted forest cover or more than 30% gross forest cover. Category B (Go) areas didn’t meet either of these conditions.

In a reply to a note moved by the coal ministry to the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure, Ramesh argued that the diversion of forest land for coal mining in Category A areas, which are rich in flora and fauna, will have “avoidable serious adverse impact on forests and wildlife”. If mining were to continue, the ministry had said, even with afforestation and reclamation it would not be possible to restore the region’s biodiversity. The ministry had also pointed out that it was following the procedure set out by the Supreme Court and provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, in the diversion of forest land in protected areas. It argued that any deviation from these procedures could invite adverse action from the apex court.

In 2011, TVNL and DVC wrote a letter to the coal ministry asking the government to reconsider its decision of the de-allocation of the Gondalpura coal block based on this No-Go list. The government then “gave back” the block to TVNL in 2012 on the condition that it had to be developed within two years or returned to the coal ministry.

The No-Go list could never be finalised due to a pending survey. The study was not approved as a rule in 2012 on the pretext that classification on more scientific and objective parameters to identify inviolate forest areas would need to be done. The classification on the six parameters which were suggested in 2012 is still pending. The government had asked the Forest Survey of India to suggest inviolate forest areas among coal blocks and the first list was submitted in August 2014. But the Ministry of Coal had continuously sought more and more coal blocks from the inviolate list.

The Badmahi question

The mining approval plan letter dated June 24, 2009, issued to the Tenughat Emta Coal Mines Ltd, mentioned the possibility of diverting the Badmahi river “to avoid sterilisation of about 21 mt (million tonnes) of coal”.

Consequently, in various expert appraisal committee (EAC) meetings, several aspects of the long term impacts of the mining project on the environment and people were discussed. (EACs are expert committees appointed by the environment ministry.)

At one point it was also suggested that underground mining should be considered, instead of opencast mining. The minutes of an EAC meeting held in January 2013 noted that “the option of underground mining over opencast mining should be explored as the depth of Seam no.-I is 246mt; iv. A social cost-benefit analysis vis-à-vis choice of mining methods should be examined.”

The minutes also highlighted specific concerns about the location of the Badmahi river and the proposed mining that would take place at a distance of 50 feet from the river on its southern side.

According to the minutes of this meeting: “The mining would be preceded in downward direction leaving the river at the south. Mining would be 100 mt away from river. In Phase – I river should not be disturbed (sic) but a barrier would be provided between river and Phase II mine pit.”

Coal deposits. Photo: Sushmita
Coal deposits / Credit: Sushmita.

The meeting had also recommended that the river not be diverted and asked for “embankments of thick green belts to be provided for the complete stretch of southern bank.” The discussion also concluded that a “Percolation study should be carried out and force of water should be calculated; and green belt should be provided between villages and mines as barrier in phase-I.”

The discussion at this meeting had also concluded that, “No external OB (overburden) dump should be kept within 100 mt distance of Badmahi River.”

The minutes also added that the issues raised in the 2012 public hearings had not been addressed properly. “The issues of PH (public hearings) should be in tabular form i.e. name of complainant along with issues raised, issues addressed by proponent, and amount to be spent on these activities under CSR (sic),” said the minutes.

Although successive governments have divided the North Karanpura region into blocks for mining purposes, local communities perceive the land in its totality, their markers being the fields, the forests, villages and the river. They are the only people, it seems, to be concerned about the adverse impact of the project on the environment. This seems obvious given the fact that despite previous protests and concerns raised in the government’s own EAC meetings, failures to operationalise mines earlier and significant costs to the environment pointed out, the block was auctioned to AEL in 2020.

“The mining activities will only start after receiving forest and environmental clearances,” said Amit Kumar, the director of mines, Jharkhand. “The conditions mentioned in the EC (environment clearance) document will have to be complied with by the local administration and the user agency.”

It will only be in this context that mining will be allowed, Kumar said. “So [for] the mine you are talking about and [the] people’s concerns, there is an entire process. Before receiving the environmental clearance, the public hearing will have to be conducted by the local administration, namely under the guidance of the DC and taking the Gram Sabha into confidence,” he added.

EAC meetings play an important role here, giving recommendations to the environment ministry on project proposals after considering the potential impacts of the project.

The most recent EAC meeting that discussed the Gondalpura mining project did not mention the Badmahi river at all. This meeting was held in July 2021.

“It appears to be a case of a total sell-out to vested interests and the abdication of the EAC’s roles and responsibilities,” said Manoj Misra, an ex-forester who has studied rivers and the environment. “How can the relevant and extremely important observations regarding the safety of the Badmahi river made by a previous EAC be totally ignored by a later EAC?”

Kanchi Kohli, a senior researcher with the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, says that the documentation of the EAC meetings is an attempt to file paperwork that adheres to the legal standard of “detailed scrutiny”. “However, this has no bearing on the quality of the material before the committee or the quality of the review of impact assessments, baselines and other studies,” Kohli explained.

Residents of Gondalpura. Photo: Sushmita
Residents of Gondalpura / Credit: Sushmita.

Minutes of meetings are relatively more detailed or provide a chronology of how the committee went about taking a decision, but all this works towards approving a project with a large list of conditions.

“Some of the substantive conditions are a way to cover the subject matter of assessments and public participation which could not be resolved at the time of appraisal. As cases related to coal mining, both greenfield and those with legacy impacts, are complex, the EAC process settles serious questions, infirmities and conflicts into a set of post approval formalities,” Kohli added.

Documents submitted for forest and environmental clearance by AEL (available on government websites) show that there will be a significant environmental cost if the project is implemented. Regarding the facilities for the treatment or disposal of solid waste or liquid effluents, the EAC document shows that the company will create a total internal dump quantity (within pit) of 229.27 million m3 (cubic metres) at the final stage of mining. At the end of operations, the total external dump is expected to be 50.20 million m3. This will create a land requirement of 103.26 hectares beyond the land to be acquired for the purpose of mining itself.

Sreedhar Ramamurthi of the Environics Trust, a research organisation conducting socio-anthropological research on issues of ethical management of environmental resources, says that these figures (of the total waste generated) are dubious. “The actual overburden is likely to be much higher in quantity,” he said.

The EAC has returned the request for terms of references (ToR) on the basis of a Supreme Court order in the matter of Goa Foundation vs Union of India & Others, 2012, that said, “A holder of mining lease does not have any right to dump any reject, tailings (finely ground residue from ore extraction) or waste in any area outside the leased area of the mining lease on the strength of mining lease granted under the MMDR (Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation)) Act and the Rules made thereunder … In other words, dumping of any waste materials, tailing and rejects outside the leased area would be without a valid authorisation under the lease deed.”

Though the proposal was returned on the lines of overburden disposal, several other observations from previous EACs don’t find any mention in the discussions on defining the ToR. Misra, also the convenor of Yamunajiye, a campaign to save the river Yamuna, said, “It is a classic case betraying the dangerous trend of dilution over the years of environmental governance in the country.”

Ramamurthi, formerly with the Geological Survey of India and Department of Atomic Energy, said that the Gondalpura project shouldn’t be seen in isolation. Instead, a cumulative impact of the projects in the coal block should be evaluated.

“More importantly the company shouldn’t have been allowed to bid as it fails even a simple ‘fit and proper person’ test. It has a history of illegality,” he said.

For mining to be carried out, approvals issued to older project proponents have been used – for instance, the mining approval letter issued to the Tenughat Emta joint venture has been attached as part of the environment clearance requested by AEL.

But the concerns related to the environment and the people as raised by the government’s own expert committees have been revived as well. Some of these concerns have disappeared from subsequent official documents without a proper redressal.

Sonal Tiwary, a lawyer with the Jharkhand high court who works on environmental jurisprudence, said, “In the case relating to the challenge of the [commercial coal] auction by the Jharkhand government in the Supreme Court, the court declared this auction to be provisional.”

Tiwary added, “It is shocking to know that the concerns [raised by previous EACs] of the pollution and depletion of the river and nearby flora and fauna have been undermined. The bigger issue is whether the affected villagers and Gram Sabhas have been consulted while filing applications for environmental and forest clearance. Since a huge amount of forest land has been diverted, have the provisions of the Forest Rights Act and Biological Diversity Act been implemented?”

Standing their ground

When I called the DC for his comments on the situation in Gondalpura, he disconnected the call. This happened twice. Messages via WhatsApp, text and email have received no response. Next, I phoned Kamal John Lakra, the divisional commissioner, who said that he didn’t know of the villagers’ and environmentalists’ concerns and asked me the name of the mine that had been allocated to Adani.

Since December 2021, the people of Gondalpura have been coming out on the streets against the project. They are not willing to negotiate, they say. In a letter dated December 30 to the anchal adhikari (circle officer) of Badkagaon, the villagers asked him to cancel a meeting scheduled for December 31 at the Badkagaon Circle Office between the district administration and Adani officials. There was no response to this letter.

When I phoned Prabhat Bhushan Singh, the circle officer concerned, on January 7, 2022, to ask him about the letter from the people of Gondalpura, he said he had not seen such a letter as he had been on leave for a few days.

The people of the area will not give up their land without a fight, however.

“[We are speaking out] so that the atmosphere of the village doesn’t get impacted by the mining activities at any cost,” said Nirala. “Our water sources – the origin of the river Damodar, the Badmahi – will be completely destroyed. Once that happens, the water levels will go down and apart from a water crisis, there will be the problem of pollution. So we don’t want Adani to come here. We don’t want the waters of the Badmahi to turn black.”

A note on the spelling of Gondalpura: While recent documents show the name of the area as Gondulpara, the actual name as mentioned and pronounced by locals and other sources is Gondalpura. In this piece, the writer has only used the ‘Gondulpara’ spelling when official documents have been mentioned.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in The Wire on 7 February 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Agricultural land in Gondalpura / Credit: Sushmita.

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