Barely two months after the West Bengal government claimed to have cleared the decks to start “exploration works” at the world’s second largest coal block in Birbhum district, a mass agitation has started brewing against the project, the biggest economic venture under the Mamata Banerjee regime.
Local villagers and members of the Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA) at a webinar organised on Sunday (September 13) evening conveyed their objection to the project, cautioning there would be a mass resistance if the government tries to forcefully acquire their land for the Deocha-Pachami-Harinsingha-Dewanganj coal block.
The webinar was conducted by Sabuj Mancha, a platform of organisations and individuals supporting the cause of the environment, to work out modalities for future course of actions.
Four days ago, around one thousand people, mostly tribals, held a sit-in demonstration in front of Mohammad Bazar police station in the district for several hours to protest the government’s decision to set up the mining project that would allegedly lead to eviction of several villages and destruction of forests, integral to tribal customs and ways of life.
The block spread over 12.28 square km has estimated reserves of 2.1 billion tonnes of coal for power generation, and is expected to attract investment of ₹12,000 to 15,000 crore. According to the government’s assessments, the mining project located in Birbhum’s Mohammad Bazar has the potential to act as an engine of economic growth for the entire south Bengal and provide jobs to at least 1.5 lakh people.
The locals are, however, not willing to buy the government’s version and are gearing up for a mass movement to “protect our land” under the aegis of PAPA and the Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta, a platform of the tribal people.
They have reasons to be sceptical.
Birbhum, being part of the Chotonagpur plateau, has a long history of mining, tracing back to over two centuries. Iron ore processing and coal mining in the area started in 1778. After independence, China Clay mining and basalt (fine-grained volcanic rock) quarrying gained momentum in several blocks of the district.
These mining activities, instead of bringing in any significant economic prosperity for the locals, destroyed the ecology of the area and left several water bodies dry and polluted.
Villagers said the quarries are the major source of air, noise and water pollution, causing ailments like lungs infection and diarrhoea, and also impacted farming. There are about 1,000 stone crushing units and 500 stone quarries or mines in the area. Many of these are running blatantly flouting all environment norms.
“For mining activities our ancestral land is taken and in return we get nothing. These activities have been ruining our life. Look around our villages and you will find how proliferation of stone quarries and stone-crushing industries are impacting our health, livelihood and even peace of mind,” said Khokon Mardi, a local.
He further stated that the tribals often had bitter experience with the government’s rehabilitation plan for the project-affected people. “Many of those who were displaced from their land for various mining projects now break stones here working as a daily wage earner. We don’t want that fate for our children,” said Mardi, who is also a member of the PAPA.
In the tribal areas, many people do not have proper land pattas and so if they are uprooted, no compensation will be paid to them, many villagers further apprehend.
“We will not allow the project in the tribal land. In the past, tribal people lost their land, livelihood and even their identity for such so-called development projects. Local people here did not get any benefit from the existing stone mines. There is no development in the area… there is only pollution,” said Sunil Soren, secretary of the Birbhum Adibasi Gaota.
He said at least 15,000-16,000 people from around 30 villages would be displaced only for the setting up of the core project. More people and villages would be affected for the ancillary activities like laying of rail lines, construction of rail sheds etc, he added.
The government however, claimed only 784 families would require resettlement for the project, a claim strongly refuted by the local residents and tribal bodies.
In July, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, after a meeting with the locals, representatives of the tribal community and Birbhum district officials, said the exploration work would start after Durga Puja and it would take around one-and-a-half years to start the mining.
“We will create a model for India to execute large projects like Deocha Pachami Coal Block. This shall be done in phases & with full public support by adopting best mining practices in a time bound manner,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted, claiming the entire mining project was explained at length and all concerns of the relevant stakeholders were addressed.
The Adibasi Gaota and the Project Affected People’s Association, however, said the chief secretary did not meet the genuine stakeholders.
“Local Trinamool Congress leaders produced some people to discuss the issue of rehabilitation with the chief secretary. Original stakeholders don’t want setting up a coal mine. Why do we need coal mines when the entire world is switching towards cleaner energy,” said Khokhon Mardi of PAPA.
The centre last year entered into an allotment agreement with West Bengal Power Development Corporation (WBPDCL) for the coal block.
With crucial assembly elections due in less than a year, the ruling TMC which came to power riding waves of anti-land acquisition movements find itself in a fix over this simmering agitation.
The BJP, however, is not in the position to take advantage of the people’s sentiment against the project allotted to the state by the central government.
“Our agitation should be against both the governments at the state and the Centre because we are against coal mining in tribal areas,” said Soren.