A collection of 53 hamlets in Birbhum district of West Bengal has become an epicentre of the fight against what could become the world’s second-biggest coal mine, with Indigenous campaigners warning the project would likely lead to the eviction of 70,000 people, many of whom have been farming the area for generations.
“The Deocha-Pachami-Harinsingha-Dewanganj block has an estimated reserve of 2,102 million tonnes of coal,” Eco-Business reports, citing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “She has said it can bring investment worth INR 12,000 crore (US$1.63 billion) and generate around 100,000 local jobs.”
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But “to get to the coal, the state government has to confront the residents, who are refusing to accept any compensation or rehabilitation package in exchange for their land,” the publication adds. “The proposed mine will be spread across a little over 11,200 acres. Of that, over 9,100 acres belong to residents, most of them Indigenous.”
The state government “has been claiming just 784 families will be displaced,” said Indigenous rights activist Khokon Mardi, who lives in the hamlet of Sagar Bandi. “But the figures are fudged as the mining will be done in a large chunk of area that will devour water bodies, forest, agricultural land, and houses. Where we will go? They are simply trying to cajole us to rehabilitate in some other location, but what about our livelihood? They simply have no answer.”
Eco-Business says local residents are already dealing with dust pollution from mostly illegal industrial operations in the area, and older people often have respiratory problems as a result, while poor water quality is making children sick. “We are already facing severe water shortage and health issues due to the illegal stone quarries and crushers that have mushroomed across villages,” said Baromasia resident Saraswati Mardi. “During the summers, water is not available even at 600-feet depth, and we have to walk to other villages to collect water, resulting in skirmishes because of the long queues at the tap. Coal mining will aggravate our problems and make survival almost impossible.”
As well, the Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA) says the government has been warning campaigners to keep a distance—although that didn’t stop 1,000 people from gathering for a three-hour demonstration in front of a police station September 9. “We started our campaign last year by painting the exterior of houses and village walls to create awareness of the project, but the administration has been constantly threatening us to stay away or face severe consequences,” said PAPA General Secretary Swaraj Das. “They have also whitewashed the walls to stop the campaign. The government should look for renewable sources of energy rather than depending on coal for power generation.”
Banerjee acknowledged the problem with evictions late last year and resolved to begin the project in spots where there were no conflicts with existing residents, Eco-Business writes. “We have decided to start mining where there is no eviction problem,” she said. “There are some areas where we can start extracting coal. If we start work shortly, we will start to get coal within 24 months in Dewanganj and Harinsingha, where we have got clearance from the centre. In the near future, coal will ensure the next 100 years of power generation in our state.”
But it’s been two years since the national government in India and the state-owned West Bengal Power Development Corporation signed the deal that set aside land for the project, and Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party knows a previous state government lost power in part because of the attempt to acquire land by force—with Banerjee herself leading the opposition.
“Now, with polls to the West Bengal assembly scheduled next year, the Trinamool Congress has to balance angering the large number of Indigenous voters in the state with portraying itself as a pro-industry party that creates jobs,” Eco-Business says.