The Deocha-Pachami coal mine claimed to be the world’s second-largest coal mine has estimated reserves of 2.1 billion tonnes Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Birbhum, West Bengal: Kalomani Hembram, 35, is a resident of the Baromasia village, located about 200 km from state capital Kolkata. Like several others from her village, she fears that she would lose her house and land to the proposed Deucha-Pachami coal mine at Mohammadbazar block in Birbhum district of West Bengal. “The Chief minister announced that they would start coal mining soon. We fear the project will destroy our village, as well as the adjacent villages,” she said.

It has an issue that has troubled the locals for long. With upcoming elections, one can only expect the issue to gain more importance.

On December 28, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that Deucha-Pachami coal mine would solve the state’s coal and power demand. “There will be no crisis of electricity for over 100 years after the implementation of this project. This project will create one lakh jobs”, she claimed at her last administrative review meeting in the Birbhum district.

Banerjee’s words have only made locals fear more. They worry that they will lose their land due to the project. Most tribals in the area are against the construction of a coal mine. They have refused to accept compensation or rehabilitation in exchange. But now, they fear forceful eviction and the loss of water bodies, forest, agricultural land and houses in eleven Mouzas in five Gram Panchayats in Mohammadbazar block.

The Deocha-Pachami coal mine claimed to be the world’s second-largest coal mine has estimated reserves of 2.1 billion tonnes, according to Banerjee. In September 2018, an agreement between the central government and the state government-owned West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL) signed an agreement allocated the land to the corporation. The state government has failed to start work on the ground in the last two years. According to Birbhum district administration sources, the state government is now keen to start this coal mining project before the upcoming assembly elections to showcase it as economic growth.

On July 9 last year, chief secretary Rajiv Sinha visited the area and said that the state government would start the “exploration work” at Deucha-Pachami coal mine immediately after Durga Puja in October last year. The proposed mine would occupy over 11,222 acres. Of that, over 9,100 acres belong to tribals. The state government claim they explained how the project would bring economic opportunities for locals among landowners and representatives of tribal bodies. The locals say there was no consultation between the locals and the state. They also claim that no one from the villages attended the meeting last July. “People from adjourning Jharkhand, owners of stone crushers and few members of tribal bodies attended the meeting. The police threatened us, and told us not to step out when the chief secretary and the land revenue commissioner visited Deucha,” said a local who wished to remain anonymous. He is a resident of Sagarbandi, one of the 53 hamlets in and around the proposed coal mine. He further claimed that around 70,000 people could be displaced by the mine.

In her Birbhum speech, Banerjee assured locals about land acquisition and compensation. “No land would be taken without discussion, and people would not get evicted. If such a situation arises in the future, we will look into the issue of jobs and financial assistance,” she said.

However, Rajaram Tudu (62), village chief of Dewanganj, called bluff over Banerjee’s comments. “She can’t give one lakh jobs. We have past experiences that there is no development in industrial areas in this region. If they (mining company) have jobs, they will always recruit skilled labours, not locals. How will it benefit us?” he asked.

The state power development corporation, WBPDCL, the nodal agency in charge of the coal mine, have started conducting a social impact survey on households living on about 3,500 acres of land. However, the locals have several questions: on what terms will the state government take the land? Where will the locals go after the eviction? The administration has also said that the survey does not mean building coal mines. This is the initial step. “According to Madam (Chief minister), the project will start from khas land available under government landbank. There was a problem to survey social impact assessment in tribal-dominated villages.

Initially, they objected to cooperating from a fear of losing lands, however, we convinced most of them. Now, there is no problem except in a few villages”, said Arghya Guha, block development officer of Mohammadbazar block.

Somchand Hembram (40), a resident of Harinshinga, said, “We refused to take part in the survey because we do not need any new mining industry in our village.” Villagers of nearby Harmadanga, Motrapari, Gabarbathan and Baromasia are also protesting against setting up the coal mine.

Administrative sources said the state is now trying to start excavation work from Chanda mouza instead of Harinshingha after local resistance. Apart from privately-owned land, more than 500 acres of khas land is also in the proposed mining area, of which 40 acres of government land was the mining project to start.

Khokan Mardi (45), Convenor of Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), an environmental conservation organisation campaigning against the project, said they have no idea about the project. “In early 2020, we heard this coal mine would cover two gram panchayats – Hinglo and Bharkata consisting of over forty hamlets. Deucha, Sekedda and Puratan gram panchayats were added later. Now, they (state) are planning to explore khas lands and forested area. We are confused,” Mardi explained.

Villagers said they are already experiencing environmental pollution from the dust caused by mostly illegal stone quarries and crushers. Coal mining would only increase their problem. “We already face air pollution and water shortage due to the illegal stone quarries and crushers. Apart from these, stone mining is affecting agriculture as well as public health of tribals. During the summers, water is not available in all villages. People have to go to other areas for drinking water. Older villagers are often suffering from respiratory diseases. Many people have been diagnosed with Silicosis due to working in these harmful stone crushers,” Mardi pointed out.

Hokna Murmu (35), a resident of Dewanganj, concurred with Mardi. “My family of nine depends upon a small piece of land. We have been farmers for generations and have never thought of doing any other work or shifting anywhere else. But the stone crushers ruined my farmland. We cannot grow any vegetables due to a huge amount of dust in the air. Recently we heard about a proposed coal mine in our area. It has been forcing us to spend sleepless nights as this land is our only source of income and where we will go with kids?” asked Murmu.

With upcoming state assembly elections, this project led to political battle lines between both the ruling party TMC and the opposition BJP. While TMC made a series of announcements and trying to portraying itself as a pro-industry party, the BJP has warned of protests if “proper rehabilitation and jobs” are not given.

Mansi Baskey (70), a resident of Motrapari, alleged that political leaders are making lakhs of rupees from stone mining in this area and stone quarries and crushers didn’t change the socio-economic status of tribal in this area. So, the coal mine also won’t benefit them. “We are living here for hundreds of years. We are quite happy with our lives and do not want any coal mine here,” Baskey said.

EastMojo tried to speak to Sunil Soren, Secretary of the Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta, who attended the meeting with the chief secretary, for his comments but the police arrested him a few days ago.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent journalist who writes on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced as part of INOLD NEWS Mobile Journalism Fellowship supported by Internews and Qisa Lab.)

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