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Tribals in Odisha's Sundargarh forcibly shut down coal mines

Sundargarh Coal Mines: Tribals forcibly closed at least two coal mines, claiming that outstanding issues related to land compensation

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
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On January 19, 2021, around 5000 people from 45 villages from nine panchayats (village local bodies) in Sundargarh's Hemgir block came out to protest against pollution from coal transport.

According to the report of News Click, the Adivasi-dominated local district of West Odisha has forcibly closed at least two coal mines, claiming that outstanding issues related to land compensation and rehabilitation have not been resolved.

The Jamkhani coal block belongs to the London-based Vedanta group of billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal, while Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of utility Coal India Limited, owns the Siarmal block.

After shutting down Vedanta's Jamkani coal mine on December 22 and Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL)'s Siarmal opencast project on January 3 with violent protests, angry villagers disrupted coal transportation. They also demanded that mining by Vedanta be stopped in a coal block assigned to the company.

Rajendra Naik, a local leader of Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad, a group local created to protest against the Siarmal project said that "Issues related to monetary compensation for the land acquired and the resettlement and rehabilitation of families displaced by the project, including the employment of eligible individuals, have not been resolved by MCL for decades in total".

He further added "the company was trying to start operations despite a clear order from the Supreme Court of India that our rights be settled within a fixed time limit. If we allow mining operations to begin right now, we will have to run forever to liquidate our rights."

Odisha's Sundargarh district has almost half of its area covered by forests, is inhabited by many tribes, and has large reserves of coal, iron ore, and other minerals.

Local demand

More than 800 hectares of land in the villages of Jamkani, Mendra, Girisuan, and Jharpalam in the Hemgir block of Sundargarh district was initially purchased for the Jamkani coal block between 2006 and 2011 for Bhushan Power and Steel Ltd through the Corporation of Odisha state-owned Industrial Infrastructure Development under the Land Acquisition Act 1894.

The villagers have been demanding a settlement under the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act 2013. But the district administration declared that this will not be possible as the displaced people had already been compensated for their land after the takeover by Bhushan Steel and Power Ltd (BSPL) in 2006.

But the mining block was deallocated following a Supreme Court order in 2014. Since the displaced people had been poorly compensated and their claims have so far remained unresolved.

The Vedanta Group was then awarded the Jamkhani property, which has 114m tonnes of mineral reserves, in November 2019, almost six years after its concession was revoked by the Supreme Court.

Local communities have alleged that they have not only lost agricultural income after the acquisition of their land, but also have been unable to find an alternative source of employment because mining activities have failed to get off the ground for more than 12 years. Up to 847 hectares of land were taken from the four villages for this project.

A three-judge panel of the Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice of India Uday Umesh Lalit last year ordered that compensation for land acquired by the MCL will be determined in accordance with the provisions of the LARR Act, 2013.

How this project will affect locals

People living in the Hemgir block of Sundargarh district have been affected by the Kulda OCP and have been struggling with displacement and air, water, and soil pollution issues for more than 15 years.

Under the 1994 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, an Environmental Authorization (EC) for open pit operations for a capacity of 10 MTY was issued on December 24, 2002.

Due to the disregard for safeguard measures, there has been a great loss of lives and livelihoods, which are directly related to the use of land, water, and forests.

Studies in the past have pointed to the impact of a nearby mine on the lives and livelihoods of people in the area.

Public hearings

According to the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notice, public hearings are an integral part of the process of obtaining environmental clearance, before a mining company begins operations.

At public hearings, locals get a chance to discuss their concerns, which the company is supposed to address before a panel of experts decides on the evaluation of the project.

However, EAC granted the authorization for only one year, taking into account the levels of contamination. This was later extended for another year in March 2019. Then, when the project was revised again in December 2019, the CE was extended for 30 years.

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