The Deocha Pachami Harinsingha Dewanganj Coal Mine Project, in Birbhum, West Bengal is the second largest coal mining block in the world. While the TMC government is maintaining that the mining project will generate nearly one lakh jobs, the landowners and environmental activists are not so sure.
Nikita D | TwoCircles.net
WEST BENGAL – As the demand for coal is apparently on the rise in India, a recently acquired coal block by the West Bengal government in 2019 is officially in the process of opening up. The Deocha Pachami Harinsingha Dewanganj is a coal block in the Birbhum district of the western Indian state, and is the second-largest coal block in the world, with a capacity of 2.2 billion metric tonnes.
However, the re-elected Trinamool Congress (TMC) government is cautious of the political pitfalls of not duly addressing the people on whose land the mines will be dug. The current government is well aware of the exemplary Singur land mishap of the CPI (M) government that led to the closure of the Tata Nano factory even after a major part of the project was complete. “We will not do anything like what had happened in Singur [forcible land acquisition for car project]. We will start the project with government-owned land. We are a pro-people government. We don’t believe in doing things by force,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in the state assembly.
To live up to this, on November 9, Banerjee announced a compensation package of Rs 10,000 crores for those who will get affected by the Deocha Pachami coal block.
“One member of every family who will have to give up either their home or land will be provided jobs in the police force as junior constable. The government has zeroed in on a compensation package of Rs 10,000 crore for those who would get affected due to the project,” she said.
The project is further promised to provide one lakh jobs to those living nearby and proper resettlement to the farm labourers affected by the project.
Other highlights of the compensation package include new houses covering an area of 600 square feet to the affected families at a new location, a monthly maintenance allowance of 10,000 rupees for a year to the workers in the stone crushing unit, and an attractive Rs 50,000 one-time grant to 160 farm workers under the provisions of MNREGA.
In an attempt to win greater consensus on the mega project, the TMC government set up a committee of civil servants, intellectuals and personalities to act as facilitators in the land acquisition process.
Banerjee added that the state government is investing Rs 35,000 crores in the project that spans across 3.04 lakh acres out of which one lakh acres make for government land. She has assured that the interest of the stakeholders is also looked after.
In 2019, it was reported that Poland, a leading investor in the mining sector, met with The West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL), and showed keenness in offering sustainable and environment-friendly technology for the Deocha Pachami mining project. Known as the ‘West Bengal Project’, the Polish plan includes top Polish mining companies, state organizations and ministries who are all looking forward to bringing the untapped coal block to fruition.
While all eyes are on this black treasure waiting to be unearthed, the people of the Birbhum district have resisted these moves. It is estimated that the area of the project will include 30 villages, each having around 89-90 Adivasi families. The Birbhum district has roughly 7% Adivasi population, with Santals making up to 90% of it.
While the government claims that there is peace on the side of the people, earlier reports have suggested that residents do not wish to give up their land at any cost. Last year in September 2020, a protest demonstration of over 1000 people took place at Mohammad Bazar police station led by Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta (BAG), an organization that was spearheading the people’s movement against coal mines in the region.
The reason for their apprehension is the already existing difficulties due to the alleged illegal stone crushers and mines in the area. While Banerjee had tweeted that the grievances of the stakeholders are being alleviated, Sunil Soren, the Convenor of BAG said that the original stakeholders were not allowed to participate in the meeting.
Similarly, an Adivasi led protest had taken place in June 2019 to stop the construction of an open cast mine.
Talking about the new compensation package, Rabin Soren of Paschim Banga Adibasi Gaonta told TwoCircles.net, “We have only heard information from the media. The government officials have not discussed anything with us. We are not against anything but we want the people to have proper securities.”
“The details of the package are not known yet. When we get to know those, then we can talk to the people and come to a conclusion about it,” he said.
Kamal Khan of Birbhum Stone Mines and Crushers Bachao Samiti was of a similar opinion. “For now stone crushers are operational in the region. But if they want to shut it down and start coal mines instead, they will have to properly talk about our jobs and livelihood. Till now they have only talked about land, but they also need to talk about the daily workers,” Khan told TwoCircles.net.
Apart from the locals, public intellectuals have also seriously questioned the practicality of the seemingly pro-people Rs 10,000 crore package.
Indraneel Dasgupta, Professor of Economics at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, wrote a post on Facebook, questioning the calculations done by the TMC government. He raised serious doubts over the truthfulness of allotting 10,000 crores to 3,000 families, which will amount to 3.3 crores per family.
He further wrote, “My hunch is that the whole thing will pan out as a mega financial scam and a gigantic environmental disaster. It will make crorepatis many times over out of TMC apparatchiks at the taxpayers’ expense and blow the bottom out of Bengal’s already sinking finances. The coal mafia will make billions, the state as a whole will keep paying an astronomical financial and environmental price for many decades to come.”
Others have expressed concern over the environmental cost of a mega coal project, as coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel, while the world is pledging to move towards greener energy. Environment activists have pointed out that the cost of producing coal has become nearly the same as investing in renewable sources of energy. Others have noted the possibility of harnessing wind energy from the Bay of Bengal. Despite the big talks in favour of climate action, the TMC government is being criticized for lack of foresight and leadership in sustainable practices.
Nikita D is an intern with TwoCircles.net.