As the poll battle in West Bengal intensifies with the ruling Trinamool Congress hoping to retain its power by banking on the pet project of Mamata Banerjee – the Deocha Pachami coal mine – it is witnessing stiff resistance from indigenous population living in the project affected area.
The project – slated to be one of the world’s largest mines – has an estimated reserve of 2,102 million tonnes of coal. The coal block area measuring approximately 12.31 square kilometres is in Birbhum district, which was allotted to West Bengal government in December 2019, has numerous stone quarries operating over it.
While Banerjee claims that the mine will generate employment for over a lakh people, the tribal Santhal population, which falls under the particularly vulnerable group owing to their socio-economic conditions, are staring at a livelihood crisis along with the small farmers in the region.
According to the Project Affected People’s Association, an estimated 70,000 people could be evicted due to the project. Not only that, the people are likely to lose their traditional land holdings if the project were to be kicked off. As the poll battle intensifies, the anxieties of local residents are soaring, who are readying for face off with the state to conserve their resources.
Also read: Deocha Pachami Coal Project: Compensation, Rehabilitation of Land Losers Key Challenges for Mamata
Residents are reportedly resisting coal mining by refusing any compensation or rehabilitation package, according to a ground report by East Mojo. The report added that environmental activists, running a campaign against the coal mine, are being threatened by the administration to stay away from the area.
Speaking with NewsClick about the issue, Khokan Mardi (45), convenor of Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), said, “Our voice is nowhere in the agenda of the state government. Our consent was not taken (when they took away the lands) and now our lands are dying. While the mining activity in itself is yet to commence, we are witnessing excessive pollution with the existing stone mine and crusher, that has damaged the fields of smaller farmers cultivating vegetables. Most of the people here are from extremely vulnerable groups. We belong to the adivasi community, many others hail from religious minorities, which is why the government is treating our lives as dispensable.”
In 2019, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said that the work on the proposed Deocha Pachami coal block will start only after rehabilitation of the 4,000 people – just 40% of the tribal population – living in that area. However, the real numbers are much higher. Previously, following pressure and resistance, a social impact assessment survey of the Deocha-Pachami coal mine project was halted at Saluka village in Birbhum’s Mohammed Bazar as families were not being counted as affected persons.
The residents, however, are demanding a complete stalling of the project.
Also read: Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Game Changer’ Coal Mining Project to Face Resistance
The claims of the TMC-led state overnment that the Deocha-Pachami coal block alone will generate employment for at least one lakh people is also being questioned, given the reportedly poor past record of the coal mining industry in the field of job creation.
Talking about the ‘not so legal’ process of allocating coal blocks, environmental lawyer Rahul Chaudhary told NewsClick, “A pattern has emerged in most of the coal block allocations, wherein objections are sidelined. When we review the EAC (Environmental Assessment Committee) minutes, we can see that there is no sign of acknowledgment of these concerns. The voice of the local people does not find a space. The bigger questions here are – how governments are damaging areas and the environment, and then promising schools or employment at this cost, which is not acceptable to the local people.”
While the TMC has rode on the wave of anti-land acquisition movements such as the anti-Tata Nano plant to oppose the earlier Left Front government, it is crucial to see how Banerjee will now be treading in waters with the resistance from adivasi and small farmers on one hand and its ambitious promises to draw investments on the other.