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Open Mind on Deocha Pachami Coal Project, Says Paschim Banga Adivasi Gaonta

“Under no circumstances will we allow a political outfit to hijack the agitation, which will be conducted only under the Gaonta’s banner,” said Soren and Hansda of PBAG.
Open Mind on Deocha Pachami

File Photo.

Paschim Banga Adivasi Gaonta, which means West Bengal Adivasi Unity, has an open mind on the proposed Deocha Pachami coal project in the Birbhum district. The coal block was allotted a few weeks back by the Centre exclusively to the state government.

“Ours is an apolitical organisation and our main job is to safeguard the interest of adivasis in the state. We cooperate with the state administration and whenever invited, we attend meetings convened by state government officials. Our representatives attended a meeting as recently as November 12 when certain important issues concerning the district were listed for discussion,” said Gaonta’s general secretary, Rabin Soren, and president Laban Hansda while speaking to NewsClick—when asked about the outfit’s position on the proposed coal project in their district.

The coal block’s command area has a population of well over 10,000, of which over 50% are adivasis and this reality casts a special responsibility on the Gaonta, added Soren. About 25% of the command area is forest land spread over Jethia and Panchami villages under the Bharkata panchayat and Diwanganj and Kenpahari villages under the Hinglo panchayat.

“Our stand is clear; we want the state government to talk to us directly on all matters concerning the cause of adivasis, who are living in anxiety and fear ever since the announcement of allotment of the coal block to West Bengal. Their anxiety and fear stem from the prospect of being uprooted from the present dwelling sites and they have no idea as to where and how they will be rehabilitated. And, of course, there is the question of compensation for land acquired as also jobs for land losers. The issue is of the survival of the adivasis,” the general secretary observed.

So far, no official has contacted the organisation. Land survey is yet to begin. The work carried out already includes only drilling of boreholes by the Geological Survey of India and a state government PSU in the mineral sector. The Gaonta is keeping a close watch over the area where adivasis live.

The organisation will think of launching an agitation only when they find that it is not being taken into confidence on adivasi-related issues and that their genuine demands are not being considered sympathetically. “But one thing is for certain, under no circumstances will we allow a political outfit to hijack the agitation, which will be conducted only under the Gaonta’s banner,” said Soren and Hansda.

Expanding on this component of their strategy, they said they would be prepared to make some exceptions. “For example, if social activist Medha Patkar came forward to help our cause, we will certainly not spurn her offer. Also, should circumstances warrant, we may accept help from Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharya, senior leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and an eminent lawyer. Bikasbabu offers help whenever his help is sought by any organisation for social causes. But the discussion will be strictly between the Gaonta and him,” they clarified.

On Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s assurance—that the government would take people into confidence and address their concerns on compensation and rehabilitation—they said, “We have taken due note of her assurances and hope she will honour those. We are waiting for government functionaries to talk to us and explain they proposed to proceed.”

The adivasi population in West Bengal is estimated to be at around 60 lakh. Bankura, Paschim Bardhaman, Purba Bardhaman, Birbhum and part of Murshidabad districts have concentration of adivasis. The Gaonta, which is decade-old, currently has a membership of over 50,000 and efforts are on to enrol more members, according to Hansda.

Educational facilities have improved in recent years, “[T]hanks also to our agitations. An important development which has made us happy is that the number of girls going to schools has steadily gone up,” said Soren.

Meanwhile, according to information available with the mining sector sources, the district town Suri is 20 km to the South of the Dewanganj-Harisingha coal block. Mollarpur railway station is the nearest railhead—at a distance of 12 km. The nearest road connectivity is Panagarh-Moregram National Highway no. 60.

Preparation of land use maps and issue of open tender inviting techno-commercial bids for undertaking exploration and resource meddling will mark commencement of preliminary activity for implementing the project. Completion of this drill will help establish technical and economic feasibility.

Assembly elections in West Bengal are due a year and five months from now. It would be a gigantic task for the state government to finalise many details for reaching the actual implementation stage. Exploratory drilling and preparation of land use maps may consume easily 8-10 months. Therefore, it will call for astute political management skills on the part of Mamata Banerjee to commence work on the venture before the state finds itself in election mode. This is the assessment of political and industry circles.

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