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Tribal Rights Compromised for Vedanta’s Coal Mining Project in Odisha?

Ayaskant Das |
Opposition party MLAs rocked the Odisha Assembly on July 28 against apparent violation of tribal rights in Vedanta’s Jamkhani coal mining project.
Coal Mines in Deucha-Panchami

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Less than 400 km away from the ancestral village of newly elected President Draupadi Murmu, the first person from a Scheduled Tribe (ST) community to occupy the highest office of the country, billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Group has been allowed to go ahead with a coal mining project allegedly without first settling the rights of local tribal communities.

The area where the mining project is located, Sundargarh in western Odisha, is also the Parliamentary seat of India’s former tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram, a senior leader of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre.

Last week, several MLAs belonging to various opposition political parties staged protests inside the Odisha Assembly, alleging a compromise of tribal rights for the mining project. In a memorandum that they submitted to Odisha governor Ganeshi Lal and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the disgruntled MLAs alleged that not only were local communities in Sundargarh shortchanged of their land rights for the mining project but also that, more than 12 years after their land was acquired, several families are still awaiting rehabilitation and employment.

Earlier this year, the Modi government had given the go-ahead to the London-headquartered Vedanta Group to extract 2.6 million tons per annum (MTPA) of minerals from the Jamkhani coal block, which is located in Hemgir administrative block of Sundargarh. Jamkhani, which has 114 million tons of mineral reserves, was awarded to Vedanta Group in February 2020, nearly six years after the Supreme Court cancelled its allocation. It was amongst the 214 coal blocks deallocated vide the apex court’s September 2014 judgement. Before the de-allocation, the coal block was owned by another corporate behemoth, Bhushan Power & Steel Limited (BSPL).

Local communities of the four project-affected villages – Jamkhani, Mendra, Girisma, Jharpalam –have alleged that not only have they lost agricultural income following the acquisition of their lands, but they have also failed to find an alternate source of employment because mining activities have failed to take off for over 12 years.

“My family lost more than 1.2 hectares of our ancestral farmland for the project. We were paid a measly sum of Rs 9 lakh for the land when it was taken over in 2009. There has been no agriculture on our lands thereafter. But there were no jobs either as had been promised,” Puttu Singh Kawar (46) of Jamkhani told the NewsClick.

The project proponent had promised employment for 667 persons in lieu of the loss of livelihoods from land takeover for the project. When questioned, Kawar said he was ignorant under which law his land was taken over for the project but added that it never resulted in the improvement of the living conditions of his family members. As much as 847 hectares of land were taken over from the four villages for this project. This included 552.32 hectares of private land.

"My 19-year-old son is unemployed after dropping out of school. He flunked the Class 10 board exams, and we are not financially sound enough to allow him to continue with his studies any longer. Neither does he have any land for farming, nor is there a mining project that could possibly give him a job,” added Kawar.

Owing to the preponderance of the tribal population in Sundargarh, the district is classified under Schedule V of the Constitution of India and there exist special laws for its administration and governance. Five out of the seven legislative assembly seats in Sundargarh are reserved for those belonging to Scheduled Tribe communities; yet another seat of Sundargarh is reserved for members of Scheduled Caste communities. The MLAs who protested in the assembly on July 28 are representatives of the five assembly seats that are reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

The provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996(or PESA Act), which guarantees mandatory consent of Gram Sabhas (councils of all adult members of a village) in any decision-making process, are also applicable to this district.

“Land had been acquired from local communities using the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 after the coal block was first allocated to a private company in 2006. However, mining activities never commenced even after five years of acquisition. The land should have legally been returned to its original owners since it was never put to the use for which it was acquired within five years,” Raazen Ekka, Congress MLA from Rajgangpur assembly constituency of Sundargarh, told the NewsClick.

“After returning land to the original owners, it should have been acquired afresh using the LARR Act, 2013, which would have ensured better compensation. Gram Sabhas had consented to the mining project but only to the earlier proponent. The government ought to have conducted Gram Sabhas afresh to obtain the consent of local communities when the coal block was awarded to a new entity. The government's priorities in the allocation of coal blocks have changed. Priorities of local communities who would be affected by the proposed project have also undergone changes over the years,” added Ekka, who was amongst the protesting MLAs.

It has further been alleged that individual and community rights over forests in the region were not settled following the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – known popularly as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 – before the takeover of land for the coal mining project. Odisha, under Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal government,has been held as one of the better-managed states as far as transparency in settlement of forest rights claims is concerned. Surprisingly, data on the settlement of forest rights in Sundargarh district is missing from the website of the Odisha government's Department of ST and SC Development. The website, however, contains forest rights settlement data of the remaining 29 districts of Odisha.

As many as 39 families were identified in the four villages in the category of those who would lose their land for the project. Further, 429 families were identified in the category in which families would lose their homes too along with their land. A Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) package worth Rs 163 crore was worked out for 660 project-affected families following the rules of the Odisha State government. This included an R&R colony in Garjanjore village where project-displaced families, many of them belonging to tribal communities, were to be resettled. The earlier project proponent, BSPL, had purchased over 46 hectares of private land for building this colony.

However, as per officials, families belonging to Mendra village alone have been relocated to the colony, while most families of the remaining three villages are awaiting resettlement.

“Local communities who have been awaiting resettlement for the past several years have faced untold misery. They are without jobs and without any source of agricultural income. Most are living on government doles of subsidised food grains. Who will compensate for the years they have lost waiting for jobs and resettlement?” asked Rajendra Naik, an activist based in Hemgir.

It has been further alleged that the commencement of mining operations will result in largescale adverse impacts on the ecology and environment of the region because it will entail the clearing of forests on which local communities have been dependent for several generations. The project involves the diversion of 59.97 hectares of forest land. Permission to clear this forest land had been provided to BSPL, which was later transferred to Vedanta in December 2021.

In addition, another larger parcel of forest land – a Reserve Forest measuring 152.55 hectares – falls within the mining lease area for which Vedanta has no clearance yet. (Vedanta has proposed to undertake underground coal mining in the Reserved Forest, in future, as against open cast mining in the rest of the lease area).

Opposition party MLAs of Odisha have questioned the manner in which Environmental Clearance (EC) for the coal mining project, which had originally been granted to BSPL, was amended and transferred to Vedanta. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) transferred the amended EC to Vedanta following a recommendation that was issued on March 3 by its Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).

As per the minutes of the EAC meeting held on March 3:

“ … while considering transfer of Environmental Clearance, MOEF&CC observed that a Reserve Forest consisting of an area of around 152.55 Ha lies within mine area on which Forest Clearance of stage I has not been obtained. Therefore, in light of Supreme court Order, M/s Vedanta vide Ministry letter no F. No. J-11015/322/2007- IA.II(M) dated 23.12.2021 was communicated to either obtain Forest clearance for full forest land of 212.52 Ha or revise the Mine Lease area with map excluding the area for which FC stage I is not granted.”

Does this imply that there was an attempt on the part of the project proponent to conceal the presence of a Reserved Forest within the mining lease area? A questionnaire was emailed to the Vedanta Group asking, amongst other queries, whether there was a failure to reveal the aforementioned fact to the EAC.

“The government of India and government of Odisha have transferred various clearances accorded to the earlier allottee to Vedanta as per the conditions of the vesting order. Vedanta has all clearances in place including Environmental Clearance and the Forest Clearance to commence mining operations. Please note that the said 152-hectare Reserved Forest area is not in Vedanta’s mining lease area,” said a spokesperson of the company.

The spokesperson further said that given the fact that all clearances are in place, Vedanta is looking forward to commencing mining activities at the earliest, adding that the R&R colony at Garjanjore is well equipped with the necessary infrastructure to accommodate all the remaining families.

“A majority of the families have already been relocated from the proposed mining area to the new colony, while the rest are also in the active process of relocation,” added the spokesperson.

However, discrepancies in the EAC's minutes of the meeting, as far as approval of Vedanta’s mining plan is concerned, have also been flagged.

A mining plan approval letter was apparently issued on March 7 2022, by the Ministry of Coal. Notably, the approval of the mining plan came four days after the date on which EAC held its own meeting (on March 3) on which Environmental Clearance was recommended for the Jamkhani coal mining project.

“Ministry of Coal vide application no. ORSU/APP00195/2022 dated 07.03.2022 has granted in-principle approval of draft mining plan submitted by PP [Project Proponent] for Jamkhani Coal mine for rated capacity of 2.6 MTPA/3.9 MTPA (peak) within mine lease area of 847 ha … It is noted that the mining plan contains Phase I Open Cast Operations at Jamkhani without use of reserve forest land of 152.55 Ha and all plates of the mining plan have been accordingly revised. The phase II proposal i.e. mining by underground method, shall come up for in 45th year as per current Mining Plan and separately approval of MoEF&CC would be required with inclusion of 152.55 Ha reserve forest area,” the EAC minutes further state.

But it was based on the aforementioned observation, as contained in the mining plan approval letter issued on March 7, that the EAC recommended Environmental Clearance for the project on March 3. A questionnaire was emailed to senior officials of the MoEF&CC, along with Cabinet Minister Bhupendra Yadav, who heads the ministry, asking to clarify the apparent discrepancy, if any, between the two dates. No response had been received to the queries when this article was published.

A senior official of the district administration of Sundargarh said that land had been acquired for the project through Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation, a public sector undertaking engaged in the industrial development of the state, long before the enactment of LARR, 2013. The official also added that the R&R colony would require basic amenities, including roads, electricity supply and water supply before the remaining project-displaced families are relocated there.

“Housing units in the R&R colony will need a fresh coat of paint and basic repairs since those have been lying unoccupied for so many years. Land for the mining project had already been acquired and transferred to the earlier project proponent before the enactment of LARR, 2013. The affected families are in possession of their homestead lands alone. Agricultural land is no longer in possession of the affected families of the four villages in the project area. Hence, a fresh acquisition using the new LARR Act, 2013 is not possible. The R&R colony project has already been completed. Since there was a hiatus between the de-allocation of the coal block and its fresh allocation, families identified as project-displaced had not been relocated. They continued to be in possession of their houses. Most of the affected families have accepted the compensation amount. Although there remain, several families have refused to accept compensation till date,” said the official.

Even as tribal communities in Sundargarh continue to fight a pitched battle for their livelihood and basic survival needs, largescale celebrations took place in Odisha on the election of Draupadi Murmu as President of India. Shortly thereafter, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also claimed during a visit to Gujarat that Murmu’s election symbolised the true empowerment of tribal communities.

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