Coal mine in Birbhum district of West Bengal
At least 100 women clashed with supporters of a political rally in her village over the government’s plans to buy her land to mine the coal buried there, according to Mainomoti Soren, a 42-year-old farmer from Dewanganj hamlet in eastern India.
Soren, who was two months pregnant, saw blood flowing down her legs and fainted while the police clubbed the demonstrators with sticks last December. Villagers took her to the hospital on a motorcycle, but she had already miscarried.
Soren adds, “I kept pleading about my pregnancy, but they didn’t listen and hit me with a stick.”
Soren is one of the hundreds of women from an Indigenous tribe who have been fighting the West Bengal efforts of the government to build a coal mine in the Birbhum district. It was claimed, as the world’s second-largest due to its estimated coal reserves of 2,102 million tonnes, since September.
She’s fighting to save the 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of property she owns in Birbhum, around 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Kolkata, where she farms paddy and vegetables. She keeps what she needs to feed her four-person family, including her husband and their two children, and sells the rest, earning approximately 5,000 rupees ($66) each month on an average. Her spouse works as a daily wage laborer on another farm to supplement their income.
“It’s difficult for us to make a living,” Soren adds, adding that “the loss of land would force us further into poverty.”
On the other hand, the senior officers have denied any police brutality. “When the rally was taken-out in the village, there was a brief scuffle between the two parties. The two sides reconciled once the police intervened. “However, there have been no reports of police brutality,” said Birbhum Police Chief Nagendra Nath Tripathi. The police were looking into the allegations of brutality.
The contentious coal mine
The proposed coal project, known as the Deocha-Panchami coal mining project, is stretched across 18 villages in the Deocha-Panchami-Dewanganj-Harisingha blocks of Birbhum, and it affects 4,314 families and 21,000 people. Locals primarily farm their own or someone else’s property work as daily wage laborers in the area’s stone quarries and crushers.
The coal block has given to the West Bengal government by the federal government in September 2018. The state government handed over the block to West Bengal Power Development Corp Ltd (WBPDCL) a year later for coal extraction and power generation. For power generation, the government intends to invest 350 million rupees ($4.6 million).
The government has set aside around 3,370 acres (1,364 hectares) of land for the coal mine, of which 2,392 acres (968 hectares) are owned by local families and which the government intends to acquire.
However, land acquisition in the country, particularly in West Bengal, remains a challenging situation. The current All India Trinamool Congress government, led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was elected in 2011 following a popular uprising against the state government’s attempt to seize their land in order to lease it to Tata Group for the construction of a car factory.
The decision to mine coal comes as India pledges to increase its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030, up from 150 gigawatts presently, and achieve net-zero emissions by 2070.
“The government has pledged net zero emissions by 2070, but it has been silent on lowering coal dependency,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, program director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a think tank in New Delhi.
India currently derives 51.7 percent of its electricity from coal-fired thermal power plants, which consume 700 million tonnes of coal every year.
In addition, coal is widely employed in a variety of sectors, including iron and steel, cement, bricks, fertilizer, and aluminum.
“There isn’t a plan in place to decarbonize them.” “First and foremost, they must have a comprehensive plan for reducing their emissions,” Yadav added.
Despite the project’s scale, the WBDPCL is unsure how the coal that will be extracted will be used, or whether it will be used to fuel local power plants or exported. “The government has yet to establish a mining plan based on natural resource availability.” “Nothing has been decided concerning its use yet,” Amalesh Kumar, WBPDCL’s adviser (mining), stated, denying to provide any other information.
Environmental opponents say that the project could exacerbate air pollution in the area, which is already a serious problem in the area. “The inhabitants are already suffering from significant air pollution and health risks as a result of the stone crushers and quarries, which have lowered the groundwater level to roughly 500 feet, causing a water shortage during the hot summers. Mining would exacerbate the problem, according to Kunal Deb, an environmental activist based in Kolkata.
Compensation from the government
Chief Minister Banerjee announced a package worth 100 million rupees ($1.3 million) for those displaced by mining in November. The government is paying 2 million rupees ($26,234) per acre, as well as a position as a junior constable in the police, to each family that sells their land under this scheme. It would also relocate the family to a new home and compensate them for the one they had to give up.
In February, it sweetened the employment offer by allowing applicants to choose between the constable and government clerk positions.
However, villagers claim that such offerings do not entice them. “The government is providing a job to a single household member, but what about the others?” Furthermore, the policeman’s job would not pay more than 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($200-$265) per month, which is insufficient. Nothing can make up for the loss of land that provides a year-round source of income,” said Meeru Tudu, 60, a housewife in Harisingha hamlet. Her 12-person family is reliant on their 5 acres (2 hectares) of land, which they use to raise paddy and vegetables all year.
“We won’t give up the land, even if it means giving up our lives,” she said.
Although roughly 500 people have sold their land to the government so far, villagers claim that the majority of those who have done so have quit farming. Some of the land sellers claim the government misled them by promising more jobs for their relatives.
For example, Lakhiram Murmu, 55, one of those who agreed to sell their farm, said that government officials guaranteed him that they would locate jobs for all three of his sons, not just one, as the offer stated. However, they have not kept their word and have only offered one position so far. “We are deceived,” claimed Murmu, who signed away his land but refused to accept the money in exchange.
Edited by Prakriti Arora