According to the Environmental clearance letter, a public hearing for the North Urimari project was conducted in 2004. People, however, have no memory of any public hearing conducted for the project. Photo of the North Urimari mine by Krithika A Dinesh.

Changing rules, expanding mines, whose forest is it anyway?

Barka Sayal’s identity as a coal extraction zone, made easier with special government concessions, has started superseding its tribal and forest identity – and reflects a larger uncomfortable reality in India.

Hum yahan paida hue hain. Par ab hum hi bhulaye gaye hain, khadan wale roz naya khudai karte hain, phir un tak pahuchne ke liye naya rasta banate hain (I was born here. But now even I forget (the ways around here), everyday mine companies dig a new pit and then construct new paths to reach those pits)”, said Kaleshwar Majhi, as our car reversed from a path which according to him would have taken us to the new Potanga village but ended abruptly at a half-dug pit. Majhi is a resident of Urimari village which is hemmed in by three opencast coal mines: Urimari, and North Urimari open cast mine and Sayal D project. 

In his 78 years of life around the village, Majhi has witnessed the area transform. Barka Sayal network of coal mines is a small part of the South Karanpura coalfield that is mined by Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, a national public sector undertaking. Today, the Barka Sayal area is witnessing a rapid transformation made easy by recent dilutions of environmental regulations.

In 2017, to address the ‘coal shortage’ within the country, the MoEFCC granted a special concession to coal mining projects, allowing existing coal mines to increase their output by 40% of their original capacity without a public hearing. Since no new land acquisition was involved the impact from the project on the population residing nearby was considered minimal and ‘manageable’. North Urimari mine, too, rode on this wave of concessions and corresponding coal expansions. It received multiple expansions without public hearing. However, the mine and its expansion has left a trail of impacts and risks for the tribals of the Barka Sayal region.  

Most of the Barka Sayal area comes under Ramgarh district with a small portion falling in Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand. The area is inhabited by Oraon, Munda, Santhal tribes and Bhuiya and Ravidas communities. Majhi worked in the Birsa/Urimari mine till 2016. “Un dino mein sarkari Naukri milta tha, peediyon ke liye (in those days we would get government job for generations).” He was referring to an old scheme of the CCL under which one family member of an employee at the subsidiary would get the job after their retirement. 

The new mines don’t follow this scheme. In New Birsa/North Urimari, a CCL mine being run by BGR Mining on an outsourcing agreement since 2014, workers are hired on contract. Land owners were promised jobs in exchange for land they relinquished for the mine. However, the new contractual arrangements for the outsourced mine work have vanquished the little semblance of power the tribals felt in the initial years of mining in the region. The rush to extract coal at a lightning speed has resulted in shrunken space for them to engage with the mine company and/or the government.  

The latest example of this is the construction of Urimari railway siding. The siding is being built on the land falling in the mine lease area of CCL. The land, however, is awfully close to their homes—which were built afresh after they had to relinquish their agricultural farms and properties for the mine in 1990-91. Barka Sayal is a tribal-dominated area, but its identity as a coal extraction zone supersedes its tribal and forest identity. 

Mine expansion without compliance

Public hearing exemptions are usually granted to coal mine expansions on the basis of certain promises—no additional land acquisition, pollution load to stay within permissible limits, no additional coal transport through road and satisfactory compliance of the safeguards listed in the existing environmental clearance of the project. 

These conditions are often bypassed, and North Urimari is no different. The project received its first environmental clearance (EC) in 2006 for extracting three million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of coal. Between 2017 and 2021, the project requested capacity increase without public hearing multiple times, but in vain. Its poor compliance to the environmental clearance conditions such as maintenance of green belt along the boundary of the mine and benches to avoid sliding of overburden dumps, came in the way. 

Overburden of the North Urimari mine. Photo: Krithika A Dinesh

This changed in January 2022, when the project received the environmental clearance to expand to 3.6 MTPA (20% hike), the poor level of non-compliance notwithstanding. However, locals still complain of missing checks for dust pollution and contamination of water sources. “Jab hum halla karte hain ya jab koi bahar se aata hai toh paani chhidakte hain (when we agitate or when someone is visiting, only then they sprinkle water),” said Sanjay Tudu when asked about the operation of water sprinklers to control dust. 

We asked Ajay Singh, the General Manager (Mining) of Barka-Sayal region of the CCL over email about forest violation and complaints made by the locals. We are yet to get a response.

Non-compliance has been noted by the expert appraisal committee (EAC) responsible for appraising coal mining project proposals for environmental clearance as well.  “Further expansion in capacity will only be considered by EAC when at least 75% of EC conditions are complied fully...”, noted the committee while considering its request for 40% capacity increase. 

On ground, the non-compliance has serious impacts. “Dhaan ki baali dhool se dhaki rehti hai. Sinchai bhi kale paani se hoti hai (The spikes of paddy are covered with coal dust. Even the fields are irrigated with black water)”, Tudu lamented.

Application DateProposalOutcomeApproval Date
June 2018Application for revalidation of environmental clearance under EIA 2006Environmental clearance revalidatedNovember 2019
January 2022Application for expansion of the coal mine from 3 to 4.2 MTPA (40%)EC granted for expansion from 3 to 3.6 MTPA(20%)February 2022
November 2022Requested amendment of condition on railway siding-for completion by July 2023Amendment of EC grantedDecember 2022
January 2023Application for expansion of the coal mine from 3.6 to 4.2 MTPAEC granted for expansion from 3.6 to 4.2 MTPAFebruary 2023

According to the Environmental clearance letter, a public hearing for the project was conducted in 2004. People, however, have no memory of any public hearing conducted for the project. They remember something else instead.

Woh project ko Urimari ka naam de rahe the. Hum bole hamare area mein project aa raha hai toh hamari pehchaan par iska naam hona chahiye. Toh project ka naam Birsa project kiya. (They were going to name the project Urimari. We said if the project was coming in our area it should be named after our identity. Then the project was named Birsa),” said Majhi. He was right. Most of the sign boards, mine offices displayed the mine names Birsa and New Birsa. But what Majhi didn’t know is that in official records the two projects that locals know as Birsa and New Birsa were called Urimari and North Urimari projects. This little anecdote reflects how tribals are made to believe that they have a say in how their lands and forests are used. 

Ripple effects of increased coal production

Enhanced capacity of a coal mine also means increased transport, increased capacity for a coal handling plant, washery unit, and increase in holding capacity of a railway siding. Railways and conveyor belts are considered ‘environmentally friendly’ ways of coal transport. However, this is only partially true. Sidings are normally used for transport of various items such as food grains, sugar, paper, wood, fertilizers and minerals. 

Transport of minerals such as coal warrants certain precautionary measures to be taken. These measures can include: careful selection of the site of the siding, prevention of run-off outside the siding area, and air pollution prevention measures such as sprinkling of water, and covering the load. Acknowledging these impacts in 2015, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) came up with guidelines for railway sidings’ construction and operation. However, the guidelines are legally non-binding and poor compliance on the part of CCL fails to evoke confidence.

That aside, the project has also violated the Forest Conservation Act 1980, which requires the project proponents to obtain forest clearance prior to any non-forest use of forest land. Around 11.11 ha of forest land was required for the construction of North Urimari Railway Siding. The land fell under the mining leases of the three opencast mines belonging to CCL. 

While the construction of the siding is being reported to be going on speedily, the forest clearance is still pending

Between January 2022 and 2023, the CCL submitted before the EAC that siding work was completed up to 75% to 80%, while the process of obtaining the forest clearance is ongoing. A closer look into the application the CCL submitted seeking forest clearance reveal its admission that the construction of the railway siding was a ‘violation’ of the Forest Conservation Act. 

‘Violation’ projects are those which start with either the use of land, begin construction or operation of new or expansion projects before obtaining a clearance. Projects have been getting amnesty for initiating work without environmental clearances, coastal clearance as well as for forest clearances. In case of North Urimari, locals share that the company began construction of the railway siding without forest permission.

Railway siding construction area. Photo: Krithika A Dinesh

Forest Rights Act, a mere formality for forest diversion

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 acknowledges the rights of traditional forest dwellers and those dependent on forests over this resource. Through an office memorandum in 2009, the erstwhile Ministry of Environment and Forests made it mandatory for ‘settlement’ of forest rights before diversion of forests. However, a letter from the concerned Gram Sabha confirming the completion of the FRA process and public consent for the project was required only before the final forest clearance. 

Forest clearance is granted in two stages: Stage I or in principle approval and Stage II or the final approval by which time all the conditions imposed at stage I need to be fulfilled. Compliance under FRA, however, is not part of the stage I clearance. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal ministry for the Forest Rights Act, having noted the in-built conditions for fait accompli, warned the Environment Ministry, the nodal ministry for Forest Conservation Act, of this. 

It said, “while MoEFCC had maintained that it (FRA clearance) would be required to be obtained by project proponent at stage II of forest clearance, the view of MoTA is that this would prove to be fait accompli…it has been seen that many a times the project applies for FRA clearance only in the last minute where diversion of forest land is allowed before settling their rights…” It recommended that the proof of having initiated FRA clearance process should be produced at stage I FCA clearance. However, nothing changed in the forest clearance process. 

In their paper, ‘Manufacturing Consent: Mining, Bureaucratic Sabotage and the Forest Rights Act in India’, Chitrangada Choudhury and Aniket Aagha also argue that the power asymmetry in which the process of obtaining consent from the Gram Sabha operates doesn’t allow for any real decision-making on proposed forest diversions. North Urimari Railway siding is a case in point.

While CCL initiated the application for forest clearance in 2019, it was only in 2021, that the Gram Sabha was intimated of it. By August 2021, the identification and settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act was already complete.  However locals viewed the process suspiciously. “2021 mein Urimari siding ka notice aaya tha. Jan sunvayi kiya par keval khanapoorti ki. Hum gaye the, kuch logon ne humein hastakshar karne ke liye dabav daala par vapis chale aaye (In 2021, the notice for Urimari siding came),” said Shankar Kumar Bhuiya while sharing his experience of the 2021 meeting of the Sub-division-level Forest Rights Committee. 

“A public hearing was organised but it was a mere checking of the box. We went there, some people pressured us to sign but we came back without signing),” 

The meeting was followed by an online meeting of the district level forests rights committee, which cleared the project. Bhuiya suspects that some members of the panchayat and forest rights committee are on the company’s side. In January this year, the circle officer organised a village assembly for final consent under the Forest Rights Act. Then and in April tribals put their demands in the form of a letter to the circle officer raising issues of unemployment and pollution from the upcoming siding. “The meeting went on amicably. Such meetings are presided by an officer of the company, most likely a tribal, to ensure a smooth conduct of the assembly.”, shared an activist from Jharkhand who didn’t want to be named.

Paving the road for predetermined outcomes

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, in its note flagging concerns in the forest permission process, invoked the phrase ‘fait accompli’ to characterise its flaws. The assertion here is that the fate of projects is already decided before those that are affected by it hear about it, leaving them little option but to accept the development. In other words, the most affected entity is strong armed, and left with little choice but to accept its fate. 

North Urimari is a classic case of one diluted regulation aiding the other to weaken the rights of tribals and the right to a safe environment to those living near these projects. In this case the situation of fait accompli arises twice: one because of late initiation of the process of recognising forest rights for diversion. Second, when concession in one law is given subject to a condition that interferes with the objective assessment of a project under another law. The concession from conducting public hearings for mine expansion gave way to a railway siding, which became an accomplished reality for the tribals of Barka-Sayal. Realising that the railway siding was going to come regardless, the locals have shifted their demand from no railway siding near their homes to, no pollution and risk from the siding. “Hum bole ki siding idhar nahi banaiye, par who bolte hain ki siding unka zameen par aa raha hai. Toh ab hum pradushan aur high voltage ki taaron se bachna chahte hain (We asked them not to construct the siding here, they replied that the siding was coming on their land. So now we want to save ourselves from pollution and high voltage cables),” said Majhi. 

North Urimari, however, is hardly the only example of this. String by string, the legislative fabric of the FRA and FCA have been loosened to such an extent over past decades that they no longer possess the integrity to shield the rights of their primary constituents- tribal and forest-dependent communities and the forests themselves. Recent notifications from the government provide ample evidence that this process is likely to continue. ‘Coal shortages’ in recent years and an ambition for resource independence has pushed greater exemptions for use of forest lands for non-forestry purposes to unprecedented levels, including the expansion of road and railway lines. In fact, the latest list of coal mines to be put up for auction also contain blocks within dense forests. Coal is now likely to be joined by mining and transport operations for other minerals too in the fait accompli assault on tribal agency and environmental protection. Similar concerns also ring around the dilution of environmental and forest protection through proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act.

There is perhaps no better title than fait accompli for a historic retelling of the story of India’s forests and the communities tied to them. The cruel and seemingly endless joke is only punctuated by rare instances that pried open public conscience. India is now embarking on its “green growth” journey. While proclamations have revolved around how a new energy economy will propel India’s economic development and growth, neither agency of affected communities or environmental protection has yet made it to the talking points. The question needs to be asked. Will the “amrit kaal” and visions of “green growth” address and rectify historic injustices made under the garb of development? Or are forest-dependent communities staring at a reboot of systemic injustices, fated to accept the inevitable—fait accompli?

Additional inputs provided by Shreeshan Venkatesh.
This story has been supported by the International Centre for Not-for-profit Law as part of a 
study on public participation in environmental decisions.

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