Villagers from Odisha’s coal district have been protesting peacefully for almost a month after years of public discontent with dubious mining expansions
On January 19 this year, around 5,000 people from 45 villages of nine panchayats (village local bodies) in Hemgir block of Sundargarh came out to protest against pollution from coal transport. “We want a special corridor for coal transport to be built so that our villages are spared of the coal dust,” says Rajendra Naik, who is part of the Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad, a group locals created to protest against the issue. Sundargarh district of Odisha has nearly half of its area covered in forest, is inhabited by many tribes and holds large reserves of coal, iron ore and other minerals.
The locals have been protesting peacefully since. Today is the 29th day of the protest. They are staging a blockade to stop coal mined from Sundargarh to go to a thermal power plant in Chhattisgarh. Every day, around 200 people gather at Taparia and block the way of the trucks headed for Chhattisgarh. Even at night, about 150 people stay to continue demonstrations. Out of these protesters, 40-50 are women, according to Naik.
After four unsuccessful meetings with the assistant district commissioner, two meetings with the district collector and one meeting with company officials, the peaceful protesters filed a complaint with the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) this month that elaborated the impacts of pollution from the dust left behind by trucks carrying coal. Last week, on February 12, the OHRC, considering the “gravity of allegations of continued violation of human rights”, recommended that coal transporting vehicles should not be allowed to ply until the district administration reports on the action it has taken in the matter.
Two days ago, 16 of the protesters were arrested, according to Suru Mishra of Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD), an NGO working on socio-economic issues of the marginalised in Sundargarh. Section 144 was imposed at Taparia prohibiting Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad from protesting. The protests are, however, continuing at a different location.
The region, which is part of the Ib valley coal belt, has several mines of Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL)-Kulda, Basundhara, Siarmal, Garjanbhal. The coal from Kulda Open Cast Mine (OCM) and Basundhara OCM goes to a Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) unit, situated 41km away in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. As per the records, Jindal states that 400 trucks traverse this 41-km stretch every day with coal from Kulda and Basundhara coal mines. It is the pollution from this particular stretch of transportation that the residents are protesting against. MCL, however, claims to have constructed the special corridor, but locals maintain the claim is false.
Naik tells us cumulatively (coal from all the mines combined), close to 3,000 trucks pass through the 45 villages every day, leaving a trail of black dust. And on this path, to illustrate, are nine schools, four hostels with over 500 students, three anganwadis (childcare centres) and two hospitals. Coal dust has left the fields with poor yield, discoloured paddy and black vegetables. As for the noise pollution from the trucks, “They don’t even let us have loudspeakers in this area as it is a silent zone, but these trucks ply here creating so much noise,” says Naik.
The health impacts from the pollution are not even close to being investigated. Mitigating impacts from road transportation has been notoriously absent in legislation. Only in recent years, has some attention been brought to it.
We look in detail at the circumstances under which Kulda OCM received environmental permissions and the extent of public participation in the process.
Under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, a mining operation has to obtain an environmental clearance (EC), including a public hearing, before start of work. This is the avenue where people air their concerns, which are supposed to be addressed by the company. An expert panel then appraises the project and its environmental impacts, including the issues raised in the public hearing and suggestions offered. It then decides whether to recommend a project or not and if so, with what safeguards.
The Kulda OCM originally was allowed to mine 10 MTPA. In 2018, it was granted an expansion to 14 MTPA, for which a public hearing was held in January 2018. Recently the expert panel of the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended an EC for a capacity increase from 14 to 16.8 MTPA (20% increase in capacity). This expansion recommendation was based on a public hearing that was conducted in January 2018 for expanding from 10 to 14 MTPA. Effectively, Kulda OCM expanded its production capacity by over 60% in a span of three years.
Is this possible to do? Partly yes, because the environmental rules for coal mine expansions have been systematically diluted since 2010 and the requirement of public hearing has been taken away incrementally for expansions.
In July 2017, the expert panel of the MoEFCC recommended that all coal mines could obtain up to a 40% increase in capacity within the same lease area in 2-3 phases, without conducting a public hearing, given that the company fulfills certain conditions. Two of these conditions have been instrumental in the public discontent on display in Sundargarh — one that a previous public hearing should have been held, and secondly that coal transportation should not be done through roads. This was cemented by MoEFCC passing an order to the same effect. In this order, the MoEFCC states explicitly that the change was being made due to repeated requests from the Ministry of Coal.
So in this case, technically, a public hearing was held and the EC letter stipulates that the additional coal should not be transported by road. Let us see how the project fares on these.
The previous public hearing that Kulda OCM has used in this case was held on January 10, 2018. Suru Mishra, who attended the public hearing in 2018 recounts how it happened. “Initially, the police was not allowing us to enter the area and had filled the place with employees of MCL. It was only after arguing that everybody had the right to enter and participate that they finally let us in. There were around 1,500-2,000 people. After about four hours, the public hearing ended as a fight had broken out. Everybody did not get a chance to speak.” In fact, the residents, as Mishra divulged, were under the impression that the public hearing held that day stood cancelled. MCL, however, used that day’s happenings as a ‘public hearing’. The expert panel, despite knowing about allegations that the public hearing was not conducted properly (see below), and despite air pollution being higher than prescribed levels, recommended Kulda OCM for expansion. In their stated recommendations, ‘national interest’ outweighed concerns of improper process in the public hearings and risks to local communities from increased pollution loads. The text below, which is part of the meeting, minutes depicts the story.
However, EAC granted the clearance only for a year, taking into account the pollution levels. This was later extended for another year in March 2019. Then when the project came for review again in December 2019, the EC was extended for 30 years.
Timeline of proposed expansions of Kulda OCM:
2002: EC provided for 10 Million Tonnes per Annum (MTPA) mining capacity
March 2018: EC provided for 40% expansion of capacity to 14 MTPA for 1 year
March 2019: EC for 14 MTPA extended for 1 year
January 2020: EC for 14 MTPA extended for 30 years
January 2021: EAC recommendation for 20% expansion to 16.8 MTPA, timeframe unspecified.
So what if coal is transported through trucks?
The efforts of various residents of Kulda to reach out to government agencies demanding accountability are long standing. Since 2017, members of the Hemgir Adivasi Ekta Manch, a people’s organisation formed to raise awareness on land-related issues, have been filing carefully documented complaints, with evidence, about excessive dust, pollution from coal burning and water contamination to the State Pollution Control Board and MoEFFC Regional Office. Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad conducted a march (pad yatra) in December 2020, walking 35km, across affected villages and submitted a letter to MCL citing three main demands:
- Trucks should not pass through the villages
- Pollution should be controlled
- Compensation for the past damages by coal dust to their crops be paid.
In January 2021, residents of nine panchayats wrote to the expert panel that Kulda OCM was violating the conditions of the 2018 expansion. The residents have also regularly complained to the district collector.
Queries sent to MCL and the Sundargarh District Collector’s office on these claims have thus far gone unanswered.
In some cases, while granting initial permission for mining and industrial projects, a grace period of 2-3 years is given, within which the transition from road to railway lines/conveyor belts is to be made. But the EC letters issued to Kulda OCM do not specify any time-frame within which the switch is to be made. Despite suggestions in 2018 to use a mix of conveyor and tarpaulin covered trucks to move coal to JSPL, Kulda is yet to see an operational conveyor.
While one end of the transport tale is Kulda OCM from where the trucks start, the other end is JSPL, where the compliance time-frames have only gotten longer over the years. According to EC letters issued to the company, JSPL was to originally comply by 2019. However, in the February 2020 expert panel meeting, JSPL expressed inability to build a pipe conveyor from Kulda OCM citing challenges they had with a previous pipe conveyor and unlikelihood of meeting all their coal requirements from MCL. The EAC allowed temporary permission to transport through the road till December 2020. The project has not come up again for discussion at expert panel meetings since.
The Human Rights Commission, can only make recommendations for protection of people’s right to life and dignity, which it has in this case. But the October 2020 order of the MoEFCC that allows indefinite time to coal projects to wean off the road transport, our expert panels and the ministry, are sending out a clear message – resign to the status quo because you cannot influence the corridors of power.