India Coal
Dark shadow hangs over 14 Indian villages due to Adani’s Gare Pelma II coal project
Jan 07, 2024
Two devotees stand in front of a place of worship near the village of Pelma. If the Gare Pelma II mine proceeds, this shrine will be destroyed.

A dark shadow hangs over the lives of thousands of tribal people in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The proposed Gare Pelma II coal mine will impact the lives, spirituality and livelihoods of the inhabitants of 14 villages. If the mine proceeds, over 2500 ha of fertile farmland and forest will be obliterated, as well as hundreds of dwellings and several places of worship. Over 2200 families will be displaced. An Adani company is the appointed operator and developer of the proposed mine and is wasting no time in obtaining the necessary approvals from a compliant central government. Several people who oppose takeover of their lands and who are battling to conserve their spiritual traditions claim that false affidavits were submitted as part of acquiring the approvals.

Droplets of rain hanging on to ripe paddy stalks glistened like pearls in the muggy November morning. Farmers who had arrived at the crack of dawn to harvest the paddy had retreated home following the short spell of unseasonal showers. Later, the sun came out. Its winter radiance lit up the golden fields, dense greenery and red-tiled roofs of Mudagaon, a village sitting atop rich deposits of coal in Raigarh district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

The rice paddy fields threatened by the Adani-developed Gare Pelma II coal project are extremely productive. Many local farmers have not agreed to the takeover of these lands for the coal mine.

A dark, bituminous road meandering through the lush fields took us to the human settlements of Mudagaon. A group of men had gathered in front of a hole-in-the-wall shop for morning tea. They chatted animatedly, seated on the verandah of a tile-roofed house.

They were concerned about the imminent destruction of their Deolas – an important place of worship for Raigarh’s tribal communities – at the hands of an Adani-operated coal project. Mudagaon is one of the villages which will be completely obliterated for the Gare Pelma II coal-mining project. Gare Pelma II coal block has been allotted to the government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, which has out-sourced the project’s operations to an Adani-owned firm.

‘The Deolas in Mudagaon is one of the important abodes of the chief deities of tribal communities in Raigarh,’ said Shyamlal Rathia (40), a resident of Mudagaon. ‘We consider them as our ishta devta [tutelary deities].

‘The deities are venerated many times a year, particularly in the months of July and October. In the veneration festival in October, held simultaneously with Durga Navami [a popular national festival celebrating the birth of goddess Durga], the titular king of Raigarh’s tribal communities leads the worship in Mudagaon. It is believed the king’s early ancestors began this ritual hundreds of years ago. This Deolas and the rituals connected to it are important for the raison d’etre of Raigarh’s tribal communities.’

The men agree to take me to the place of worship, which is venerated by the tribal communities called Gond and Kamar. Through a lane, they lead me to a point where a narrow footpath branches off into a forest. A few metres ahead, they ask me to take off my shoes, as a mark of respect for the sanctity of the area. Our bare feet squish into the mushy soil and crush ripe wild fruits that have fallen from the thick overarching greenery. The footpath opens into a wide clearing with a thatch-roofed mud house at the centre. The dilapidated Deolas, with a locked wooden door in front, clearly needed repair and maintenance.

Devour tribes people from Mudagaon in front of their place of worship, planned for oblieration by a proposed Adani-operated coal mine.‘The district administration of Raigarh has promised us funds for constructing a concrete boundary wall,’ another villager, Jahajram Bhagat (51), told me. ‘We will also be given funds to repair the Deolas.’

The communities’ intention of conserving their tradition is squared up against an Adani-operated project which envisages extracting 23.6 million tons of coal per annum (MTPA) from the Gare Pelma II coal deposit through both open-cast and underground methods of mining. The project will occupy 2583 hectares, the equivalent of nearly 5000 football fields, comprising agricultural land, forests and settlements. That means structures with spiritual significance such as the Deolas will be destroyed.

The fertile fields earmarked for obliteration by Adani's Gare Pelma II coal mine.The Gare Pelma II coal mine will impact the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of 14 villages: Tihli Rampur, Kunjemura, Gare, Saraitola, Mudagaon, Radopali, Pata, Chitwahi, Dholnara, Jhinka Bahal, Dolesara, Bhalumura, Sarasmal and Libra. Like Mudagaon, seven other villages will be completely wiped off the map if the coal mine proceeds.

(Story continues below)

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Gare Pelma II contains whopping reserves of 1059 million tons of coal. The Modi government allotted the coal block to Mahagenco, the state-owned power generating company of Maharashtra, in 2015. In April 2021, an Adani-owned subsidiary company was appointed by Mahagenco as the Mine Operator and Developer (MDO) of the project for a period of 34 years.

This map shows the cluster of coal projects being pursued by the Adani Group in the Pelma region.

The granting of mandatory statutory clearances for the project has proceeded after the Adani Group company was appointed its MDO. In April 2022, the state government of Chhattisgarh asked the Modi government to grant approval for diversion of 214.87 hectares of forest land needed for the project. At that time, the Congress was in power in Chhattisgarh (It was voted out of power recently by Modi’s BJP in the elections held in November 2023). On 2 June 2022, the Modi government approved the first stage of the proposal to divert the forestland. On 11 July 2022, the Modi government issued a letter granting the mine environmental clearance, despite opposition by local communities and civil society, nearly two years after the application was first submitted.

A well-watered area of fertile farms and trees is earmarked for excavation by Adani for the Gare Pelma II coal mine.

Land acquisition for the project is yet to be completed. As well as farms (2078 ha), forests (215 ha), government land (145 ha) and settlements (90 ha), numerous water bodies (56 ha) traditionally used by local communities for irrigation and fishing will be taken over for the mine. Initial estimates indicate that the project will displace 2245 families, many of whom belong to tribal communities. The project proponent is scouting for another 90 ha of land in the nearby areas to resettle the displaced population.

Having seen the adverse impacts of coal mining all around them, however, local communities have not agreed to the takeover of their lands. Communities which have already lost land to coal mines in the region have been reduced to impoverishment and are forced to live in despicable environmental conditions resulting from the nearby mining operations. A number of these mines, such as Gare Pelma III and Gare Pelma IV/8 (also operated by the Adani Group), surround the Gare Pelma II areas earmarked for takeover.

List of Adani coal projects in the Raigahr district in which the Pelma projects are located.

In Mudagaon, underground water was found to be highly contaminated with fluoride a few years ago. Several village residents reported sick and were later diagnosed with serious health ailments such as cancer and tissue degeneration. A tank storing underground water was declared unfit for use by the district administration after findings of fluoride poisoning. A larger tank was built. Now, potable water is transported through underground pipelines to the new tank from another location far away from the village.

A dilapidated water tank in an area where security of water supplies will become a massive problem for the local people due to the advent of an Adani coal mine.‘Coal dust and fly ash leave a coat of black dust on the crops in my farmland abutting a thermal power plant and its coal washery,’ said a visibly-ill Trishna Lal (45). ‘These impacts have reduced my farm output and adversely affected my physical health.’

'Coal impacts have adversely affected my physical health,' says Trishna Lal (45).Scientific research shows industrial activities and coal burning are proven factors behind fluoride contamination of water.

‘Despite the known negative impacts of coal mining, the authorities have used a carrot-and-stick policy for obtaining consent of local communities for land takeover for the Gare Pelma II project,’ said Prem Sagar Majhi (51), whose family owns around three hectares of ancestral land.

‘They have failed in all their attempts so far. In the summer of 2022, the project proponent sent officials who tried to bribe us with solar panels, cement-concrete roads, drains and sewing machines for women. They also promised employment training for womenfolk. But we rejected their proposals.’

Local people have not agreed to the takeover of their fertile lands for the Adani Group's Gare Pelma II coal project.

A public hearing notified in June 2019 for land takeover could not be undertaken owing to largescale protests by local communities. The proposed project site is in a tehsil (administrative unit) which has a preponderance of tribal population. Special provisions of the Constitution of India are automatically applicable to this tehsil. Mandatory consent of Gram Sabhas (village-level self-governing councils comprising the entire adult population) is required for the project under a landmark law enacted by a Congress government in 1996 to safeguard the land rights of tribal communities. Consent of Gram Sabhas is also mandatory for final diversion of forest land in accordance with yet another landmark law enacted in 2006 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for safeguarding the rights of forest-dependent communities. These forests have long provided local communities with tendu leaves (used for rolling beedi, a traditional Indian cigar), paan leaves (betel), mahua (a fragrant flower used to brew a strong liquor), and several other medicinal plants.

‘In one instance, officials presented false affidavits to the administration claiming that the public hearing for acquisition of land had been successfully completed and that villagers had given their consent for the Gare Pelma II project,’ said Rameshwar Prasad (60), a resident of Pata village, who had joined the conversation at the shop.

‘The dates of the purported meeting were shown to be held on 12 and 18 December 2019 in those false affidavits.’

Farmers gather in the village of Mudagaon to discuss the impact of an Adani-developed mine on their way of life.

Following news reports about submission of this allegedly fabricated affidavit, local people sought information from the government – through provisions of India’s Right to Information Act, 2005 – on details of all Gram Sabha meetings held in the tehsil for a period of two months including 12 and 18 December 2019. In reply, they were told that no such meetings ever took place.

Reportedly, the project proponent is offering different rates for irrigated and non-irrigated agricultural land for the Gare Pelma II project. A proper survey by the district administration would help ascertain the exact extents of both categories of land. But local people said they have not allowed revenue officials to enter the village to carry out the surveys.

A week after the Congress was voted out of power in Chhattisgarh in the five-yearly state assembly elections, government officials arrived in the region on 8 December 2023 to carry out a survey for a new railway line to facilitate transportation of coal for existing and proposed projects. However, the officials had to beat a hasty retreat when protesting locals chased them away.

The fertile farmlands in the region are dotted with several half-constructed buildings which are visible from a distance because of their large size.

It is speculated that the purpose of a large number oi partially constructed buildings is to acquire financial compensation from the coal mine owner.These buildings are in the form of sheds, commercial complexes, malls, plazas and palatial houses. Each building is unoccupied. Rajesh Tripathi, a local activist running a voluntary social organization called Janchetna Manch (public-awareness forum), said these are speculative constructions aimed at procuring higher compensation during the process of land takeover.

‘A proper investigation would reveal that only the rich and the powerful, like politicians, senior government officials and contractors, have invested their money in these buildings,’ said Tripathi, who accompanied me on the trip. ‘The average farmer in the region is too poor to make investments of this magnitude.’

‘Local communities have altogether refused to part with their land for the Gare Pelma II project. As per the provisions of the Constitution of India, ownership rights over land and over mineral resources beneath it, are vested with local tribal communities.

‘For the past several years, local communities have been vociferously demanding that coal mining be undertaken only as a last resort to meet the growing electricity needs of the country. And, even if coal mining operations are undertaken, this should not be through corporates. Community resources should be mobilised for coal mining operations through co-operative societies at the level of villages and tehsils.’

Rajesh Tripathi, a local activist running a voluntary social organization, says that genuine farmers do not have the resources to construct speculative buildings.

Since the year 2011, local communities in this region of Raigarh have been observing a unique protest demonstration annually on October 2 (the birth anniversary of Father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi) urging the government not to allow corporate coal mines. This protest, called Koyla Satyagraha, draws its name from the Satyagraha movement, launched by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s independence struggle as a form of resistance through peaceful protests and demonstrations. These local communities are demanding community ownership over coal through Koyla Satyagraha, taking their cue from Mahatma Gandhi’s successful campaign to obtain community ownership over salt in colonial India. The Koyla Satyagraha, which has been led from the front by Tripathi and his associate Savita Rath, has been a subject of research in several elite educational institutions across the world.

Local people have followed Mahatma Gandhi's example and are carrying out a form of protest in which they claim rights to the non-corporate development of their resources.Will the Koyla Satyagraha be able to resist the might of the Adani empire? The Adani Group has high stakes in the region, with investments in at least four coal-mining projects, either as owner or MDO, and a thermal power plant that is proposed to be expanded.

‘The Constitution of India is supreme. The least we can do for underprivileged communities in tribal-dominated areas of Raigarh is to ensure that they are entitled to the rights that have been guaranteed to them,’ Rath told me.

Community rights over forest land have been notified on boards at several places in the region. Rajesh and Savita accompany me to Pelma village, from which this massive coal block draws its name. Recently, it became the focal point for unrest against alleged illegal takeover of land for an Adani-operated coal project belonging to the central-government corporation, South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL). The Congress party, while in power in Chhattisgarh, had fully backed the people opposing the Pelma project. The political party had held protest meetings soon after the Modi government appointed an Adani-owned firm as the MDO for Pelma.

The well established village of Pelma has become the focal point for community opposition to the takeover of their lands for the Gare Pelma II coal mine.

We drive past forests, notified as ‘protected’ by the Indian government, and farmlands of ripe rice. Local farmers reportedly grow two paddy crops a year in these farmlands: the first crop is sold to the government at the minimum support price for paddy procurement; the second is sold to middlemen. Seasonal vegetables, lentils and oilseeds are also grown in these farmlands.

‘The first paddy crop is watered by the monsoon rains. The second crop is watered by the runoff from mountains which often accumulates in water bodies spread across the region. These water bodies are perennial and help in underground water recharge as well,’ they tell me.

The area the Adani Group plans to obliterate for the Gare Pelma II coal mine is rich in fertile farmlands and forests.

The bitumen road leading to Pelma is flanked by several government buildings on either side. At Urba, another village impacted by the Adani-operated Pelma project, a local contractor has undertaken work to lay underground cables and pipelines, which are heaped outside the headquarters of Urba’s Gram Panchayat. These works, being undertaken with public money, will come to a nought if the coal mine goes ahead.

Cables, pipes and other materials await incorporation into new public infrastructure - all of which will be wasted if the coal mine proceeds.The Gram Panchayat office building of Pelma is located inside a huge campus within which government schools (primary, mid-level and high school) function. The campus is abuzz with the loud chorus of primary-school kids reciting multiplication tables.

‘These schools are going to be demolished for the Pelma project,’ said Rath. ‘The fate of the children studying in these schools is uncertain.  But loss of academic years is the least of the troubles foreseen for them.

‘They will be taken away to some strange place so that coal mining can take place where they are studying at present. If that happens, it is doubtful whether these kids, all of whom come from poor farming households, will ever complete their education.’

'The schoolkids will be taken away to some strange place so that coal mining can take place.'Pelma is one of the eight villages which will be impacted by SECL’s coal mining project. Acquisition of 2036 hectares of land for the project has been completed. This includes nearly 300 ha of forest.

Heaps of freshly harvested paddy are seen on the lanes, backyards, courtyards and living rooms in Pelma. Farm equipment dots the roadsides and courtyards. The sight is testimony to the existence of a thriving farm economy.

Members of a thriving farm economy proudly stand next to a pile of newly harvested rice.When we reach the village, it is well past noon. The entire population is assembled under a single roof for traditional Hindu purification rituals on the 13th day of the death of a member of a local household. After community feasting, which I join after being invited by the villagers, they tell me that the government has not identified a place for their resettlement.

‘We have not accepted compensation,’ said Banshi Patel (53), a resident of Pelma. ‘The rate that is being offered was current in the market when acquisition was mooted more than 15 years ago. In addition, the government is also not paying us bank interest that should have accrued on that amount in the past 15 years.’

Akshay Nayak (42), another resident, says: ‘In the past, there have been several instances where no resettlement colonies were developed. Settlements were simply left out of the mining-lease area. Tribal households are the most affected in this system. They own small parcels of land which fetch meagre compensation. This amount quickly dries up leaving them without any source of livelihood or income.’

Two devotees stand in front of a place of worship near the village of Pelma. If the Gare Pelma II mine proceeds, this shrine will be destroyed.

The men lead me to a traditional place of tribal worship atop a small hillock in the forests. This land, over which the worship place is located, has been acquired for the Pelma project. As in Mudagaon, this place of worship has also been preserved by local communities for generations. Community rights over these places of worship parcel of land have been granted by the government.

On our way back from Pelma, we stop by on the household of Double Singh, a septuagenarian man who has for the past several years actively participated in the Koyla Satyagraha movement and defended the rights of farmers and tribal communities. Singh is suffering from a range of geriatric illnesses.

The bedridden Double Singh, a veteran of the struggle to protect community rights.

His wife, Radha Devi (70), was taking care of the household, including paddy harvesting, along with her daughter-in-law. Numerous photographs of Singh during his younger years, when he was well known as a fierce fighter for the rights of the under-privileged, adorned a damp wall of the dingy room that was lit with a dim electric bulb. An attendant sat at the feet of Singh, a huge photograph of Narendra Modi adorning the T-shirt that he wore.

‘We are supporters of the BJP. But when it comes to the rights of the people we rise above our political affiliations and leanings. Our basic ideology is empowerment of the most under-privileged sections of the society,’ Singh said.