For generations, the people of Talabira relied on the surrounding forests for food, other basic products, income and spiritual sustenance. Then the coal mines came. Despite laws designed to protect the rights of forest dwellers, approval was given to the likes of Adani to cut down the trees, destroy the forests and extract millions of tonnes of coal for burning in nearby power plants. The local people object and say that their consent to the loss of their forests was faked. Now, in the absence of the bounty of the forest, people whose meagre compensation has been exhausted struggle to provide food for their families.
On a hot summer afternoon in a remote village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, Rajkumari Mirig (37) holds out a bright red flower to her infant daughter in order to calm her down. Flustered with hunger, Rajkumari’s daughter is wailing at the doorway of the family’s ramshackle dwelling. The child’s cries draw women of the neighborhood, who had otherwise chosen to stay indoors in order to beat the intense heat, to Rajkumari’s doorstep. Shade is provided by the asbestos sheet that serves as a roof.
The women join Rajkumari in trying to distract the infant girl’s attention from her hunger. Rajkumari has no option but to wait patiently for her husband to return with food later in the afternoon when she can rustle up a meal for her hungry infant daughter. It is the end of the month and Rajkumari’s kitchen, like most in the neighborhood, has run out of rice and other essentials that they receive as monthly doles from the government.
‘We wouldn’t have had to go hungry if the forests in this region were still intact. We used to collect products from the forests which sufficed as food during lean times. I could have easily fetched a few pitalu [air potato; scientific name: Dioscorea bulbifera] or a kandhamula [Ipomoea batatas] from the forests to be roasted and fed to my hungry daughter. My husband is a manual laborer and can’t find work for the full year. When our monthly rations dry up, we could have fallen back on the forests,’ Rajkumari tells me.
Before the Talabira I coal block was opened up for mining more than two decades ago, families used to collect forest products that they either consumed in their households or sold in the markets. But the opening up of Talabira I meant that large swathes of these forest were cleared for mining activities.
‘Not only were many families relocated, but large parcels of forestland that provided natural sources of food and livelihood were also cleared for the project. More than two decades later, the losses that we incurred in terms of clearing out of forestlands are yet to be compensated in any manner. We often wonder if it was the right decision, after all, to clear forests for the coal mine,’ said Kshetrabhama Rohidas (41), another woman.
The opening up of the Talabira I coal mine in Sambalpur district of Odisha, locals say, initially resulted in a boom for the local economy. Certain families were flush with cash, having been paid compensation against the farmlands taken over for the project. Commerce and transport activities in the region flourished with the increase in mining activities. But gradually coal mining activities plateaued following a temporary high. Compensation money was exhausted after a few years.
The who’s who in the list of richest Indians have their industrial units within a 40 km radius of the Talabira mines. The Aditya Birla Group, the Jindal Group, Vedanta, Bhushan and now Adani all own heavy industry in this region. This is the Ib Valley of Odisha, which has been designated by India’s Central Pollution Control Board as one of the Critically Polluted Areas of the country. A separate petition is pending in the National Green Tribunal against NLC India Limited’s proposed coal-power plant at the Talabira pithead.
Ever since the Adani-owned Talabaria I mine suspended its operations, most households in Beheramunda locality, where Rajkumari lives, have been left with no source of employment and no other sources of income. Did the forests ever produce enough that could have sustained these families in a crisis situation like the one in which they find themselves right now?
‘Yes,’ the women at Rajkumari’s doorway said in unison. They then listed the products that they used to collect from the forests.
Apart from starchy edible food such as pitalu and kandhamula, the forests used to provide mango, jackfruit and fruits of the kendu tree, known popularly in English as Coromandel ebony or East Indian ebony. The leaves of the kendu tree were collected and sold in the open market. These were purchased in bulk by traders for manufacturing traditional Indian mini-cigarettes (beedis). Branches of the kendu tree were used for making hockey sticks, a sport in which India has won eight gold medals in the Olympics, and which is extremely popularly in the tribal districts of western Odisha including Sambalpur and Jharsuguda.
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The women said they also used to get Catechu, an extract from acacia trees, which was sold in the market to be used as a food additive or dye. It is also an important ingredient of paan, an edible mixture of areca nuts and sweetened dry fruit condiments wrapped in betel leaves, which is extremely popular in South Asia. Oil extracted from the pitalu plant was sold in the market for its excellent properties in the treatment of skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. Seeds of the Sal tree (Shorea robusta), which are most abundant in this region, were sold in the open market for production of an oil that finds extensive use in the food industry. The Sal tree is useful for its timber and its leaves, from which environmentally-friendly plates for serving food are manufactured. It’s the Sal tree that produces the vivid red flowers with which Rajkumari attempted to placate her hungry, crying daughter.
‘These are only a handful of beneficial products from the forests. The forests used to provide drywood for our kitchen stoves and timber for building our houses and furniture. There were medicinal plants in the forests. Even now, a number of families are still dependent on the collection and sale of flowers of the mahuli tree which is dried and fermented to concoct a traditional local brew. The bounty of nature was for free. Besides, forests are considered sacred for local communities in this region and have socio-religious significance. The lesson that should be learnt is that forests are permanent while a mining project lasts only as long as there are extractable minerals under the earth. This lesson has still not been learnt as more forests are being cleared for expanding the coal mines,’ said Kamali Rohidas (45), another woman of the locality.
The traditional rights of local communities over forests in the region could not be protected when Talabira I coal block was opened up for mining. India’s landmark law, which recognises rights of tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers over the forest resources on which they are dependent, was enacted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2006, after Talabira I was approved. Known popularly as the Forest Rights Act, this law, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, makes consent of the Gram Sabha (the village council, which is the basic local self-governing body comprising all adult members of a particular village) mandatory before any forest land is diverted for non-forest use. The Act also recognizes granting of individual rights, such as cultivation or habitation, and community rights, like grazing, fishing and access to water bodies, through non-transferable Pattas which are revenue instruments recording ownership of land.
In December 2019, a huge agitation broke out in Talabira area when a large number of trees were chopped down to make way for the Talabira II and III coal mines. As many as 40,000 trees were destroyed within the span of a few days. The project was owned by a public-sector company, NLC India Limited, which is engaged in extraction and burning of coal. However, the mine is being developed and operated by a subsidiary of the Adani Group called Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited. Local people from villages including Khinda, Talabira, Budhiapali and Patrapalli, staged protracted demonstrations demanding that Adani stop indiscriminate felling of trees and abandon mining. The protests were attended by men, women and children from the affected communities.
A resistance movement began in the area with the backing and support of noted environmental campaigners of India.
Villagers who joined these protests have insisted that they had never given their consent for the felling of trees in the region. But the project proponent claimed to have obtained prior consent from all concerned village councils (Gram Sabhas) for diversion of forest land.
The project proponent claimed that the aggrieved villagers will be compensated with pucca (permanent) houses, a project which is still under-construction, as has been reported in the third part of the series of articles published by AdaniWatch on the Talabira coal mines. It was also claimed that Rs 134.36 crore (about US $17 million) will be deposited with the Odisha government for afforestation as an offset for the trees that will be obliterated for the project.
Gradually, over the past three years, the protests against deforestation have died down.
‘Most of these Gram Sabha meetings were never conducted. And even if they were conducted, the number of people who must have attended these meetings was very few. We perused documents pertaining to these Gram Sabhas which were apparently held under the observation of local district administration officials. Most of the names in the official register were either those of people who had died several years ago or those of kids enrolled in local Anganwadis, which are government-run rural child-care centers,’ said Dilip Sahu of Patrapali village in Jharsuguda district which falls under the Talabira II and III coal project.
In February 2014, the Forest Department of Odisha gave its in-principle approval for diverting more than 1038 hectares of forest for the Talabira II and III coal mines. This massive area of forest, which straddles the two districts of Sambalpur and Jharsuguda, is almost equivalent to 2500 football fields. The survey report of the forest department stated that approximately 131,000 trees will have to be destroyed for the purpose: 63 per cent of these trees were less than 2 meters in height at that point of time while the remaining 37 per cent were more than 2 meters. Curiously, the forest department did not foresee any negative environmental impact from the felling of so many trees.
‘Impact on the ecology will be negligible,’ states the survey report.
Just ahead of the general elections of India that were held in between April and May 2019, the ruling right-wing BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was seeking a second term in office, gave its final approval for diversion of forests for the Adani-operated Talabira project. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change granted Stage II forest clearance for Talabira II and III project in March 2019, just before the general elections started.
When I travelled through the villages within the Talabira coal blocks, not all forest had been cleared. Numerous fully-grown trees were sparsely scattered across the Talabira I project site, while areas falling under Talabira II and III had dense vegetation as yet untouched by modern industrial activities. Nevertheless, near the Talabira I project site, forests had also been allotted temporarily for ancillary industries considered non-polluting in nature which villagers identified as industrial infrastructure for manufacturing bricks out of fly-ash (a waste product of coal combustion).
The local people of Patrapalli village, which mainly comprised families that had earlier been uprooted for the Hirakud Hydroelectric Project in the mid-1950s, told this correspondent that, besides faking village council meetings, the government had always been tardy in settling the rights of communities under the Forest Rights Act.
‘Nearly six years after the Forest Rights Act was enacted, the state government allotted land rights to 20 individuals in Patrapalli. So far, no community rights have been granted in our village. On the other hand, as many 79 individuals had applied for individual rights under the Act from Patrapali village alone. Almost everyone in villages in this region has always been dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods. Most communities were never aware that there existed a law to secure our rights over forest resources. Again, we had never imagined in our wildest dreams that matters would come to such a pass when we had to be separated from our forests,’ said Manoj Pasayat (56) of Patrapalli.
The status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act in India has been poor. Most states lag in processing of applications filed for claiming individual and community rights. Even Odisha, which is considered a better-performing state in so far as settlement of forest rights is concerned, has nearly 53,000 applications pending while a mammoth 130,000 applications have been rejected by the Odisha government.
According to a study published in 2016 in the tenth anniversary year of the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in India, nearly 175,000 hectares of land in the district of Sambalpur had the potential to be claimed for community rights by local communities. The corresponding figure in Jharsuguda district was much lower, at 24,409 hectares.
As already mentioned, no forest rights were settled for Khinda village against Talabira I coal mines, because the project preceded the enactment of the Forest Rights Act. The Talabira II and III coal project is spread across the villages of Khinda, Talabira, Patrapalli, Malda and Rampur in the districts of Sambalpur and Jharsuguda. Data on the website of Odisha’s department for the welfare of minorities, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, shows that 20 persons have been granted individual forest rights in Patrapalli, while three persons have been granted individual rights in Malda (Rampur is a village under Malda). No rights have been granted in the villages of Khinda and Talabira.
The website further mentions that, while seven grievance petitions against rejection of forest rights claims had been pending in Sambalpur in February 2017, at least 14 petitions were pending in Jharsuguda district.