Following a week-long visit to the Indian state of Odisha, Ayaskant Das reports on the plight of people affected by a cluster of new Adani coal mines. Talabira I, though closed, continues to blight people’s prospects through its dumps of mine waste. Meanwhile, clearing has started for the next Talabira coal project. Houses have already been demolished by overburden. In March 2022, police detained family members of an outspoken critic of the coal developments. A heavy police presence has instilled a feeling of widespread fear into a community facing displacement for the third time in two generations.
Summer in Talabira, a mineral-rich area in the coastal Indian state of Odisha, is a viciously hot season. Brooks and streams dry up, exposing the shiny pebbles on their beds. The breeze that blows occasionally is laden with coal dust and scrapes your bare skin leaving you scorched and parched.
The dry air is heavy with the intoxicating aroma of mahuli flowers, which are abundant in this region and often processed by local communities to brew a heady indigenous liquor. It is a shade past noon on a Tuesday, but 35-year-old Binod Bag is already inebriated with a stiff drink of mahuli wine. His eyes are bloodshot. His unusually thin and wiry frame betrays the possibility of a serious underlying illness, presumably unknown to himself. His scaly skin is covered with a thin film of black slime as he emerges from a huge water-filled coal pit in clothes dripping wet. He says it is his daily bath as he changes into a fresh (but dirty) pair of short pants and a T-shirt near the broken boundary wall of Talabira I coal mine. The mine belongs to the Adani Group and has been lying inactive for some years now.
Binod, an orphan who lives alone in a ramshackle dwelling next to the mine’s dilapidated wall, had spent the earlier part of the day hacking and picking small boulders of coal from the unattended mining pit. After a bath, he is now ready to transport the scavenged coal on a bicycle for sale in the local market.
‘I sell the coal to small eateries and tea shops that use it as fuel for cooking. On an average day, I earn between Rs 300 and Rs 400 [around USD $5] by selling the coal. There is nothing else I can do for a living. Our forests and their resources have been lost to the coal mines. I am an orphan and had no schooling. I never got a chance for a decent job in the mines,’ Binod tells us, his breath reeking of mahuli wine.
Like Binod, there are scores of young men and their families in Beheramunda, a locality in Rengali block (an administrative unit) in the Sambalpur district of Odisha, who make their living by pilfering or scavenging coal. Most of these families living right next to Talabira I are landless. Huge swathes of agricultural land on which they used to find employment throughout the year have long been taken over to extract coal. The only other source of employment for landless families is work as manual laborers at the nearby coal pits or distant construction sites. At times, they also find work in road-building or pipeline-laying projects undertaken by the state government.
Almost all families of Beheramunda depend for their daily bath on the water-filled coal pit after their community well collapsed a few years ago following a large blast in another nearby mine. Their miserable lives manifest the lop-sided development in the mining areas of India. Their lot is a stark contrast to the rich deposits of coal which have helped enrich many a corporate entity.
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The Talabira area, which is divided into three coal blocks, has estimated deposits of nearly 600 million tons of coal. The Talabira I coal block is owned by Raipur Energen Limited, a subsidiary of the Adani Group. Another Adani Group subsidiary, Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited (TOMPL), is the contractor appointed by Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) India Limited, a public-sector company, to extract coal from Talabira II and Talabira III blocks. Together, the two blocks account for more than 550 million tons of coal deposits. In technical terms, Adani’s TOMPL is the Mine Developer and Operator of Talabira II and III coal blocks.
As pervasive as the aroma of mahuli flowers is a sense of fear and impending doom throughout Talabira. All 47 dwelling units in Beheramunda have been marked for resettlement. The initials NLC, along with certain codes, have been marked upon each dwelling unit following a survey conducted a few months ago by government officials and representatives of TOMPL.
Locals claim no reason was proffered to them for their proposed resettlement, though it could obviously be to extract more coal from the region.
‘We were told only that we have to relocate from Beheramunda very soon. We were promised jobs and compensation. But nothing of it was on paper. If we resist, we know we will be put behind bars,’ said Janmejaya Rohidas (60) of Beheramunda.
These families are not particularly happy living in a polluted environment amidst hillocks of overburden. A number of them belong to the Scheduled Caste community known locally as mochi, or the community of cobblers. They are low in the social hierarchy, having been deprived of education owing to caste-based discrimination that has persisted for centuries in India. Their air and water have already been polluted by fugitive dust from open-cast coal mines. But their agony stems from the fact that they will be displaced for a third time. A majority of these families had been relocated by the government to Beheramunda in the mid-1950s when their homes in nearby villages were submerged under the reservoir that was created by the massive Hirakud hydroelectric dam.
‘Then came the coal-mining project,’ said 80-year-old Nityananda Deep. 'Our new dwellings fell within the project area’s boundary. So, we relocated to a different part of Beheramunda. We had received a pittance as compensation when we were resettled for the Hirakud Dam. For my family of 17 members, we have one only member who was offered employment in the Talabira I coal mine as part of a rehabilitation and resettlement package given to us several years ago. Not all families could be relocated to the new colony that was constructed around 20 years ago for the displaced population of the Talabira I mine. We know that resisting the impending displacement will be futile. The cops are already here and we will meet the same fate as those who were arrested recently for not agreeing to part with their land.’
On 8 March 2022, at least 13 men were arrested by the district police of Sambalpur, allegedly for resisting the dumping of overburden from the Talabira II coal mine, located a couple of miles from Talabira I. Out of these, 10 men belonged to the family of senior citizen Jayadev Rout of Khinda village. When I meet them at their ancestral home in Khinda, Rout family members allege that several teams of the district police rounded them up from different locations on 8 March.
‘There was no immediate provocation on our part. We were rounded up by cops from different locations and herded into the nearby Thelkoli Police Station. We were later taken to a local court which sent us to judicial custody in Sambalpur district jail. We have refused to part with our land for the Talabira II mining project. We haven’t accepted compensation in lieu of the land. We had lost agricultural land for the Hirakud dam, and we do not want to part with our lands again. Our refusal to part with our land and houses has been portrayed as a crime,’ said 73-year-old Jayadev Rout, who is himself an ex-policeman from Odisha Police. (The family lost farmland to these developments, but not their village home.)
Rout shared a two-minute-long video showing footage of how certain dwellings, which they had constructed on agricultural land for members of the extended family, were razed and covered with overburden on 12 March in the presence of police. The family claims that, when those living quarters were flattened, they could not retrieve the ashes of their ancestors, which they had saved for immersion in the holy Ganges at a propitious occasion in the future as is the custom in all Hindu households in India.
Nine members of the family were released on bail on 11 March, except for Rout’s 42-year-old nephew Hemanta, who works part-time as a freelance journalist with media outlets that publish in the local language.
‘They have targeted me in particular because I have been at the forefront of the resistance,’ Hemanta said.
Conflict has been brewing for a long time between communities in the coal-block areas of Talabira II and III on the one hand, and the government and mining company on the other. Families affected by the mining allege that officials have reneged on promises made to them during discussions. A set of seven provisions had been promised to project-affected and project-displaced families in a meeting that was held with officials of the local administration and NLC on 5 December 2019. These provisions included adequate compensation for land acquired for the projects under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, a landmark law enacted by the former Congress-led United Progressive Alliance central government in India. Another promise made during the meeting was that landless villagers would also receive compensation. Officials of Adani-owned TOMPL, who had attended the meeting too, had also promised employment to members of families affected by the project.
‘Reneging on promises made during this particular meeting in December 2019 has been at the core of the conflict between local communities and the government in Talabira,’ added Hemanta.
The three other men who were arrested with members of Jayadev Rout’s family belong to the village of Budhiapali, which falls under the Talabira II project area. Locals allege that police, including plain-clothes police, have been frequenting Talabira, Khinda and Budhiapali. From 8 March, a police picket has been permanently stationed at a trijunction from which a dusty road leads to the Talabira II project site. Police are stationed around the clock under a makeshift shelter at this trijunction. It is understandable that the events of 8 March, which were followed by the widespread posting of police, have instilled a pervasive and unnerving sense of fear amongst villagers.
The chief of the district’s police force tries to downplay the fears of the local population when I meet him at his office in Sambalpur city.
‘The fears of the local population are unfounded. Our police force is empathetic to the issues concerning our people. It is not that the project-affected families do not want to part with their lands and houses. They just want higher compensation in lieu of it,’ said Sambalpur’s Superintendent of Police Battula Gangadhar.
Gangadhar provides me with a copy of a Gazette notification issued by the Union of India dated 28 August 2009 which says the acquisition proceedings for approximately 384 hectares of land for the Talabira II and III coal mining projects had been completed.
‘The members of Rout’s family had been hampering work on the mining project, repeatedly claiming higher compensation for their lands that have already been acquired. They are not legally entitled to higher compensation. Instead of going to a court of law for seeking justice, they had been forcibly hampering mining work in the project area. We had invited them for discussions on numerous occasions in the past so that their grievances could be redressed in a legal manner. But they took no heed of our repeated entreaties to sort the matter amicably. We had no other option than taking legal action against them,’ he explained.
But women members of Rout’s family also complain of police high-handedness. They allege that on 8 March they had been forcibly hauled into a bus – inside which they were kept for several hours – when they had come out of their house to enquire about the fate of their men following unconfirmed news about their arrests.
‘We were locked inside the bus till late evening. School-going kids of our family were stranded alone at home for the entire duration without food. Neither were we allowed to answer the call of nature nor offered drinking water. The irony is that this treatment was meted out to us on the occasion of International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March,’ Hemanta’s 65-year-old mother Binodini tells me.
When queried, the police chief said that the women had to be taken into preventive custody in order to avoid a flare-up of the law-and-order situation. ‘They simply refused to get down from the bus once they were taken inside, even if we had arranged basic amenities from them at the local police station,’ said Gangadhar.
Gangadhar also added that the picket at the trijunction near Talabira II project site does not belong to district’s police. He said the mining company has been directly provided with a contingent from the Odisha Industrial Security Force, a wing of the state’s police department that provides security to industrial establishments, following a formal requisition.
A number of inhabitants, particularly in the Talabira II project area, where removal of the overburden has already commenced, are likely to be forcibly displaced in the near future. It remains to be seen whether the project-affected families leave the site of their own volition after accepting whatever compensation is offered, or whether they are forcibly displaced. It also remains to be seen how soon the process kicks off. But the Talabira area has an old history of protracted resistance against the high-handedness of ruling powers.
On my way back from Talabira, I am introduced by locals to a 79-year-old farmer, Kalia Munda, from the neighboring Bamaloi village, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe community. Kalia Munda has not accepted compensation for more than 10 acres of his land that the Odisha government had acquired in the year 2006 for industrial development. He simply did not want to part with it. To date, he continues to till the minuscule leftover land which lies next to the boundary wall of a private development that was later constructed in the area as part of the government’s policy.
‘My clan traces its ancestry to the legendary tribal leader Birsa Munda who never bowed down to British imperialism. I am helpless against the massive state power. But I will not yield and will continue tilling my land till my last breath,’ Kalia Munda told me.
The Talabira area is also famous for the greatest-ever freedom-fighter of western Odisha, Veer Surendra Sai, who was born in Khinda village in the early part of the 19th century. With an impending struggle against forcible takeover of land, local communities have been talking about borrowing inspiration from Surendra Sai and his coterie of comrades who not only led a protracted struggle against British imperialism but also played a noteworthy role in India’s first war for independence in the year 1857. Clearly, an onerous task lies ahead for the government and administration to convince the local people of Talabira to accede to the coal mines.