India Coal
Adani Bijahan coal project suffers setback in court
Apr 10, 2024
Mandatory hearings for Adani's Bijahan coal mine were allegedly not conducted in accordance with the laws.

An Adani company has received a setback from a state court in India regarding development of a huge coal mine. The High Court of Odisha has sent the Adani company and the state government back to the drawing board regarding mandatory consultations with tribal villagers to be ousted from their lands by the Bijahan mine. Village meetings, a mandatory part of the approval process, had been rushed through in a single day by local authorities, allegedly contravening legal requirements. The court’s order is a brief reprieve for people whose land, homes and livelihoods are threatened.

Basic facts and figures:

  • Name of project: Bijahan coal mining project
  • Location: Sundargarh, state of Odisha, India
  • Name of Adani subsidiary: Mahanadi Mines & Minerals Private Limited
  • Coal reserves: 327 million tons
  • Peak output: 5.26 million tons per annum
  • People affected: 4 villages affected (detailed study not yet conducted)
  • Cost: Rs 2600 crore (US $313 million)
  • Current status: Awaiting approval

The locations of four of the villages to be impacted by Adani's Bijahan coal mine.

The government of the eastern Indian state of Odisha allegedly rushed through public consultations with tribal communities to fast-track a proposed new coal mine belonging to the Adani Group, according to a court petition. Consultative meetings with project-affected communities in tribal-dominated villages, which should have been conducted only after a notice period of 15 days, were allegedly held at just a day’s notice!

Repairs underway in a traditional village precinct the Bijahan area. Local people have no idea which houses in the four villages will be demolished to make way for the Adani coal mine.

The high court of Odisha has ordered the state government, headed by chief minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) regional political party, to address the complaints of communities that allege that public consultations were not conducted as per law. The government has been directed by the court to resolve the grievances within a period of three months.

The complaints pertain to the Bijahan coal mine which is proposed by Adani Group in Odisha’s Sundargarh, a district which is administered and controlled by the government through special provisions owing to the preponderance of tribal people within it. An Adani Group subsidiary, Mahanadi Mines & Minerals Private Limited, which owns the Bijahan block, has proposed a 5.26 million tons per annum (MTPA) mining project at a huge cost of over Rs 2600 crore (US $313 million). The block, a part of the IB coalfields of east-central India, contains over 327 million tons of reserves.

Newspaper clipping from the Bhubaneswar Statesman, 2 December 2023.

A vast tract of forest upon which the tribal communities are dependent for water resources, small-scale forest products and livelihoods will be cleared for the project. Though the Odisha government claims that public consultations were held through Gram Sabhas (councils comprising the adult population of a village), many project-affected people do not seem to know when the meetings were conducted.

‘We are undecided as to whether we would part with our homesteads, agricultural land and forests for the mining project,’ said Rajendra Naik of Sundargarh’s Hemgir tehsil (an administrative unit) where the project is proposed.

‘The state government has not yet convened Gram Sabha meetings to obtain the consent of local population in the project-affected villages.’

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The proposed mining lease covers 1100 hectares across four villages – Bijahan, Bhograkachhar, Girisima and Jharpalam – where a significant section of the population belongs to indigenous tribal communities. An area of 608.64 ha identified for takeover is forest land. Even though a detailed Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) study is yet to be conducted, estimates by the project proponent indicate that approximately 459 families will be displaced while an additional 376 families will be affected when mining operations commence. On 27 January 2024, local communities reportedly stopped officials of Adani Group from undertaking a drone survey of affected villages. The survey began from Bhograkachhar village but local communities demanded that Gram Sabha meetings first be convened so that they could put forth their demands pertaining to compensation against land to be acquired as well as rehabilitation and resettlement for families that will be displaced.

The area of forests, fields and villages to be impacted by the Adani Group's Bijahan coal mine. Image Google

‘Without obtaining the consent of Gram Sabhas, which should come first as this is a district dominated by tribal communities, the state government forcefully went ahead with a separate public-hearing process which is mandatory for granting environmental approval for the project,' said Naik.

'Nonetheless, we registered our grievances with officials present in the environmental public hearing,’ he added.

A landmark law enacted in 1996 by a Congress-led central government empowers local communities in tribal-dominated areas – categorised as Schedule V areas as per the provisions of the Constitution of India – ownership and control over community resources including land and forests. The law, Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 requires approval by Gram Sabhas of ‘plans, programs and projects’ aimed at the ‘social and economic development’ of local communities. It also says that consent of Gram Sabhas is mandatory before the commencement of land acquisition and resettling of people in areas designated as Schedule V.

A government-run upper primary school in Bhograkachhar village, close to the proposed mine. Villagers fear young school-going children will bear the brunt of the coal-mining project.

Other sections of the local population in the Bijahan project area have alleged that Gram Sabhas were held at short notice resulting in large-scale absenteeism amongst project-affected communities. Allegedly, the state government provided just a day’s notice before conducting the Gram Sabha meetings in the four villages before forever taking away those communities' land, water and natural resources!

‘The farce of conducting Gram Sabhas in violation of law resulted in disaffection and rancour against the government,’ said Niranjan Bhoi, another local resident. ‘Members of many families in the project-affected villages, who are employed in low-rung labour-intensive work in far-off cities and townships, could not make it to the meetings.

‘Even those who were present in their ancestral homes could not make it to the meetings because of pre-occupation with other work. No one was informed sufficiently in advance for the meetings.’

It has been alleged that Odisha government hastily convened the Gram Sabha meetings after the Modi government set the ball rolling by granting environmental approval for the project.

The New India Express, Odisha, 5 February 2024.

A panel of experts of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the ministry’) discussed the Bijahan coal mining project in a meeting held on 13 March 2023. Following discussions, the panel, called the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which evaluates potential ecological impacts of mining and industrial projects, recommended a set of terms of reference for the project proponent to carry out an environment impact assessment (EIA) of the Bijahan coal mine.

On 19 October 2023, the pollution control board of Odisha issued a notification for conducting a public hearing for environmental approval of the coal mine. Through advertisements which appeared in locally available English and vernacular-language newspapers on 22 October 2023, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board asked members of local communities to participate in a public hearing. The public hearing was scheduled for 1 December 2023.

New India Express, Odisha, 2 December 2023.

It was on 24 November 2023, when the public hearing was only a week away, that the district administration of Sundargarh issued a notice for conducting Gram Sabha meetings in all four villages – that is, in Bijahan, Bhograkachhar, Girisima and Jharpalam. The meetings were scheduled for different time slots on 26 November 2024.

‘The haste with which the Odisha government went about seeking the consent of tribal communities for Adani’s project is evident from the fact that Gram Sabha meetings for all four project-impacted meetings were convened on a single day,’ said Naik. ‘At the end of the day, only three meetings could be completed on 26 November. All three meetings were poorly attended.

‘Afterwards, when company officials arrived to carry out a drone survey of affected villages, local communities chased them away. Now, the state government has enlisted the services of its forest department to survey the forest land that will be cleared for the project.’

Reportedly, when the public hearing for the environmental approval was held on 1 December 2023, local communities expressed grave displeasure over the manner in which Gram Sabha meetings were held.

The minutes of the hearing’s proceedings, which have been uploaded to the website of the state’s pollution control board, do not list the grievances aired by local communities, even though the board received 78 written representations from the public regarding potential environmental consequences of the project. The minutes are dominated by an executive summary of the proposed project. The minutes claim approximately 400-450 people attended the meeting; however, only 92 attendees put their signatures on the attendance sheet. As many as 34 participants from the public aired their grievances at the meeting. The annexures containing the objections raised by project-affected people as well as the attendance register have not been published on the board’s website.

People assemble on 1 December 2023 to register their concern about Adani's proposed Bijahan coal mine.

Several anomalies have been pointed out in the EIA report of the project based on which the Odisha government conducted the public hearing on 1 December 2023. The report mentions that an application seeking approval for clearing the forest was pending with the Odisha government. However, it has emerged that the application had been rejected long before the public hearing was held. A committee – called the Project Screening Committee – chaired by the senior-most bureaucrat in Odisha’s forest department, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, had rejected the proposal for forest clearance in a meeting held on 6 March 2023 – that is, at least ten months before the public hearing was held in Sundargarh.

The committee pointed out many deficiencies in the application for forest clearance. An important stream, the Budhajholia Nallah, which is a source of water for irrigation and livestock of villages, flows along the south-eastern boundary of the mining lease. The project proponent stated in the application that the stream will be diverted from the lease area by constructing an artificial tributary. However, it did not furnish approval for the diversion from the water-resources department.

Amongst other deficiencies, the committee pointed out that the location of the mine provided by the project proponent on a topographical sheet had not been authenticated by all concerned departments. The plot numbers of forest land sought to be diverted were not mentioned in the application. No mention had been made of land for compensatory afforestation. The list of trees to be felled was also not enumerated in the application.

The committee noted: ‘The proposal stands rejected by the PSC [Project Screening Committee] due to above shortcomings and observation of DFO [Divisional Forest Officer], Sundargarh Forest Division/ RCCF [Regional Chief Conservator of Forests] Rourkela Circle.’

It is not yet known if the project proponent has filed a new application after this application was rejected due to insufficient data.

Locals appealed to the district administration of Sundargarh about the ham-fisted manner in which the Gram Sabha meetings were rushed through just days in advance of the public hearing. In a letter dated 8 December 2023, a copy of which has been accessed by this correspondent, villagers demanded that Gram Sabha meetings be conducted afresh to record the grievances of affected persons since the project was bound to have significant impacts on livelihoods and would pollute the air and water.

A questionnaire was emailed by this correspondent to the District Magistrate of Sundargarh, Gavali Parag Harshad, asking why the Gram Sabha meetings were proposed at short notice instead of the mandatory notice period of 15 days. No response had been received at the time of publication. The article will be updated if any response is received.

When the project-affected villagers received no response from the administration over their demands, they decided to file a petition in Odisha’s high court located in Cuttack, the second-largest city and former capital of the state. In the petition, Bhoi along with three other persons, Sanatan Deheri (51), Bhismadeb Deheri (43) and Sitaram Kawar (34), described the clumsy policies and strong-arm tactics adopted by the government to clear the Adani project.

It was alleged in the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that the notification issued by Sundargarh district administration to conduct four Gram Sabha meetings at a notice of just one day violated Odisha Gram Panchayat Rules, 2014. The rules stipulate “at least fifteen clear days’ notice for a meeting of any Gram Sabha”.

‘The holding of the public hearing dated: - 01.12. 2023 without holding Gram Sabha by following proper procedure prescribed by law is illegal and without following due process of law,” stated the PIL.

The petitioners also drew the attention of the court to a letter purportedly issued by Sundargarh district administration to the Gram Panchayat (local self-governing body of several villages put together) of Jharpalam on 28 November 2023. This letter outlined the proceedings of the Gram Sabha held in Girisima village in the afternoon of 26 November 2023.

The petitioners said: ‘It is worth mentioning here that no such proper village meeting (Gram Sabha) was held on dated: - 26.11.2023 at Girisima village as described in the letter of the Sub-Collector, Sundargarh. Moreover, it is a forged and vague description of the meeting because no proper procedure has been followed for holding of such village meeting (Gram Sabha) as laid down in the Orissa Gram Panchayat Rules, 2014.’

On 22 January 2024, a division bench of the High Court comprising its acting Chief Justice BR Sarangi and Justice MS Raman directed the district administration of Sundargarh to take a fresh look at the grievances of the affected local communities.

‘As agreed by learned counsel for the parties and after going through the records, this Court, without expressing any opinion on the merits of the case, disposes of the Writ Petition directing Opposite Party No. 4 [the district administration of Sundargarh] to consider the representation filed by the petitioners vide Annexure-5 [letter of project-affected communities dated 8 December 2023 to the district administration], and pass appropriate order in accordance with law within a period of three months from the date of production of certified copy of this order,’ said the bench in its order.

Locals have been told that government buildings, such as this one near Bhograkachhar village, will be demolished for the coal mine.

The letter of the district administration issued to Jharpalam Gram Panchayat on 28 November 2023 (which was also accessed by this correspondent) said that provisions of India’s land-acquisition law, the LARR Act, 2013, will be used for takeover of land for the Adani project. Notably, landowners in three of the project-affected villages, Girisima, Jharpalam and Bijahan, were compensated for land takeover in 2011 when the coal block belonged to an earlier allottee Bhushan Power & Steel Limited. (In September 2014, the premier court of India, the Supreme Court, quashed allocation of 214 coal blocks through a landmark judgement, which included the Bijahan block). However, the earlier acquisitions had taken place under the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which now stands nullified after the enactment of the LARR Act, 2013. Land-owners of the project-affected families will stand to gain better compensation if the acquisition takes place under the LARR Act.)

No meeting between the district administration and project-affected villagers had taken place at the time that this article was published. The district administration has not yet responded to a query of this correspondent as to when ‘appropriate orders’ will be issued.

The Adani Group has said that it will use the mining plan and mine-closure plan that had been permitted to the earlier allottee Bhushan Power & Steel Limited, before that coal-block allotment was nullified by the Supreme Court.

The project proponent proposes to carry out both open-cast and underground mining in Bijahan. However, underground mining will commence only after 32.5 years as per the mining plan approved by the central government. While granting terms of reference for the EIA assessment, the ministry made it clear that majority of forest land should be left untouched as most of it falls within the portion of the lease area under which underground mining is stipulated.

‘This should be preserved forest and its ecology, and accordingly permanent fencing along this forest land shall be conducted. Further, it was found that there are non-essential infrastructure/activities proposed on forest land such was water reservoir, pit head facilities, the same shall not be considered on forest land. EAC also desired that PP [project proponent] should not divert the forest land covering underground area for next 32 years till UG [underground] operations start as given their own feasibility report', the ministry stated in the terms of reference.

The project proponent has also been directed not to conduct any activity along the Budhajholia Nallah stream which is proposed to be diverted. It will have to maintain a minimum distance of 60 metres from the stream along the mining-lease area. The Adani Group has said that the project will generate direct employment for about 1270 persons while more than 3000 people will be indirectly benefited.