Coal India Indigenous People
'Our lands and forests have been cruelly snatched away.' Adani's Pelma coal projects.
Nov 30, 2023
'Our lands and forests have been cruelly snatched away'. Gunmati points towards her community's farmland and forest made inaccessible by Adani's Gare Pelma III coal-mine lease.

In the Raigarh district of central India, a cluster of coal projects has left much of the local population destitute. Four of the area’s existing and proposed coal mines – the Pelma and Gare Pelma II, III and IV/8 blocks – are either owned by or contracted to the Adani Group. A nearby coal-power station, also owned by the Adani Group, is about to undergo a huge expansion, further driving exploitation of coal in an area whose rural inhabitants are already suffering the adverse environmental and economic consequences of this polluting industry.

In the first of a series of articles, Ayaskant Das explores the impacts of Adani’s coal agenda in a part of Chhattisgarh largely overlooked by the media.

Raigarh (Chhattisgarh): Sidarpara, a tribal settlement on the outskirts of a huge Adani-operated coal mine, was desolate on this dull November afternoon. An eerie silence, punctuated only by the dull clang of mining equipment in the distance, pervaded this village in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district. The crisp air carried with it faint signs of approaching winter.

Men linger by the ashes of a dead fire in the main street of Sidarpara, Raigahr district, Chhattisgarh.

Dingy houses on either side of Sidarpara’s only street stood as if abandoned by the owners. A perceptible sense of anxiety was writ large on the faces of half a dozen men and women hanging out on the street. Two men sat on their haunches next to a pile of ashes that had long gone cold. Further down the road, another group of men stood whispering amongst themselves under the eaves of a tiled-roofed house. They looked askance at us when we walked past them towards a couple of elderly women sitting dejectedly on a cement platform. Both women appeared malnourished, their tanned skin sticking to their bones.

Part of the Gare Pelma III coal mine, for which an Adani company is the contractor.

It was past 3 pm. Guruvari Sidar, the older of the two women, told us the people on the street had nothing better to do that afternoon after going hungry for the entire day.

‘Our electric cookers aren't working because there has been no power supply to our houses since early morning,’ Guruvari told me. ‘We do not know why.

‘We cannot even afford the subsidised cooking gas cylinders provided by the government. We generally use firewood in our kitchens. But access to our forests, from where we collect firewood, has been cut off by the coal mine right next to our village.’

Table giving details of Adani coal projects in the Raigahr area of Chhattisgarh, India.

The huge coal mine next to the village of Milupara (of which the tribal settlement of Sidarpara is a part) is operated by the Adani Group. The coal block, Gare Pelma III, belongs to the government-owned Chhattisgarh Power Generation Company Limited (CPGCL), which has appointed an Adani subsidiary for extracting the coal. This subsidiary, Gare Pelma III Collieries Limited, is the mine operator and developer (MDO), a system of contractual mining pioneered by the business conglomerate.

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The first phase of the elections for the state legislative assembly in Chhattisgarh was four days away when we visited Milupara. A huge symbol of Chhattisgarh’s opposition political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), adorned the outer wall of a house behind the two women. The party’s local candidate was promising a better future than that which the villagers had experienced under the Congress state government for the past five years.

Guruvari (left) and Gunmati, in Sidarpara.

‘It is the paddy harvesting season,’ said Gunmati, the other woman. ‘All families in the village are in the fields.

‘But we have been unable to access our farmland. It has been cut off by the mine contractor [Adani].’

The Gare Pelma III coal mine, for which an Adani company is the contractor ('mine developer and operator').

Through a maze of narrow alleys between houses made of mud and straw, Gunmati led me to the outer periphery of Sidarpara where the Adani company has fenced off the mining lease with cement poles. Gunmati’s thatched tenement, on a patch of common land belonging to the village, is only a few metres from this boundary. She grows marigolds and a few seasonal vegetables on a plot of land around her house. She points to a hillock in the distance within the mining lease.

‘Our farmland and forests lie just beyond that hillock there,’ she said. ‘They can be accessed only by walking through the mining lease.

‘Our family had depended on these lands and forests for generations. But now they have been cruelly snatched away.’

Gunmati’s son, Hemlal, had followed us to the boundary of the coal mine. His hair unkempt and teeth stained black from chewing tobacco, Hemlal is in his mid-30s. He lacks the basic education to take up a job. He is soon joined by other men from the neighborhood. The men take me to a wide trench that has been dug by the contractor to prevent entry to the mining area.

Men from the village of Sidarpara are cut off from farmland and forests, necessary for their livelihoods, by a trench at the Adani-operated Gare Pelma III mine lease.

‘This trench prevents us from passing through the lease area for accessing the forests beyond the hillock,’ said Hemlal. ‘We used to cross the trench using makeshift means.

‘But now, security guards have been deployed to keep us away. We have gradually let go of our livestock because we are no longer able to take them for grazing into the forest.’

The men told me that their applications for ownership rights over the forestland have been pending since 2006. Successive state governments in Chhattisgarh have never formalised their rights. The men turn back towards the village after seeing a security guard chase away a tribal woman who had strayed into the greenery with her livestock.

Aerial view of the Gare Pelma coal-mining projects and the village precincts they are devouring. Image Google

The Sidarpara settlement belongs to the Gonds, a community of indigenous people designated as a Scheduled Tribe by the government of Chhattisgarh. For centuries, the Milupara community has lived off the land and the forests. However, the bounty of nature has declined over the years due to large-scale coal development in the region. In recent years, these households have been categorised as ‘multi-dimensionally poor’ by the government. They suffer from combined deprivations in health, education and living standards. Subsidised foodgrains doled out by the government supplement their meagre incomes.

An indigenous farmer in Sidarpara, an area whose inhabitants have been classified as 'multi-dimensionally poor'.

Rajesh Tripathy, a Raigarh-based campaigner who accompanied me to Milupara, said that when land was acquired for the Gare Palma III coal mining project, the settlements were left out of the lease area.

‘But Milupara’s agricultural land and forests were taken over for the mine’, said Tripathy, who runs a voluntary social organization Janchetna Manch. ‘Minimal compensation was paid to the villagers.

‘Taking over the settlements would have entailed higher compensation, so acquisition of private lands was kept to a minimum.’

'Tribal families have been left without any source of livelihhod,' said Rajesh Tripathy, a Raigarh-based rights campaigner.

More than 460 hectares of private land, nevertheless, were acquired for Gare Pelma III, as well as 165 hectares of previously protected forest.

‘The government would have had to go through the rigors of formulating a rehabilitation and resettlement package if a larger section of the population had been displaced,’ said Tripathy. ‘This would have warranted the construction of a resettlement colony for the project-displaced population.

‘Such obligations were conveniently bypassed by leaving out the settlements. But the tribal families have been left without any source of livelihood. They do not own farmland elsewhere.’

The Gare Pelma III coal block contains reserves of more than 210 million tons. The coal block earlier belonged to the Goa government. Its allocation was nullified by a historic judgment of India’s Supreme Court, in which allotment of 214 coal blocks was annulled in September 2014. A year later, the coal block was allotted to CPGCL. It was in June 2017 that the former BJP state government of Chhattisgarh appointed the Adani company as the MDO for Gare Palma III. Our journey to Milupara that afternoon had taken us through areas lying within the mining lease, which covers more than 710 hectares in the Mandraigarh coalfields of south-eastern Chhattisgarh.

Attention: Mining Area Prohibited Area. Unauthorised entry prohibited.

Bajarmuda, a village lying at the heart of the mining-lease area, is a contrast to Milupara. The Adani Group’s stamp of authority is almost complete here. Young men of the village hired into low-rung jobs – firefighters and security guards – zoom down the street on newly acquired motorbikes wearing bright-colored jerseys provided by the company. A yellow bus drops children home from a private school, which locals tell me has been newly established by a corporate group and charges a fortune in terms of tuition fees. Local people also tell me Adani Group has been constructing public toilets and urinals, usually absent in rural Indian villages, as part of its corporate social-responsibility obligations. In contrast, government services have almost completely vanished. There is no supply of potable water to the households. A building that was used earlier by the panchayat (local village self-governing body) as its administrative office lies derelict. A part of the building that was once used to dole out foodgrains to poor people lies shuttered and unused. A large number of families have been identified for displacement from Bajarmuda but they have not yet relocated, even though the mine is already operational, because they have received only a part of their entitlements.

Young men of Bajarmuda zoom down the street on newly acquired motorbikes, having been hired into jobs such as security at the Gare Pelma III coal mine.

‘The young men of this village are on cloud nine right now having been handed money by the mining company,’ said Khemnidhi Nayak, a retired government employee from Bajarmuda. ‘They do not need subsidised foodgrains.

‘They fail to understand that this boom is short-lived. What will they do once the compensation money dries up, the coal is exhausted, and the company winds up its operations? They have already sold their land and houses.’

Khemnidhi Nayak, who since retiring has been working to improve the lives of people in his community.

Nayak has been working as a social activist after retirement from service. In the past, he was vehemently opposed to land takeover for the mining project. But later he was forced to part with his portion of the family’s ancestral house when his only brother decided to sell off the other half.

When environmental approval for the project was granted in May 2013, the number of displaced families from Bajarmuda alone was pegged at 434. (This environmental clearance was later transferred from the Goa government to the new allottee, CPGCL.)

‘No resettlement colony was developed for the project-displaced families,’ said Nayak. ‘Everyone agreed to take compensation in lieu of housing units. The company won by fomenting factions amongst local people.’

The area between Bajarmuda and Milupara is where most of the mining is occurring in the Gare Palma III project. Mountains of excavated coal greet us as we drive on a shiny asphalt road along the periphery of the mining lease. Trucks loaded to the brim transfer coal to the washery. Concrete poles and a trench separate the new road from the mining lease. But after we pass the exit gate of the mine, from which lorries emerge with loads of coal, we meet with ditches and potholes.

Lorries laden with coal choke local roads in the Raigahr area.

A short distance down this dilapidated road is another coal mining project – Gare Pelma IV/8 – which was taken over by the Adani Group when it acquired a majority stake (64.1%) in India’s second largest cement manufacturing company, Ambuja Cements, in September 2022. This coal block, covering an area of 499 hectares and containing reserves of 107.2 million tons, was allotted to Ambuja Cements in April 2015. In April 2021, an expert panel set up India’s premier environment court, the National Green Tribunal, found that numerous violations had occurred in relation to this project.

The Gare Pelma IV/8 coal mine, acquired by the Adani Group when it took over Ambuja Cements in 2022.

Mountains of coal, visible from a distance, were piled inside the mining lease of Ambuja Cements. Adverse impacts of unscientific environmental-mitigation measures adopted in the transportation of coal were suffered by the people of the neighboring village of Khamariya. The main road leading to the village had turned into slush after water had been sprinkled over fugitive coal dust. Bikes and pedestrians had to progress carefully through this coal mud even as more coal-laden trucks sped by.

‘It is a curse that has befallen us ever since coal mining began in the area,’ said Rajkumar Behera (50), a farmer in Khamariya. ‘Coal dust pollutes the air and makes us very unhealthy. Accidents are often reported, with bikes skidding on the coal slush on the road.’

Water has turned coal dust on the road into a dangerous, slippery slush.

A group of men had gathered for evening tea at a grocery store near the village temple where we met Behera. The men tell me large swathes of their agricultural land were taken over for extracting coal from Gare Pelma IV/8 and Gare Pelma III.

‘But our settlements were left untouched because it would have meant giving us higher compensation,’ said Khemsagar Behera (48), another farmer. ‘We have been reduced to living on an island surrounded by muck from the coal mines.

‘Access to most of our residual agricultural land has been cut off by overburden dumped from the mines. This forces us to take long detours. Farm output, in any case, has declined because aquifers have been cut off by underground mining. We cannot even sell off those lands. Prospective buyers turn us down saying those lands are hollow within.’

Most of the coal in Raigarh district is found in Gharghoda and Tamnar, which are contiguous tehsil areas (administrative units) abutting the border of the neighboring state of Odisha. The top names of corporate India have coal projects in this region. Special provisions are applicable in the governance of these two tehsils which, owing to a pre-ponderance of tribal population, have been categorised under Schedule V of the Constitution of India (See Page 307 of Constitution of India).

The coal mines of Raigarh have helped meet the energy demands of India. But these projects have done little for local communities that have lost their land, forests and incomes. Large sections of the tribal population in Raigarh live in endemic poverty. Government reports say the proportion of the population of Raigarh that is ‘multidimensionally poor’ is a whopping 19.08% (See Page 86 of Report). In addition, the environmental consequences of the coal projects have caused adverse impacts on the lives of project-affected communities.

Raigarh is a favourite hunting ground of the Adani Group. The business conglomerate’s insatiable hunger for coal drives its rapid expansion in this coal-rich district.

The Adani Group is all set to begin operations in another coal block, Pelma, for which it signed an MDO agreement with the Modi government in June 2023. South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL), owned by the central government, has appointed Adani Group as the contractor for operating the mines. There have been political protests in the recent past opposing the appointment of an Adani company as Pelma’s contractor. Local communities say they did not consent to the takeover of more than 1700 hectares of land required for the project. The SECL, however, claims that land acquisition is complete on paper. Pelma contains nearly 1100 million tons of coal.

Like Pelma, in which around seven villages are affected, more than two dozen villages will be impacted by the Adani-operated Gare Pelma II coal mining project. The coal block was allotted in April 2015 to a public-sector power-generation company belonging to the state of Maharashtra. In April 2021, an Adani subsidiary, Gare Palma II Collieries, was appointed MDO for the mine. Local communities of the project-affected villages have refused to part with their land and the acquisition process is yet to be completed by the state government. However, the Modi government granted environmental clearance to the project in July 2022 prior to completion of land-acquisition formalities.

Very close to Gare Pelma II, the Adani Group’s plan to operate the Gare Palma I coal project has been shelved. The Modi government allotted the coal block to the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited in March 2015. The Adani Group announced receipt of a letter of intent from the Gujarat government for its appointment as MDO of Gare Palma I. However, the Gujarat government surrendered the block to the central Ministry of Coal without commencing operations. The ministry accepted the surrender letter in August 2022. The Adani Group’s claim on this coal block, which covers over 57 square kilometres, is therefore uncertain.

The Adani Group is working towards expanding the electricity-production capacity of its 600-MW coal-power plant in another part of Raigarh district. A proposal by Adani subsidiary, Raigarh Energy Generation Ltd, to add two huge units of 800 MW each to the existing project is in the pipeline. The Modi government has granted terms of reference to the Adani company, Raigarh Energy Generation Limited, to assess the environmental impacts of the huge expansion. A public hearing is yet to be held for this assessment. The project is close to the place where the Maand, an important river of Chhattisgarh, meets the east-flowing Mahanadi River as it flows into Odisha. Land needed for the expansion is already under the ownership of the Adani Group.

Will Adani feed this proposed monstrous power project with coal extracted from Raigarh? It seems likely.