India Coal
Can India’s general elections knock off Adani’s Gondulpara coal-mine project?
May 22, 2024
Villagers in the area that Adani plans to obliterate for its 'Gondulpara' coal project ponder how to vote in India's general elections.

In the north-eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, the Adani Group proposes to establish a huge coal mine that will destroy several villages and adjacent farmlands and forests. The misnamed ‘Gondulpara’ project has been fiercely opposed by affected villagers who are now contemplating their options for voting in the current national elections. In 2019, most supported the BJP, the party of Indian PM Narendra Modi. However, the BJP and Modi are strongly 'identified' with Adani - and several other parties are vying for people’s votes in the area.

(All images except cover image are by the author)

There is a well-known folklore truism in Indian politics: that ‘rajneeti’ (politics) is very different from ‘andolan’ (agitation). The people in agitations or people’s movements seldom cross over to politics to fight for seats in parliament. While one system of democratic politics is a fight for power, the other is for participatory democratic politics. The people of Gondalpura in the Indian state of Jharkhand have been practising their democratic rights against Adani Enterprises for years now. They’ve loudly said no to Adani’s proposed ‘Gondulpara’ coal mine time and time again.

'Chase Adani away - Save the country'

But Adani and the government persist in seeking the public hearings that are a forerunner to environmental approval for the project. So can a defeat of the BJP in the current national elections lead to the cancellation of the proposed coal mine at Gondalpura?

When this correspondent first met Parmeshwar Mahto, village elder of Gondalpura in 2022, he asked, in great anguish, how many times do we have to tell them no, why don’t they ever listen?

Parmeshwar Mahto, village elder of Gondalpura, slated for destruction by an Adani coal mine, urges a vote against Modi's BJP.

I met him again recently in Gondalpura and asked if a change of national government could end the Adani Group’s plans to obliterate his homelands with a huge coal mine.

‘Koi single party jo hai na, isko hata nahi payega.’ (No single party can remove Adani from here.)

‘The Alliance has many parties’, I responded. ‘Can they remove Adani?’

(The Alliance refers to a coalition of opposition parties that includes the Congress.)

‘Yes. The Alliance can remove the Adani Group,’ he says, ‘In the coming assembly election in Jharkhand, you will see, the BJP will lose all of Jharkhand, and a government of the JMM (the party set up to campaign for the indigenous peoples of the region) will form again.’

'Adani company - go back!'

‘Narendra Modi thinks Jharkhand is his ‘charagha’ (pasture).

Parmeshwar continues to say that no one will vote for the BJP in Gondalpura panchayat, but then adds, ‘only their own party workers might still vote for the BJP.’

‘Even today I tell people that if you want to save your country, don’t vote for the BJP.’

(The BJP is the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is strongly identified with Adani.)

(Story continues below)

More stories See all
The harsh life at the coal face of Adani’s Talabira mine
‘We are from Dharavi’ has become a battle cry
Defiance: how tribal forest people have taken on the might of Adani's coal juggernaut
Were India’s stocks manipulated before election results?
‘They should not believe in the promised land that the Adani company tempts them with.’

Fagu Yadav, another village elder and leader is very nervous. He may have a calendar with Modi and the BJP in his house, but he is concerned about the state of democracy in the country, and whether it is possible to defeat the BJP. He says 95% of the Gondalpura Panchayat will vote for the Alliance.

Conversations in his house continue about how the BJP is rigging elections in Surat, in Mathura, Indore, and whether it is possible to defeat them.

Village elder Fagu Yadav stands nexty to graffiti saying 'Adani company touts - come to your senses!'

The other older conversation is how they all had voted for the BJP in 2019. Almost all of them. And why? It was the Pulwama terror attack in Kashmir that dominated every nationalist sentiment, and they even had banners for the martyrs put up in the village then.

And now? Now they have already said that no one should even by mistake vote for the BJP, but they still have to have a ‘bhetak’, a sit-down, to discuss which of the opposition parties should receive their votes. 

‘We obviously know that the Land Acquisition Act (LARR Act) can lead the company’s people to forge our signatures,’ he continues.

That law has been undermined by the BJP. It was the Congress’s policy for a cure-all to land struggles and big projects, but history has not been kind to it. Fagu is aware that re-election of the BJP in New Delhi will not bode well for them, but one has to be vigilant about the Congress as well.

'NTPC is a thief. Chase Adani away. Save Gondalpura.' (NTPC is the National Thermal Power Company)

The nearby city of Hazaribagh and its environs have been a bastion for the BJP for decades. In the 2019 elections, the BJP’s Jayant Sinha received over 67.42% of all polled votes, with 728,798 votes, against the Congress’s 249,250 votes at second place. And the third-place Communist Party of India had about 32,109 votes, and they are not even part of the Alliance.

But there is another party that appears in almost every conversation in this area. It is the Jharkhandi Bhasha Khatian Sangharsh Samiti (KBSS), which is a new party, whose candidates are running as independents, but everyone knows they are part of a movement that appeals to the unemployed, the young and the desperate. It is spearheaded by young Jairam Mahto.

A fragment of Jairam Mahto’s speech in Gondalpura from a few months ago had him asking: who is Adani? That he’s no president, no freedom fighter, and yet every government servant does his bidding in Gondalpura. Jairam’s rally in Hazaribagh about 10 months ago attracted thousands of people, and young person after young person has found appeal in his Jharkhandi dialect and his questions about how outsiders run a state that was meant to be for Jharkhandis.

A rural setting in Jharkhand - earmarked by the Adani Group for a giant coal mine.

Ramesh Turi, a young man from Gondalpura was working as a member of Jairam’s party. He had even gone to accompany their candidate, Sanjay Mehta, when he went to file his nomination.

‘The BJP’s people are no good, Congress has no one, so the only one who can run the government is Jairam Mahto. Even if the BJP wins everywhere else, at least in Jharkhand, we’d have someone who can develop the state.

‘We have already decided, we will vote for him, whether he wins or not, he’s working for us, his way of thinking is working here, and based on that, we are with him.’  

Ramesh doesn’t know who makes decisions in the party, whether there is a central-decision making body, or some kind of central committee.

‘There have always been movements in Jharkhand, whether Jaipal Munda, or JMM, or AJSU, and when there’s a fire, and the fire begins to collect in one place, then it becomes a movement. And then the movement then becomes a political party. And a party then has to enter the system to change the laws,’ argues Shankar Bhuiyan, an activist of the KBSS.

‘He won’t win, because he doesn’t have a cadre in every village, every block. The others are very old parties, and there will always be 10-20 people per village who’ve been there in the party.’

'Adani Foundation and NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) are thieves'

Our meeting took place in Balodar (another village threatened with obliteration by Adani’s Gondulpara coal-mine project) and as we met other activists of the movement, we found that there was clearly a split in how the agitators will vote. Some will go with the Alliance, and others with Jairam. The reasons for this phenomenon were found in the nearby village of Galli (another village threatened by the mine), where the Adani company had concentrated most of its efforts in the past few months. Here, there are more ‘dalaals’ or touts of the company, who will all vote for the BJP as they are members of its affiliated party, AJSU, the All Jharkhand Student Union Party.

‘Looking at the situation in Hazaribagh, it seems like the Alliance will win,’ Philander Ganju from the village of Galli says. ‘Those who think Jairam Mahto should win, are only thinking about the state of Jharkhand, not the nation.’

‘The youth only think about themselves. They are educated, they will have PhDs but they are still waiting for jobs.’

‘All these young people are going to Jairamwallo party, but we are understanding that Jairam itna jaldi, nahi satega.’ (it won’t work so quickly)

Yet the problem with Indian elections, especially Lok Sabha elections, which follow the terribly undemocratic system of the ‘first-past-the post’, and not proportional representation, is that there always tend to be more losers than winners. If the anti-BJP vote is split between many parties, then the BJP could still win despite receiving less than 50% of the vote.

We then met V, one of the younger organisers of the movement, who has been preoccupied with how his people have been thinking about their votes and they have less than a week before they go to the polls on 20 May, and he has been going house to house to talk to all of them.

‘Those who still think they should vote for BJP, I tell them to vote for Jairam. Those who are undecided, I tell them to vote for the Alliance.’

He knows Jairam Mahto’s party will cut into the votes of the BJP. It is this prospect that provides people opposing Adani’s coal mine with hope.