India Indigenous People Coal
New Adani coal mine in central India will worsen already toxic situation
May 18, 2021
In the central Indian district of Raigarh, pollution from coal mines and power stations is poisoning the environment and people. Image courtesy NS Energy

In April 2021, the Adani Group won the right to develop another big coal deposit in central India. The proposed mine still needs environmental approval. However, if it proceeds, a region already beset by the toxic effects of a cluster of coal mines and coal-fired power stations will have to contend with even more pollution. The harmful effects on the local people, including indigenous farmers on ancestral lands, will be significant. Meanwhile, people who have defended the rights of indigenous people against the onslaught of more and more coal developments have suffered abuses at the hands of local authorities.

The Raigarh District in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh already has at least six coal-fired power plants, seven coal mines and two coal washeries.

According to its website, the Adani Group operates one of the coal mines in Raigarh District, the Gare Pelma-III mine. The mine is owned by the state-owned power utility and has a maximum output of five million tonnes of coal per annum. (Adani says it has pioneered the ‘mine developer and operator’ model in which it runs mines owned by other parties) The Adani-run mine occurs amidst a cluster of other large coal mines run by different operators. However, it appears that Adani’s share of the coal-mining impact in the area is about to get a whole lot bigger.

In April 2021, it was announced that Adani Enterprises had submitted the winning bid to develop and operate the nearby Gare Pelma-II coal block, which is owned by Maharashtra State Power Generation Co Ltd (MAHAGENCO). If it proceeds, Adani will be extracting up to 23 million tonnes of coal per annum from this site, a massive amount. This would make it the biggest of all of Adani’s operating or proposed coal mines in India.

In the central Indian district of Raigarh, pollution from coal mines and power stations is poisoning the environment and people. Image courtesy Business Standard

In June 2019, people in the Raigarh area protested against Adani’s proposed expansion of coal mining, saying ‘at least 13 villages will be ruined if mining starts in this area. Villagers do not want to let it happen and leave their ancestral land’.

But it’s not just the mining of coal in the Raigarh district that’s being pursued by Adani. The Group also has a major stake in coal-fired power stations.

According to its website, Adani Power owns a 600MW coal-fired power station in the Raigarh District and a 1370-MW coal-fired power near Raipur, the state capital. A global database of coal plants run by an NGO identifies these as being the Korba West and Raikheda plants respectively. The site's interactive map shows clusters of power stations and smelters throughout the area. When the Adani Group acquired the Korba West power station, the Group founder, Gautam Adani, said Adani’s footprint was expanding in India’s coal belt and that ‘we are bullish of expanding our presence further.’

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Not everyone greets the relentless expansion of coal exploitation in Chhattisgarh with such exuberance. The intensity of coal exploitation in the Raigarh District has exposed the local people to coal dust, fumes, fly ash and associated heavy metals. Systematic examinations of the health of the local population carried out by professionals have identified a terrible prevalence of diseases related to the toxic by-products of the coal industry.

A 2017 report focussed on the Tamnar area of the Raigarh district, sampling soils, water and sediments. The health of local residents was examined. The vast majority of study participants were of Adivasi (indigenous) heritage or what is classified by the Indian government as ‘low’ caste.

The study found that local soils, waters and sediments contained a total of 12 toxic metals including aluminium, arsenic, antimony, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, selenium, vanadium and zinc.

Findings on the health of study participants included:

  • The alarming fact that the vast majority of interviewees suffered health complaints, with many suffering multiple conditions
  • Family members often shared the same or similar health complaints
  • A higher-than-average prevalence of musculoskeletal health complaints was noted among young people
  • A majority of health conditions logged were of an inflammatory rather than an infectious nature
  • A prevalence was noted of dry, mucus-less and non-productive coughs
  • Connections were likely between Fine Particulates in the atmosphere and a high prevalence of respiratory complaints
  • Burning coal as cooking fuel had little bearing on respiratory complaints (in fact, only a small minority used coal for cooking)
  • Basic use of local water (ie for bathing) was a possible cause of contact-induced skin complaints
  • A higher-than-average prevalence of mental illnesses was cause for concern
  • The relationship between health and socioeconomic-nutritional status did not explain the high incidence of disease detected amongst participants

The report concluded that exposure to dangerous levels of toxic substances, including the heavy metals found in air, water, soil and sediment samples, is likely to be connected to the poor human health experienced by residents in the vicinity of the area’s coal plants and mines.

In the central Indian district of Raigarh, pollution from coal mines and power stations is poisoning the environment and people. Image courtesy India TV News

Another 2017 study of the local environment and population in a heavily developed part of the Raigarh District produced similar results. The report, simply entitled ‘Poisoned’, found that toxic substances such as manganese, arsenic, nickel and silica were found in the air at levels above the health-based guidelines. Aluminum, arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, manganese, selenium were measured in local soils and waters at levels above the standards for Indian drinking water stipulated by WHO. Nine of the 17 samples of soil and sediment were suspected to be heavily contaminated by escaped fly ash. Three of the 17 samples were suspected to be heavily contaminated by escaped coal dust. Five were suspected to be impacted by releases from either coal washeries or coal mines.

Neither of the above reports mentioned any company specifically in the context of these findings. The studies simply examined the cumulative impact of all the area's coal operations on the environment and the people. In 2020, media reported on a further study warning that coal mining placed locals at increased risk of acute respiratory infection. Mining also increased the risks of contracting tuberculosis.

A 2020 story in the Logical Indian quoted a report by a committee established by India’s national environmental watchdog as saying:

‘The existence of these coal deposits has led to the setting up of a number of coal mines and coal-based thermal power plants in this [Raipurh] region over the past two-three decades. In spite of the existence of multiple environmental regulations, these activities have generated and continue to generate a significant quantity of pollution in multiple forms… Based on evidence summarised above, the committee is of the opinion that the Tamnar-Gharghoda block region is close to exceeding its environmental carrying capacity.’

The story described how ‘a rapidly sinking groundwater table, loss of forest cover, and rapidly deteriorating public health have driven people towards civil disobedience even in the face of police backlash’. Indeed, over the past 15 years, the local people's protests have often met with a harsh response from local authorities, leading one to the conclusion that the state government and police have prioritised the profits of the coal industry over and above the well-being of citizens.

Before the Modi Government’s sustained harassment forced Amnesty International to shut its Indian operation, the organisation reported on numerous breaches of human rights in Chhattisgarh. Those associated with protests against the coal industry and other mines included:

  • Many instances of wrongful imprisonment and torture of people accused of being ‘Maoists’;
  • The arrest and imprisonment of two environmentalists in 2011 who had been campaigning against the seizure of lands and associated impacts of industrial developments that included a coal-fired power station;
  • A 2018 case of a human-rights defender having been forced by a police officer to sign a false statement (she had been protesting against the seizure of Adivasi lands for a coal-fired power station);
  • The 2011 arrest and detention of a campaigner for human rights and the environment;
  • A 2018 case of police turning a blind eye to the harassment and intimidation of an Adivasi activist by company strongmen.

Amnesty International also said that the police had been guilty of detaining and harassing journalists reporting on unrest in the state of Chhattisgarh. And in March 2021, Chhattisgarh police arrested a prominent human-rights defender who had participated in protests against the Adani’s Group’s proposed iron-ore mine in the Dantewada area.

People protest against new coal mines, Raigarh District, Chhattisgarh. Image courtesy The Wire

As reported by AdaniWatch, a change of government in Chhattisgarh in 2018 brought to power a chief minister who, during the election campaign, had proclaimed his support for the rights of the Adivasi against coal developers. There are doubts about whether the new government is living up to its promises. In the meantime, however, the national government of Narendra Modi has announced that three new coal blocks in the Raigarh District of Chhattisgarh will be auctioned to intending mine developers. There will therefore be no let-up in the Adivasis’ battle to save their lands and health from the toxic takeover of coal.

The fighting spirit of the people was demonstrated with a large turnout to protests in October 2019. The Wire reported that thousands of villagers attended demonstrations against the proposed Gare Pelma II mine (for which Adani would be the developer/operator), arguing that formal public consultations about the development had been rigged. For the people concerned, this is more than just a public debate. It is a battle for survival.