Coal India Indigenous People
Desperate families displaced by Adani’s Suliyari coal mine struggle to get lawful compensation
Jun 07, 2023
Sundari Devi and her grandson stand beside the family home, soon to be demolished to make way for an Adani coal mine. They have yet to be compensated for the imminent loss of their dwelling. Image Ayaskant Das

In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, over 1300 households are to be displaced by the Suliyari coal mine, a project run by the Adani Group. Many have battled to receive the compensation they are due. Poverty looms for people who have farmed and lived off the bounty of the forests for generations. Establishment of basic dwellings for resettlement has been delayed. Faulty new constructions are crumbling. Meanwhile, the few compensation funds that have been received are dwindling quickly.

On the fringes of Belwar village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a deathly silence pervades the household of 55-year-old Sundari Devi. Her grandsons, Brijendra (14) and Ajay (8), who are playing in the courtyard, are extremely quiet in demeanor, unlike most children of their age.

Sundari Devi and one of her grandsons at their soon-to-be-demolished home. Image Ayaskant Das

Sundari Devi’s house is located within the leasehold area of the Suliyari coal mining project in Sarai tehsil (an administrative unit) of Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli district. Built several years ago in a traditional style, the tile-roofed tenement has endured much inclement weather. Now, however, the house, which is to be demolished to make way for the mine, can barely stand under its own weight. A cryptic code inscribed several years ago upon the outer wall of the house by survey officials has faded with time.

Sundari Devi, crouching in the inner courtyard, spreads out a basketful of mahua flowers on the floor. The floor is a plaster of mud and cow dung baked hard under the scorching sun. The flowers are bright yellow in color, just like that of Sundari Devi’s saree. When dried to a golden-brown hue, the flowers will be sold to local brewers who, in turn, will brew them into an alcoholic liquor.

Sundari Devi spreads out a basketful of mahua flowers on the floor of her courtyard. Image Ayaskant Das

‘For tribal families like ours, mahua flowers have been an important source of livelihood for generations. Mother nature provides us with abundant quantities of mahua flowers during the summer. We would have ceased to exist long ago, but for the abundant bounty of the forests. There are only a few remaining mahua trees left around,’ Sundari Devi tells me, gently pulling the end of her saree over her face.

Sundari Devi’s family belongs to the tribal Kharwar community which has a rich history in central India. Many of these families have been displaced in the past few years by the Adani-operated coal mine. The origin of the community is associated with several myths, including its kinship with the Suryawanshi Rajputs, a clan of warriors tracing its ancestry from the sun (page 17 of Report). More recently, however, the community has suffered greatly. It has been officially identified as a Scheduled Tribe in Madhya Pradesh owing to the myriad social disadvantages faced by its members.

A stockpile of coal extracted by Adani from the Suliyari coal mine in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Sundari Devi’s family is amongst those households in the region that have witnessed first-hand the grim impacts of the Adani-operated coal mine. Coal has been extracted for more than a year now, but, like many others, Sundari’s family has not had their dues settled.

‘We have been reduced to a life of abject poverty,’ she said. ‘With the onslaught of coal mining, forests have practically disappeared. We can no longer depend on forest produce for a living.

‘My family is yet to be allotted a plot in the resettlement colony in lieu of our ancestral house that will soon be demolished. My husband died around three years ago. With nowhere to go, we are continuing to live in this crumbling hovel. Unlike other displaced families, no one from our family has been given a job in the coal mine. When I ask government officials about this, they make me run from pillar to post.’

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Sundari Devi’s only son, though eligible, has not been considered for a job that those displaced by the Suliyari project were offered as part of a Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) package formulated by the state government. Her family was paid compensation only in lieu of their ancestral agricultural land, measuring around one hectare, when it was taken over for the Adani-operated project.

In a respite for the tribal family, the state government has allotted it around one hectare of forest land for cultivation in accordance with laws in India to safeguard the interests of Scheduled Tribe communities. Sundari Devi told me that Indrabali tends to livestock and grows maize and lentils upon the parcel of allotted land, amidst forests on a nearby hilltop, where he lives in a makeshift dwelling. She narrates the plight of her family while fidgeting with the mahua flowers. She sees me off at the entrance of the house, her elder grandson Brijendra, by her side, staring blankly.

In March 2022, extraction of coal from Suliyari block commenced. The block contains geological reserves of around 142 million tonnes of coal and is spread across 1298 hectares in the Singrauli coalfields of central India. The allottee of the coal block, a government-owned enterprise, Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC), is rapidly expanding the mine.

This public-sector company appointed a subsidiary of Adani Group as the mine contractor. In technical terms, Adani Group is the Mine Developer & Operator (MDO). Nine villages – Aamdand, Amraikhoh, Bajaudi, Belwar, Dongari, Dhirauli, Jhalari, Majhaulipath and Seerswah – have been affected by the Suliyari project.

An entrance to the Suliyari coal mine, operated by Adani, which contains 142 million tonnes of coal. Image Ayaskant Das

It is a foregone conclusion that families like that of Sundari Devi, who have had no choice but to keep living in their ancestral houses owing to several outstanding issues, will eventually be thrown out. There is coal under their houses. They are waging a fight with government officials to expedite the settlement of their entitlements. Apart from tribals, there are several families belonging to upper rungs of the Indian caste hierarchy – including Brahmins (priests) and Vaishyas (traders) – who are also struggling to receive their entitlements against the coal mine.

‘There was never any electricity connection to our houses,’ said Tejbali Sah (55), who lives a few doors away from the house of Sundari Devi. ‘There was never any drinking-water supply either. We drink from wells and hand pumps. Kids and the elderly find it difficult to live close to the mines as they face health impacts from pollution caused by coal dust.’

The family of Tejbali Sah belongs to a community that is classified as an Other Backward Caste (OBC) based on its socio-economic status. Around 1.6 hectares of agricultural land belonging to the family, on which they used to grow crops such as wheat and paddy, were acquired for the mine.

‘But we were never paid compensation for our house, which was also earmarked for takeover,’ she said. ‘We were not allotted an alternative plot of land. So we continue to live here. None of our family members was provided with a job and we were never provided with a resettlement package.

‘I have two daughters who need to be married off. My son needs a good education. But at present, we are struggling to survive. Most of our forests are gone. There are only around two dozen mahua trees in the vicinity for us to depend upon.’

Tejbali Sah points towards her house - scheduled for demolition to make way for the Adani-operated Suliyari coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

The government has allowed the Adani-operated project to clear 259 ha of forest for the mine – the equivalent of 480 football fields. The resources that used to be provided by the forests have vanished along with the trees. Tejbali Sah tries to protect herself from the harsh sun under the thin shade of one of the last surviving mahua trees of the region. It has lost most of its canopy as a result of air pollution.

As per the conditions of the agreement with the mine-lease holder, the Adani Group has been entrusted not only with the responsibility of facilitating acquisition of land for the Suliyari coal mine, but also for approving and constructing the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) colony. The cost of construction of the resettlement colony was to be reimbursed by the public-sector owner of the mine.

Schedule 2 of the agreement (paragraph 3.2 of document) with the Adani Group states: ‘The MO [mine developer and operator – that is, Adani] will be responsible for preparing Rehabilitation and Resettlement plan for the Project and get it approved by the State Government. The MO was also responsible for construction of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement colony (‘R&R Colony’) ... Further the payment for the said construction was to be reimbursed by APMDCL.’

The social-impact study that was conducted by APMDC identified 1386 households to be displaced for the coal mine (sub-section 11 of paragraph 54.8.2 of document). This included 361 families belonging to Scheduled Tribes as well as 104 families belonging to Scheduled Castes. Accordingly, a large plot of land was identified by the APMDC to develop a housing colony for these families. The report that was presented to the local communities during the public hearing on environmental issues stated that an R&R colony will be developed near Khanua village.

‘A full-fledged R&R colony, having area of 63.64 ha, with medical, educational, sanitation along with various basic community facilities etc has been envisaged near Khanua village for Project-affected families (PAFs) along with agreed compensation packages. Members of PAF will be suitably employed in the mine depending upon their experience and qualification,’ stated the report (paragraph 4.8 of document).

However, during a field visit to the R&R colony near Khanua, this correspondent saw a maze of half-constructed houses, partially laid-out roads, incomplete overhead electricity lines, mounds of construction material, and virtually nil human habitation. On many plots, rod-binding works for laying out concrete foundations of houses had simply been placed on the soil without undertaking any digging. Newly-established plasterwork and masonry of many houses seemed to be falling apart. A local who accompanied me to the site said that the houses are being constructed as showpieces for the purposes of obtaining money from the government.

The resettlement colony at Khanua was a maze of half-constructed houses, partially laid-out roads, incomplete overhead electricity lines, mounds of construction material, and virtually no human habitation – even though people have been displaced for the already operating Suliyari coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

‘The government is not handing out readymade houses in this colony to the project-displaced families,’ said my guide. ‘Instead, plots have been allocated to project-affected families over which they are constructing their own houses. Since the government is handing out money promised for building R&R houses in accordance with a construction plan, these project-affected families are raising sub-standard structures only for the purpose of obtaining the balance amounts. They will never live in these houses.

‘The government officials are aware of this fact. In any case, the amount that is being given for construction of houses is meagre and won’t suffice to build a decent dwelling. The quality of public works which the government is undertaking in the colony, including roads and water supply lines, is also very sub-standard.’

In Deosar town, around 30 km from the R&R colony, a senior official of the rank of a Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) tells me that it was the project-affected families themselves who opted to take possession of their plots, in lieu of readymade houses, in order to build their own buildings. Accordingly, the government has handed out parcels of land measuring 486 square metres to each project-displaced family.

The quarters of sub-divisional magistrate Vikash Singh in Deosar, who explains why families have not yet received compensation for the loss of their dwellings. Image Ayaskant Das

‘We presented the project-displaced families with two options,’ SDM Vikash Singh told me. ‘They could either have readymade houses in the colony or plots of land over which they could raise their own constructions in whichever manner they wanted. A few model houses were constructed as part of the readymade option. But these families rejected that option and instead wanted their own plots of land.’

A sum of Rs 5 lakh (US $6000) for each family is being handed out for house construction. Is this amount enough to build a house given the rising cost of construction materials in India? Singh evaded the question.

‘This amount is being provided in addition to the reimbursement that these families were provided earlier against their ancestral houses in the leasehold area from which they have been displaced,’ he explained.

‘Those reimbursements were in small multiples of the respective costs of the ancestral houses. For construction of the new houses, we decided to adopt a construction-linked plan for releasing the funds so that the beneficiaries do not squander the money’.

When questioned about families, like those of Sundari Devi and Tejbali Sah, which are yet to receive any compensation as part of the government’s package, Singh replied that certain litigations filed by displaced families have held up full and final settlement of dues. He also added that, after announcement of the mining project, some outsiders had constructed houses in the leasehold area, in order to procure the financial package and plots in the R&R colony.

Developments that include roads, water supply, electricity lines, a school and a hospital are being undertaken in the R&R colony by APMDC. However, none of these facilities seemed to have been completed. Very few households seemed to be occupied by beneficiaries. Those houses were located towards the periphery of the R&R colony alongside a road that leads towards the Suliyari mine.

Spoil from the Suliyari coal mine impinges on previously fertile farmlands in Madhya Pradesh. Image Ayaskant Das

At the colony under construction, a 63-year-old man, Kishan Prasad Soni, whose large family was displaced from their ancestral home in Jhalari village, walked about listlessly amongst construction materials that had been dumped alongside a dusty road. Soni told me that a plot each was allotted to all four male members of his family who are above 18 years old.

‘But sadly, for reasons out of my control, construction of our houses on these plots has been stuck in bureaucratic hassles,’ Soni said. ‘So far, the government has released Rs 2 lakh (US $2400) each against the plots for the purpose of constructing houses.

‘We have no idea when the rest will be released. Until then, we will have to continue living in temporary quarters.’

Kishan Prasad Soni, displaced by the coal mine from his ancestral home, at the construction site for 'resettlement' dwellings. Because insufficient compensation funds have been released, he and family members have to live in temporary quarters. Image Ayaskant Das

My source told me that many of the project-displaced families have settled in Waidhan, the district headquarters of Singrauli around 65 km from the mine.

‘Waidhan is a commercial hub,’ my source said. ‘Most families have used up their compensation money to settle in the town where they have also taken up small-scale commercial activities or jobs in order to meet their needs.

‘In the long term, such largescale migration to an urban centre will create stress on water, electricity and housing. This problem has arisen because development of infrastructure for resettlement failed to keep pace with development of the mine.

‘The government seemed to be keen only on the mine,’ he added.

It is apparent that this is just the beginning of social alienation and environmental pollution for local communities, including indigenous tribes, in the Singrauli coalfields. The Adani Group’s stamp of authority is absolute in Singrauli. Even more families face imminent displacement as the local administration speeds up land-clearing for the Dhirauli coal block, which is adjacent to Suliyari. The Dhirauli project belongs to Stratatech Mineral Resources Private Limited, a subsidiary of the Adani Group. Officials told me a plot of land measuring more than 150 hectares has been identified at a place called Jathatola to develop an R&R colony for families that will be displaced by the Dhirauli coal mine. As many as eight villages, apart from a large swathe of forest, will be affected.

We travelled to the villages in the Dhirauli leasehold area to interact with people who are about to be displaced. Local communities here believed that lack of timely resettlement of displaced families and inadequate employment for the local youth are creating social tension.

On our way back from Basi, a tribal-dominated village surrounded by forest, which, as reported earlier by AdaniWatch, will be partially obliterated for the Dhirauli project, a disheveled young man popped out of the woods. His clothes were soiled and his skin was caked with dirt. His eyes were bloodshot and his breath reeked of mahua wine. People in Basi told me that he was a member of a family whose home will soon be demolished to make way for the mine. The young man was not given promised employment at the mine so now roams the forest all day, sozzled with mahua wine. He has allegedly splurged on this alcoholic beverage with the compensation money that his family received against their agricultural land, taken over for Adani’s Suliyari coal mine.

The young man – his steps uncoordinated and his speech slurred – followed us like a shadow as we visited households in Basi village. Having promised to guide us back through the forests, he accompanied us to the origin of Basi rivulet, at which point he disappeared back into the woods just as suddenly as he had popped out.