Despite a public outcry against the Gondkhairi coal mine proposed by the Adani Group in central India, the Modi government has recommended environmental approval for the project. Local communities anticipate water shortages resulting from the underground mine and fear adverse impacts on farming. Protesting farmers disrupted a public hearing into the project in July last year, forcing government authorities to terminate the meeting halfway through. The region in which the mining lease occurs is already experiencing a decline in water resources.
- Adani subsidiary: Adani Power Maharashtra Limited
- Location: Gondkhairi, Nagpur, Maharashtra
- Coal reserves: 98.717 million tons
- Planned output per annum: 3 million tons per annum (peak output)
- Cost: Rs 1303 crores (US $156 million)
- Current status: Under development
The 3-million-ton-per-annum (MTPA) Gondkhairi coal project is proposed in Vidarbha, a drought-prone region in the state of Maharashtra, which is known for agricultural distress and a disproportionate number of suicides by farmers. According to data presented by Maharashtra government in the legislative assembly (lower house of elected representatives in the state) 2366 farmers committed suicide across the state in the first ten months (January-October) of the year 2023. The highest number of suicides were reported from the Vidarbha region with 257 farmers killing themselves in the Nagpur administrative division alone, within which the proposed coal project is located.
The mining lease of the Adani Group covers 862 hectares in an area where local communities are mostly dependent on agriculture. Of this lease area, 13.89 hectares are covered by water bodies such as lakes and reservoirs, of which there are at least eight in and around the mining lease. These meet many of the water needs of the farm-dependent population.
The project proponent, the Adani Group subsidiary Adani Power Maharashtra Limited, has promised that, for the purposes of water conservation, it will not carry out underground mining directly beneath these bodies of water and has proposed a plan for rejuvenating them. However, local communities believe the network of natural underground aquifers will be degraded by mining, leading to further drying of the local environment and a reduction in agricultural productivity.
‘Most agricultural activities in the region are dependent on groundwater, which is accessed through bore wells’, Abhay Raut, an office-bearer of a local agricultural marketing committee, told this correspondent. ‘Existing wells have dried up in several villages, forcing local communities to depend entirely on groundwater even for their drinking water.
‘Excessive dependence on groundwater has also resulted in quick drying up of borewells. In many villages, Gram Panchayats (village-level self-governing councils) are forced to undertake new borewell projects every year with funds from the government to meet water requirements. This situation will be aggravated if the mining activities degrade underground water resources.’
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A central-government expert panel, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which advises the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the environment ministry’) about potential ecological impacts of proposed industrial projects, recommended the environmental approval in a meeting held on 21 December 2023. The minutes of the meeting show that the panel did not note that the public hearing of July 2023 had been called off amid disruptions.
‘The water bodies will remain undisturbed during operation is (sic.) as no working is being done below the water bodies and end of life of mine. However, we APML has proposed various mitigation measures for rejuvenation of the water bodies and a budget of Rs. 3.64 Crores (US $440,000) has been earmarked,’ the project proponent has told the environment ministry.
Farming has traditionally been dependent on the surface water bodies of the region, including the Ambazari reservoir, the Bhivkund Dam, Futala Lake, Alesur Lake, the Mordham Dam and Reservoir, Suraburdi Lake, the Vena Dam and Jilpi Lake. They refill the network of underground aquifers from which water for irrigation is drawn through borewells. There are at least 18 dams in and around the mining lease area which have been constructed by the state government of Maharashtra for irrigation. Water from Vena Lake is also used by nearby industries and a government-owned ordnance factory.
The central government’s database of information (see graphic) shows that groundwater levels are declining in this region. This is corroborated by local farmers who argue that their farms will be hit severely if there is any further decline in groundwater levels.
‘Groundwater levels are precarious in this region,’ said Raut. ‘At present, traces of underground water are found only after digging wells for depths up to 50 to 60 feet.
‘Borewells must be dug 400 to 800 feet deep, at different places, before hitting underground aquifers. Farmers in this region grow cotton, pigeon pea, maize and jowar (sorghum), which are not water-intensive crops. These crops will survive even if water is scarce.
‘But water intensive crops like chickpea, wheat and seasonal vegetables will suffer. Besides, this region has many orchards of santra (oranges) and mausmi (sweet lemon), which are water-intensive crops. These orchards will completely perish if water availability suffers.’
The area within the boundaries of Gondkhairi mining lease is mainly used for agricultural purposes as well as for grazing of livestock. Apart from their concerns about agriculture, local communities fear that further depletion of ground water will also result in a lack of drinking water for households around the mining lease. The Adani company concerned, which carried out a survey of nine villages in the region, found that potable water supply through taps provided by the government is available only in three villages, namely, Kalambi, Surabardi and Alesur. The remaining six villages – Khapri, Sahuli Khadgaon, Waddhamana, Gondkhairi and Ketapar – are dependent on groundwater through bores for drinking water. The project proponent has concluded that it is ‘essential to supplement ground water resource through rainwater harvesting’ in these villages.
However, the EAC did ask for studies on the potential impact of the mining project on underground water resources before recommending environmental approval. It directed the project proponent to procure an approval from the central-government agency responsible for regulating groundwater resources in the country. But this approval is only for any activities to be undertaken for extraction of groundwater for the mine itself, rather than an assessment of the wider impacts on water of coal mining. The EAC has given the company a deadline of six months to procure an approval from the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) which is headquartered in India’s capital New Delhi.
‘PP [project proponent] shall obtain No Objection Certificate from Central Ground Water Authority for extraction of ground water within six months and submitted (sic.) to IRO [integrated regional office], MoEF&CC [the environment ministry],’ it has directed.
A total of Rs 1300 crore (US $156 million) has been earmarked by the project proponent for the Gondkhairi mine. It has informed the environment ministry that it has allowed for an outlay of Rs 0.36 crore (US $43,000), approximately, for installing rainwater harvesting-systems in the villages. An additional amount of Rs 0.40 crore (US $48,000) has been set aside for installing drinking-water pipelines. It has also promised to undertake a lake rejuvenation plan which would include greenbelt development, maintenance works that include garbage collection around the peripheries of reservoirs, diversion of domestic waste and sewage entering the lakes, and removal of sediments and weeds. The EAC has asked the project proponent to develop six rainwater harvesting ponds near the villages surrounding the mining-lease area, within a year, in consultation with local self-governing bodies.
The proposed project site is in the Kalmeshwar administrative block of Nagpur district in the eastern part of Maharashtra. Kalmeshwar has witnessed a decline of groundwater due to over-exploitation, according to data of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), a statutory body which is the repository of all information relating to groundwater resources in India.
‘In pre-monsoon season, declining water level trend has been observed in about 9321 sq km area covering major part of district. In post-monsoon season, decline has been observed in about 7228.7 sq km area covering major parts of Kuhi, Bhiwapur, Umred, Mauda, Hingna, Nagpur Rural, Kalmeshwar blocks and parts in Katol, Narkhed, Saoner, Ramtek blocks,’ states a report of Nagpur district finalized by the CGWB in 2021.
The report says a declining trend in water level (more than 0.2 meters per year) was witnessed in the pre-monsoon period from 2010 to 2019 in about 527 sq km of Kalmeshwar. This covered about 97% of the geographical area of the block. The post-monsoon period for the same period also witnessed more than 2 meters of water-level decline per year in about 244 sq km of Kalmeshwar, accounting for about 45% of the block’s area. The report further states that the net groundwater availability in Kalmeshwar increased from 74.71 million cubic meters (MCM) to 78.34 MCM from 2011 to 2013. But the water level again decreased to 60.06 MCM from 2013 and 2017 (See Plan 9.8 on Page 115).
A long-term analysis of the rainfall pattern conducted by the CGWB over a twenty-year period from 1999 to 2019 indicates 958.40 mm of annual rainfall in the Kalmeshwar block. The report states that it ‘indicates a rising rainfall trend @ 0.6762 mm/year with 14.29% probability of moderate drought & 4.76% probability of acute drought.’
An assessment conducted by the CGWB of Nagpur district in 2022, however, categorises groundwater resources in Kalmeshwar as within ‘safe’ limits (See Serial No. 3048). Twelve out of the thirteen geological units assessed in Nagpur for groundwater resources were found within ‘safe’ limits. Nearly 49% of the annual extractable groundwater resources in Nagpur are extracted every year (See Page 245 for table on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2023), which is slightly less than state average of 53.83%.
Earlier, the central government approved the Adani Group’s proposal for the use of 87.351 hectares of forest land for the project. The project proponent has informed the government that no more than 18 hectares of the entire lease area will be used for infrastructure development because the entire project is underground in nature. The approval was recommended by an expert review panel, the Forest Advisory Committee, which advised the environment ministry regarding potential ecological impacts of deforestation from industrial, mining and other projects, during a meeting held on 29 November 2023.
No assessment was conducted regarding the impact of mining beneath the forests on aquifers from mining. Concerns have been raised over transportation of excavated coal along the periphery of this forest land from the mine pit to the nearest railway siding in Kalmeshwar town. During the deliberations that were held during the forest-approval process, the Adani Group subsidiary ruled out, for the time being, construction of a dedicated railway siding near the project site. The company said that any commitment to build an exclusive railway siding for the Gondkhairi project will have to be undertaken after consultation with the railway ministry. A project for an omnibus railway siding for all mines in the region is already pending with the railways.
During meetings, the expert panel put forth its opinion that the project proponent be allowed road transportation for an initial period of three years only from the prospective date on which the environment approval is granted. However, this has not been made mandatory in the terms and conditions that have been imposed upon the company. The project proponent will not construct a new road but will use an existing four-lane road, already used by local traffic, for trucking coal to the railway siding.
The forest department of Maharashtra earlier cleared the proposal in an allegedly rushed manner without due deliberations. The state government’s former chief conservator of forests, Rangnath Naikade, approved the forest diversion, reportedly only a couple of months before his retirement from service, on the grounds that no trees would be felled for the project. During the deliberative stage of the forest assessment, activists and conservationists expressed concerns about the possibility of the presence of tigers in and around the area involved in the project. At least two tiger reserves (areas designated as protected by the Indian government) are within a radius of roughly 30 km of the mining-lease. The southwestern boundary of the coal block is 21 km from the Bor Tiger Reserve, while its north-eastern boundary is 31 km from the Pench Tiger Reserve.
The necessity to conduct a wildlife inventory study before going ahead with the forest clearance was also being put forward by conservationists. However, none of these issues could be raised in the public hearing which was called off owing to protests.
During the regime of the erstwhile Congress-led United Progress Alliance (UPA) government in India, the Gondkhairi coal block had been allocated to a consortium of three private companies. This allocation was, however, cancelled following a landmark judgment in September 2014 in which the Supreme Court annulled the allocations of 214 coal blocks due to a corrupted process in their allocation. Gondkhairi was subsequently allotted to the Adani Group in 2021 by the Modi government through a process of auction.