India Indigenous People Coal
High-level reactions to plight of Bijahan tribals facing coal mining
May 30, 2024
The tribal people of the Bijahan area are dependent on the forest for their livelihoods and way of life. Image Ayaskant Das

Two distinguished observers have expressed concern about the manner in which an Adani coal project in eastern India is being progressed. Both were responding to AdaniWatch’s exclusive story about the Bijahan coal project published last week. A former senior public servant has questioned the approval processes for the proposed coal mine, saying that it appears that the legal rights of the area’s indigenous inhabitants have not been adequately addressed. And a former coal-company director has argued that the Bijahan coal project could cast a bad light on India’s coal-mining sector more generally, with potential negative impacts on the country’s energy security.

Basic facts and figures

  • Name of project: Bijahan coal-mining project
  • Location: Hemgir, Sundargarh
  • Name of owner: Mahanadi Mines & Minerals Private Limited (an Adani Group subsidiary)
  • Coal reserves: 327 million tons
  • Peak output: 5.26 million tons per annum
  • Villages, population affected: 4 villages affected (detailed R&R study not yet conducted)
  • Cost: Rs 2600 crore (US $312 million)
  • Current status: Awaiting land acquisition, environmental clearance process underway.

The threatened village of Bijahan occurs in a forested setting, inhabited by tribal people. Image Ayaskant Das

A news report on an Adani coal project in the eastern Indian state of Odisha published by AdaniWatch has generated a response from a coal-industry expert and a former high-level public servant. These influential observers have voiced robust concern about the future of the tribal people in whose ancestral forests the project is planned to occur.

The story described the drastic impacts of the Bijahan coal-mining project on tribal people who live in this forested precinct. Forests will be destroyed, villages obliterated and traditional livelihoods ruined. The people have seen what has happened with other coal projects in the district and know that compensation arrangements for them will be inadequate. They know that their lives will be turned upside down.

The people of Bijahan have seen the impacts of other coal mines so have challenged aspects of the approval process for Adani's Bijahan coal project in the courts. Image Ayaskant Das

At least two distinguished observers have expressed their concerns about the way the project has been treated, given that the area concerned is inhabited by people whose land rights are explicitly recognised in Indian law and the constitution.

One former bureaucrat, EAS Sarma, with a distinguished career spanning several decades in governance and policy formulation, has written to the Modi government raising serious concerns about the project’s impact on local tribal communities. In the letter, dated 24 May 2024 and emailed to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Sarma addressed an alleged lack of consultation with the ministry before the coal block was allotted the Adani Group subsidiary.

Forests, farmlands and villages in the Bijahan area are threatened by Adani's coal project.

Sarma pointed out that the region earmarked for the project falls within an area notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India, owing to its tribal population, therefore necessitating meticulous consideration of the interests of local communities before projects are approved.

‘It appears from news reports that the local Adivasis (tribal communities) feel disturbed as their fears and concerns have not been taken into account and their view on mining not genuinely considered before the Centre (government) and Odisha government unilaterally decided to start coal mining that is going to disrupt their lives,’ Sarma wrote.

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‘They should not believe in the promised land that the Adani company tempts them with.’

He added: ‘As I understand, a public hearing was conducted as usual in a hurry about five months ago and the so-called Gram Sabha meetings were rushed through in the guise of fulfilling the “formalities” without the local officials trying to appreciate the letter and the spirit of the PESA Act and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) under which, strictly, it is the Gram Sabha in each village that should be given all the details of the mining project, and allowed to discuss the implications from the Adivasi (tribal community) point of view and decide without any extraneous pressure.’

'The entire village will be obliterated'. Nand Kumar Sahoo (42), whose family of five members owns a tiny agricultural plot. Image Ayaskant Das

The consent of all persons above 18 years of age in any village in a region notified under the Fifth Schedule is required to be obtained through meetings of the Gram Sabha (a council comprising the entire adult population of any village). This is guaranteed under the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (known popularly as PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (known popularly as FRA).

Project-affected people in the Bijahan coal-mining area petitioned the Odisha High Court, arguing that the state government had rushed through the Gram Sabha meetings to fast-track the project. The court ordered the state authorities to address this issue accordingly. In response to this rap on its knuckles, the district administration of Sundargarh later claimed that the consultative meetings, which were held on 26 November 2023, were not Gram Sabha meetings in the first place.

Maheshwar Kanwar (60), a tribal man whose family lives off the produce of forests. Image Ayaskant Das

As well as criticising the hurried conduct of public consultations, Sarma invoked the precedent set by the apex court of India, the Supreme Court, in the Vedanta bauxite mining project case, emphasising the need for a comprehensive and consultative approach to affected tribal communities. In its landmark verdict of April 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the rights of Gram Sabhas to have the ultimate say upon a proposal to divert forestland for a bauxite mining project in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha.

Sarma also highlighted constitutional provisions, including Article 338A (9), which require prior consultation with the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes before auctioning coal blocks in tribal areas. The commission is a constitutional body with the objective of safeguarding the rights of tribal communities and individuals.

Ganesh Pradhan (61): 'Once the farmland is gone, it will be difficult to provide food to my large household.' Image Ayaskant Das

Another heavy hitter, Partha Sarathi Bhattacharya, a former chairman-cum-managing-director of the central government enterprise, Coal India Limited, which is the largest coal producer in the public sector in India, has also responded to the AdaniWatch story.

Bhattacharya weighed in on the broader implications of the Bijahan coal mining project vis-à-vis India’s unique energy landscape, characterised by simultaneous growth in coal-based power and renewable-energy sources to meet escalating demand. He stressed the imperative of responsible mining practices to mitigate social and environmental repercussions, warning against actions that could stoke public opposition and endanger the country’s energy security.

Bhattacharya told this correspondent that the present annual per capita power consumption in India, which is only 1300 units – as compared with China (6000 units), the USA (11,000 units), Canada (14,500 units) and world average (3200 units) – is bound to rise in step with the rapid socio-economic development of the country.

‘As a result, contrary to the trend in the rest of the world, in India, both coal-based power and renewables are projected to grow hand in hand to meet the fast-growing demand for at least two decades,’ he said. ‘In other words, Indian dependence on coal is likely to follow a trajectory that is completely in contrast to the rest of the world.’

Bhattacharya stressed the need for India to adopt a strategy of responsible practices that mitigate the adverse social and environmental impacts of coal mining.

‘Viewed from this perspective, it is imperative that diversion of forest land for mining and disruption of livelihood of local populace are avoided to the greatest extent possible,’ added Bhattacharya. ‘Each action to the contrary is bound to fuel public opinion against coal mining, with a potential to disrupt the energy security of the country.’

Notably, Bhattacharya’s analysis is limited to only one aspect of coal – that is mining, and is devoid of the repercussions of coal-based power plants in terms of their ‘air, water, noise, land, biological and socio-economic’ components. Most Indian coal, being of low-grade compared with imported coal, is consumed by power plants within the country, exacerbating environmental pollution through toxic emissions and generation of fly ash. As per the latest coal statistics report of the Modi government, India exported only 1.16 million tons (MT) out of the total 893.13 MT coal extracted in 2022-23. The rest of it finds its way into various coal-burning plants within the country.

The controversy surrounding the Bijahan mine’s potential adverse impacts upon local tribal communities has cast a spotlight on Sundargarh district, where the project has been proposed across four villages of Hemgir tehsil (an administrative unit). Sundargarh is home to the former tribal affairs minister of India, Jual Oram. Bijahan is 350 km from the ancestral village of Draupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to be elected as the President of India. The symbolic aspect of Sundargarh as a battleground for competing interests in resource governance is accentuated by the record of other coal mines in the vicinity of Bijahan, which have seen stiff resistance from local communities.