For more than 10 years, local people in the Pelma area of central India have doggedly resisted the takeover of their lands for a huge coal mine. The appointment of an Adani company as the mine contractor has driven communities onto the streets in protest. Their inquiries to officialdom indicate that the acquisition of their lands has not been legitimately carried out. Unmoved, Adani plans to extract a colossal 219 million tonnes of coal from the area, which consists of villages, farms and forests.
The Pelma block is part of India’s third largest coalfield.
On 24 August 2023, the national Ministry of Coal issued a press release stating that agreement had been reached with an Adani company, appointing it as mine developer and operator (MDO) of the proposed Pelma coal mine. The Pelma coal block, in Gharghoda tehsil (an administrative unit) in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district, belongs to South Eastern Coal Fields (SECL), a company owned by Coal India Limited, a public-sector entity of the India’s central government.
In response to the government’s announcement that Adani was the MDO, massive protests were held by tribal communities on 5 September outside SECL’s headquarters in Bilaspur, a town in the southeastern area of Chhattisgarh. Demonstrators alleged an unauthorised takeover of land for the project.
SECL claims that the coal ministry has vested it with rights over 2036 ha of land for the project. But the local communities of Gharghoda say they never agreed to part with their land. They say they passed a resolution in March 2016, during the tenure of the previous BJP state government, that they will never give away the land. Copies of this resolution were mailed to the government. Surprisingly, the district administration of Raigarh now claims that it has no records of land acquisition for the Pelma project.
Raigarh-based activist Rajesh Tripathi told this correspondent that in February 2023, when news spread that the Modi government had selected the Adani Group as contractor for Pelma, demonstrations was held. The Adani subsidiary, Pelma Collieries Limited, was selected by SECL in December 2022 as the lowest bidder for operating the Pelma project. The SECL had issued an open tender inviting bids for a ‘mine operator and developer’ for the Pelma mines, a concept of contractual mining pioneered by the Adani Group.
‘Protests against acquisition of land for the Pelma project have been going on for a decade-and-a-half,’ said Tripathi. ‘Around December 2010, local communities learned through hearsay that a large parcel of land across several tribal-dominated villages of Gharghoda would be taken over by the SECL for extracting coal.
‘But despite several applications and entreaties, the government did not share the land-acquisition documents with us. After the rally in February this year, local communities again wrote to the Chhattisgarh and central governments, saying they will not part with their land.’
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Protests against land acquisition for Pelma continued through the BJP’s rule in the state to December 2018, when the party was voted out of power. These protests resurfaced in January 2023 after the Modi government selected the Adani Group as MDO. Yet another protest has been planned by local communities for 2 October 2023 as a Koyla Satyagraha (a form of passive political resistance). This gathering will be held in Ubra, one of the eight project-affected villages. Since 2010, local communities have carried out a Koyla Satyagraha every year on 2 October, coinciding with the birthday of the Father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneer of the Satyagraha movement.
The majority of the population in the Gharghoda tehsil belongs to Adivasi or Scheduled Tribe communities. Indian census data published in the year 2011, which was the last Census conducted in India (the Modi government skipped the census for 2021 citing constraints due to the Covid 19 pandemic) showed the proportion of Scheduled Tribes in Gharghoda as 63% of the population. As many as 43,900 people in Gharghoda belonged to Scheduled Tribe communities from a total population of 69,970. Another 4845 people belonged to Dalit or Scheduled Caste communities, which comprise the lowest rungs of India’s socio-economic hierarchy in India as a result of centuries of caste-based oppression.
Due to the preponderance of Scheduled Tribe people, Gharghoda tehsil has been classified as a Schedule V area in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of India. Special provisions are automatically applicable in the administration of Schedule V areas, including provisions of Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 – known popularly as PESA Act, 1996 – which makes it mandatory for the state government to obtain consent of Gram Sabhas (village-level self-governing councils comprising the entire adult population) before land can be taken over for large-scale developments.
But the timing of the Gram Sabha meeting for villages involved in the Pelma block was regarded as suspect by local communities.
On 16 March 2016, a meeting of Gram Sabhas was convened in Pelma, one of the project-affected villages, at the behest of SECL. Officials of the Raigarh district administration and representatives of the state government were present during the meeting. It was also attended by a Raigarh-based activists’ organisation called Jan Chetna Manch (‘Forum for Peoples’ Awareness’).
Tripathi, who is a member of the forum, said that a resolution was passed by the Gram Sabhas ‘not to give a square inch of land’ for the project. This resolution was sent to the office of the then chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, who belongs to the BJP, as well as to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the ministry’) of the Modi government. However, land acquisition for the project had already been completed – at least on paper – six years before this Gram Sabha meeting.
A gazette notification published by the central government in September 2011 says the Ministry of Coal vested 2035.935 hectares of land in SECL with effect from 18 December 2010. The notification states that the land was acquired under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957 from across eight villages of Gharghoda tehsil. Data compiled by other central-government departments also state that land acquisition was completed in September 2011. In an earlier gazette notification issued in December 2010, the central government stated that the land was acquired ‘after consulting the government of Chhattisgarh’ (then held by the BJP).
Project-affected people are peeved that, in the past 13 years, the government and the administration had not provided them with the documents pertaining to acquisition of their own land.
In June 2023, revenue-department officials visited some of the project-affected villages apparently to conduct a survey to determine compensation amounts against the land that ostensibly had been taken over. Enquiries were thereafter made by local activists to the district administration under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, about the status of land acquisition for Pelma. However, the administration said that it did not possess any documents pertaining to the acquisition. An appeal was filed by activists with higher authorities complaining that Raigarh district administration had failed to provide information that they had sought through RTI. A hearing was conducted by an appellate court under the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005. The district administration, again, claimed during the hearing that it had no documents whatsoever about the supposed acquisition.
The Pelma block covers 1559 hectares of the Mandraigarh coalfields of south-central India and contains a colossal reserve of 1097 million tons. The 2036 ha of land, which the SECL has claimed to be in its possession, is spread across the villages of Pelma, Ubra, Lalpur, Madwadumar, Jarhidih, Hinjhar, Sakta and Milupara. This parcel also includes 299.4 hectares of forest. Approval is yet to be obtained from the ministry for clearing the forest land. Notices have been issued to Gram Sabhas for meetings to obtain the consent of forest-dependent communities before ‘diversion’ (loss) of the forest. On 3 July, the coal ministry issued a notification for acquiring an additional 42 hectares of forest land from the adjoining Tamnar tehsil of Raigarh for the project.
Once operational, the 15-million-tons-per-annum (MTPA) project will be the first opencast mine of SECL in Chhattisgarh to operate under the MDO mode. The Adani Group subsidiary will be responsible for the ‘designing, financing, procurement, construction, operation and maintenance’ of the coal mine. More than 219 million tons of coal are planned for extraction over 20 years.
Local communities are not convinced that the project will improve the socio-economic welfare of the region. Chakradhar Rathia, a 49-year-old farmer from Pelma village, said that his family stands to lose more than 28 ha of agricultural land, along with their ancestral house, to make way for the mine.
‘All families have been told to move out of the village,’ Rathia told this correspondent. ‘But there is no word about where we will be resettled.
‘To make matters worse, the price that is being offered to us against land acquired is the rate that was prevalent in the year 2008 when notification for acquisition was apparently first issued. So not a single landowner has agreed to move out or accept compensation.’
Local people also say that they have been dependent for generations on the abundant produce of forests which will be flattened for the project. In accordance with the provisions of the landmark Forest Rights Act, 2006, the state government has bestowed individual and community rights on Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers in the region.
‘The state government abruptly stopped bestowing these rights after 2008,’ said Rathia. ‘The region is home to some of the poorest people who are dependent entirely on forest produce for their livelihoods’.
For generations, local communities have collected minor forest produce – flowers of the mahua tree which are used to brew an alcoholic liquor, leaves of the tendu tree used to roll tobacco for traditional cigars called beedis, medicinal nuts such as harida and bahada, seeds of the chiraunji tree that are used to produce an oil and berries like amla (gooseberry) – for selling in the market.
Another farmer from Pelma village, Banshilal Patel (53), whose family will lose more than 16 ha of land, said the acquisition will cause great social disarray in the region.
‘There are numerous landless families in this area who eke out a living by working as farm laborers. They will have to go without compensation, jobs and resettlement. This is one of the reasons we are thoroughly opposed to the land takeover,’ he said.
Given the large-scale public resentment over the project in a year in which elections are to be held for the legislative assembly of Chhattisgarh, political parties, including the BJP, have jumped into the fray, claiming to oppose land acquisition. The BJP has already issued its first list of candidates for 21 of the 90 assembly seats even before polling dates have been finalised.
The incumbent local representative of India’s lower house of Parliament (the Lok Sabha), Gomati Sai, who belongs to the BJP, has written to the coal ministry highlighting the alleged inappropriate manner in which land was acquired for Pelma. In a letter dated 15 August – a copy of which is with AdaniWatch – she has demanded that the entire land acquisition be quashed. Despite repeated calls to her mobile phone and her office, she was not available for comment.
On the other hand, the Congress, the ruling political party of Chhattisgarh, has already begun election campaigning, with its senior leader Rahul Gandhi promising during a public meeting that there will not be a ‘government of Adani’ in the state. Addressing a public meeting in Bilaspur on 25 September, Rahul Gandhi accused the Modi government of ‘arbitrarily’ handing over public-sector resources to the Adani Group. He also said that the Congress, wherever in power in India, ran governments for the ‘Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and the poor and marginalized communities’, unlike Modi who runs a ‘government for Adani’.
The protests held outside SECL headquarters on 5 September were backed by the Congress. The party has promised to oppose the awarding of the Pelma MDO contract to the Adani Group.
‘This decision is against established rules,’ Abhay Narayan Roy, spokesperson of Congress’s Chhattisgarh unit, told this correspondent. ‘Until now, SECL had been carrying out its mining operations on its own. Why has it suddenly decided to conduct mining operations through the MDO mode?’
The SECL, in its annual report for the financial year 2022-23, says that it has adopted the MDO model to ‘reduce import dependency’ and increase ‘self-reliance’. So far, SECL has selected three open-cast mines (Madannagar, Durgapur, Pelma) and one underground mine (Ketki) for operating under the MDO mode. Production started in Ketki in January 2023 while no bidders have expressed interest for Durgapur. In August, it cancelled the letter of award that it had issued to a private company for the MDO of Madannagar (See Page 179 of report).
The report states: ‘Development of new way of managing mines through Normal MDO & Revenue Share MDO Modes: With the coming of MDOs, SECL has opportunity to run the mines through MDOs and save the capital expenditure, which can be utilised for investment in other projects. It gives opportunity for monetisation of unutilised/ less utilised assets to generate revenue & tap the private-sector capital and efficiencies for augmentation/ greenfield infrastructure creation.’
The Pelma mining project is being pushed through almost simultaneously with a proposal to expand the capacity of Adani Group’s coal-power plant in Raigarh, less than 100 km away from the Pelma coal block. On 16 August 2023, an expert body under ministry issued terms of reference to the Adani Group to conduct an environment impact assessment for expanding the capacity of the power plant to 2400 MW. The Adani Group seeks to add two units of 800 MW each to the existing 600-MW plant. Following the expansion, the power plant would require an additional 8.15 MTPA of coal.