India Indigenous People Coal
Outrage as Modi government revisits quashed coal-mine approval at Gare Pelma II
Jul 06, 2024
Local people whose livelihoods and land are threatened by Adani's Gare Pelma II coal-mining project are outraged that the Modi government has chosen to re-visit a decision that had quashed the mine's approval.

Community campaigners fear that a review of a controversial coal project in central-eastern India will overturn a previous ruling that prevented the mine from proceeding. Approval for the proposed coal mine, known as Gare Pelma II, was quashed in January 2024 when India’s primary environmental court said that locals, including tribal people, had been sidelined during a mandatory consultation process. Despite the ruling, it appears that a committee appointed by the Modi government is reviewing the approval process for the coal project, and may try to clear it of previous irregularities, enabling the coal mine to proceed. This is a recipe for the issue to end up back in the courts.

Key details of the project:

  • Name: Gare Pelma II
  • Owned by: Mahagenco
  • Adani subsidiary (mine developer and operator): Gare Pelma II Collieries Private Limited 
  • Location: Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, India 
  • Coal reserves: 1059.29 million tonnes 
  • Planned output per annum: 23.6 million tonnes per annum
  • Cost: US $902 million 
  • Current status: Environmental approval overturned 
  • Area of impact: 14 villages, farmland, forest, water resources and up to 2245 families

In January 2024, India’s primary environmental court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), quashed the environmental approval for the Gare Pelma II coal project because there had been inadequate consultation with the local community. The tribunal also found that health risks to local communities from the cumulative environmental impact of the project had not been properly assessed. The area in which the project lies has already been detrimentally impacted by large-scale pollution from existing mines and coal-power plants. The project involves an investment of over US $900 million.

Local people express their opposition to the Gare Pelma coal-mining project of Adani.Now, the Modi government has directed a hand-picked committee to review the rejected approval, rather than to insist that Adani and the owner of the coal deposit go back to square one. Local people are concerned that the same approval process that was found wanting by the NGT will be repeated in a different forum, but one in which a favorable result for Adani is anticipated. This new process was set in train after Mahagenco, the public-sector enterprise that owns Gare Pelma II, sought remedy from the Modi government.

Subsequently, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), a body appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the ministry’), has undertaken a review of the project’s rejected environmental approval.

After the NGT overturned the mine’s environmental approval, Mahagenco appealed the decision in India’s apex court, the Supreme Court, but withdrew the case in March 2024, saying it would seek ‘other remedies’. After Mahagenco took the matter to the Modi government, the EAC began a fresh evaluation of the flawed public-consultation process and formed a sub-committee to conduct a visit to the site.

‘Why is the EAC re-evaluating what the Green Tribunal has already adjudicated?’ asked Rinchin, who was amongst the four petitioners to the NGT.

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The Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (‘the Board’) had been forced to call off public hearings scheduled on three earlier occasions – in June 2018, May 2019 and August 2019 – owing to widespread protests by locals.

Fertile forests and fields threatened by the Gare Pelma II coal-mine project.

When a hearing finally took place on 27 September 2019, the Board asserted in written communications to the EAC that it had undertaken public consultations entirely in accordance with the law.

However, in its 237-page judgment dated 15 January 2024, the Green Tribunal, after hearing arguments of all parties concerned, concluded: ‘… we find that in the present case, [the] public hearing has not been conducted in accordance with [the] law, … so as to deprive the affected people [of a] fair, impartial, unbiased and valid public hearing/public consultation.’

Concerned villagers outside a 'deolas', a local place of worship, that will be destroyed if Adani succeeds in developing the Gare Pelma II coal mine.This did not stop the Board from insisting that the rules applying to public consultation had been followed when it subsequently discussed the matter with the EAC: ‘The representative of CECB [the Board] informed that Member Secretary, Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (CECB) vide letter dated 29.04.2024 provided a clarification regarding the public hearing and as per the clarification provided by MS, CECB, the public hearing was conducted by CECB as per the procedures laid down in EIA Notification 2006 (as amended).’ (See the minutes of the EAC meeting held on 8 May 2024)

The EAC’s re-evaluation of the flawed public-consultation process has left activists and local people perplexed because, essentially, the same deliberations that were conducted by the Green Tribunal are being repeated in meetings of the EAC.

In an earlier article, AdaniWatch detailed the ham-fisted manner in which the mandatory public hearing was held amid opposition from large numbers of local people who had gathered in the vicinity of the meeting venue to protest.

Villagers march in protest against the Gare Pelma II coal project being developed by the Adani Group.

The NGT noted that several facts had been misrepresented during the public-consultation process. The exact number of families affected by the project was a matter of contention at that time because of varying figures presented in different reports prepared by Mahagenco. The approved mining plan put the figure at 1679 families while the Resettlement & Rehabilitation Plan quoted a figure of 2245 families.

The tribunal also noted that though the project would affect 14 villages, people from only four or five villages had made it to the public hearing. Sixty-four percent of those who attended the public hearing were from the village of Dolesara where the meeting took place. Local people who were present at the public hearing also told this correspondent that while thousands of people arrived for the meeting, only a handful were allowed to participate. The NGT observed that ‘officials responsible for conducting [the] public hearing, in collusion with the officials of the proponent, managed to induct 50-60 people on the venue through an alternative entrance or early in the morning and public hearing proceedings were conducted, ignoring the other people gathered outside the venue and raising protest’.

September 2023: local people gather in solidarity against the Gare Pelma II coal project being developed by the Adani Group.

In its judgment, the NGT concluded that it appeared that ‘only those who were supporting the project were allowed to participate and their statements were made part of the proceedings’.

During the EAC meeting on 8 May 2024, the Board members were yet again asked if local people had been given adequate opportunity to submit their representations during the public hearing. The minutes say: ‘The Committee [EAC] asked whether the opportunity was given to local people to record their observation in this regard, representative of CECB informed that Additional District Magistrate, Raigarh, announced many times and local people were asked to come forward and respond and record their objections and consent if any regarding project … It was also informed to the Committee that 59 persons present at the venue responded orally and 2 persons submitted the (sic) written response.’

In a letter dated 29 April 2024, the Board told the EAC that on the date of the public hearing, the ‘Additional District Magistrate, Raigarh also announced many times to come forward and respond and record their objection and consent if any regarding project’.

In response to a query by the EAC as to whether the Board had recorded the submissions of the four petitioners to the NGT, the Board officials replied that a couple of representations from the petitioners had been received in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Board also told the EAC that the petitioners had submitted certain health and environment reports pertaining to the proposed project.

One of many bodies of water needed by local people but which could be adversely impacted by the proposed Gare Pelma II coal mine being developed by Adani.

‘The environmental approval was quashed and the whole process should be redone,’ said Rinchin.

‘On top of that, the Green Tribunal has asked the ministry to relook at the whole situation based on any studies that give clarity on the feasibility of new mining projects in the area, considering the reports on health and environment that show very critical environmental conditions,’ added Rinchin.

While quashing the environmental clearance, the NGT suggested that the ministry re-examine the matter from the stage of a fresh public consultation. It said: ‘[The ministry] may re-examine the matter from the stage of conducting public consultation afresh and in case other appropriate study material is placed on record by proponent, the same may be considered/appraised and a fresh order may be passed by [the ministry] with regard to prior [environmental approval] in accordance with law and existing state of environment and ecology.’ (Emphasis added)

Local places of worship will be obliterated if the Gare Pelma coal mine proceeds.

This order by the NGT has befuddled petitioners and activists alike due to its convoluted wording. However, the simple fact is that the NGT has already quashed the project’s approval. Some observers believe that the ministry has misinterpreted this order in order to rehash the approval without holding a properly conducted public hearing. They also say that the ministry does not have the power to rework an environmental approval that has already been quashed by the tribunal. Any attempt by the ministry to repeat the mine’s approval without having adequately consulted the public is bound to end up in the courts.

The mining lease occupies 2583.48 hectares across 14 villages of Raigarh. Owing to the preponderance of tribal communities, Raigarh has been notified as a district under Schedule V of the Constitution of India, where special provisions of law are applicable to the takeover of land and natural resources for the purpose of industrial development. The project involves the loss of 214.869 hectares of reserved forests for which Mahagenco received the final clearance on 27 January 2023. Thousands of people belonging to tribal communities are dependent on these forest resources for their livelihoods, as reported in earlier AdaniWatch articles.

Apart from considering the procedure that was followed while conducting public consultations, the EAC has also focused on the need for a carrying-capacity study to analyse whether the region, already dominated by industrial projects, can bear the load of yet another coal mine. It has asked the Board to expand the scope of an ongoing carrying-capacity study to include the likely impacts of the Gare Pelma II project. This ongoing study is being carried out by a panel comprising representatives of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) located in the cities of Mumbai and Bhilai. The EAC has recommended that health and environmental studies submitted to the Board by the petitioners should also be considered by this expert panel.

The EAC has recommended that a sub-committee should visit the project site. However, petitioners who spoke to this correspondent said that they had not been contacted by any such sub-committee. The minutes of the EAC meeting do not reveal the sub-committee’s composition or the names of its members. The minutes also do not reveal the exact date on which the sub-committee plans to conduct the site visit, even though it has been mentioned that a two-day visit planned on 17 and 18 May had been postponed due to procedural issues.