An Adani coal project on the outskirts of the bustling Indian city of Nagpur has hit a roadblock. A public hearing about the proposed Gondkhairi underground coal mine had to be called off mid-session because of ‘public sentiment’. The hearing was an obligatory step in the approval process. Media reports describe the anger of meeting attendees who had been deprived of receiving timely information about the project in the local language. Farmers, in particular, are concerned that the proposed coal mine will exacerbate water shortages in an area already prone to drought.
The western Indian state of Maharashtra has asked the government of Narendra Modi to take a call on the validity of a public hearing about an Adani-owned coal project, which was called off midway owing to protests by dissenting local communities. The Maharashtra government, which is supported by the BJP, the political party that is in power at the centre in India, has not yet conceded to requests of project-affected local communities that they be provided with a hard copy of the hearing’s proceedings.
The public hearing in question was part of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Adani Group’s Gondkhairi coal mining project in the Nagpur district. The coal block is part of the Kamptee coalfields in the drought-prone Vidarbha region of central India. It is located less than 20 km from the bustling city centre of Nagpur. The 3 million tons per annum (MTPA) Gondkhairi project has been proposed at a cost of over Rs 1300 crore (US $156 million) by the Adani Group subsidiary, Adani Power Maharashtra Limited. It bagged the block in August 2021 in one of the auctions held by the Modi government for commercial mining of coal.
The project covers 862 ha within the metropolitan region of Nagpur. The mine is proposed to be entirely underground but, as yet, does not have clearance from the urban planning agency – the Nagpur Metropolitan Region Development Authority (NMRDA). Local communities, including farmers and landowners, are opposing all coal-based projects in the region, which is already suffering the environmental impacts of at least three coal-power plants.
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The public hearing in question was held at Karli village, near Gondkhairi, on 13 July 2023 by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), a state-government agency. Responding to the meeting’s abrupt suspension, a senior official of the MPCB said:
‘The only demand raised by the people gathered at the public hearing was to stop its proceedings. They had been demanding a copy of the EIA report in Marathi. But as per extant rules, nowhere is it mandatory upon the agency conducting the public hearing to provide the EIA report in the local vernacular language. The hearing was conducted amidst disturbances. The proceedings have been duly recorded through photography and videography. Subsequently, we sent the minutes of the meeting, the photographs and the video evidence to our head office in Mumbai for further course of action.’
Prashant Nimbalkar, a local farmer, gave this correspondent an alternative view regarding the hearing's proceedings.
‘Most of the people at the public hearing belonged to farming and working-class communities who do not have proficiency in the English language,’ said Nimbalkar.
‘Yet the copy of the environment assessment report was provided in English instead of in Marathi, the local language. Officials at the public hearing did not provide us with a Marathi copy of the report despite several requests. Around 3000 people assembled for the hearing. The officials asked us to give consent for the project through a show of hands. Not a single hand went up.’
A document containing the minutes of the public hearing has been published on the MPCB’s website, but there is no Marathi version of the executive summary of the EIA report. Interestingly, the link to this document has not been inserted into the appropriate section that contains the entire list of reports of all public hearings in the state. It has been placed in a different section of the website and is available only in English.
The document asserts that officials made a presentation describing the project in Marathi during the public hearing. Leaders belonging to opposition political parties and representatives of around two dozen local gram panchayats [village councils] were in attendance. The proceedings were supervised by a panel chaired by an additional district magistrate of Nagpur. The minutes of the meeting suggest that Congress leader, Sunil Kedar, an elected representative, first opposed the proceedings demanding a Marathi version of the report. The project site falls within Savner constituency, which is represented by Kedar in the legislative assembly of Maharashtra.
There were vociferous calls by men and women at the hearing that the proceedings be suspended until the report was made available in Marathi. The panel’s chairperson initially refused to call off the meeting, but eventually caved in to ‘public sentiment’.
‘Chairman of the Environment Public Hearing Panel asked the gathering if anyone wanted to speak. There was huge shout “NO” from the people. Chairman of the Environment Public Hearing Panel asked whether attendees want to hear the company’s say. All unanimously refused … Chairman, Environment Public Hearing announced that the environmental public hearing is held up due to public sentiment,’ the document states.
Several vernacular and English language local dailies and television news channels reported on the vehement public outcry at the meeting. There were reports that the website of the pollution control board had allegedly malfunctioned on the day of the hearing, thereby denying attendees access to the EIA report.
Sunil Kedar did not respond to repeated phone calls of this correspondent. According to the official minutes of the meeting, former home-affairs minister of Maharashtra, Anil Deshmukh, arrived at the public hearing venue after the ‘discontinuation of the meeting’. Deshmukh, who belongs to the Nationalist Congress Party, a regional outfit opposed to the ruling state government, told this correspondent that he submitted a memorandum to the officials present at the venue. He stated in his memorandum that the project is likely to cause a water shortage in Vidarbha.
Reportedly, the Adani Group had attempted to lure disgruntled local communities and farmers through freebies prior to the public hearing. Free health check-up camps were allegedly organised for residents of nearly half-a-dozen villages surrounding the proposed project site. These allegations could not be independently verified by AdaniWatch.
The document containing the minutes of the hearing states that the pollution control board received 44 written submissions about the project. The contents of these submissions are not known. The document also does not mention in detail all the environmental issues that were raised during the hearing.
In its EIA report prepared prior to the public hearing, the Adani Group acknowledged the possible negative impacts of underground mining. The report states: ‘Subsidence of land due to total extraction of coal may cause changes in topography by developing micro basins, subsidence fractures, ridges, pot holes etc. Care will be taken during mining activity to leave enough pillars in underground as barriers below water body to avoid any damage to surface water bodies.’
Such promises have not reassured local farmers.
‘Farm output in the area surrounding the coal block is good,’ said Nimbalkar, who also heads a local agricultural market produce committee. ‘However, we can no longer dig wells to water our farms once underground mining activities commence.
‘There are a few water bodies in the area which we use to irrigate our lands. These will get polluted. The water bodies will ultimately dry up because no underground aquifers will be available for recharge after coal mining. The top soil will always be at the risk of subsidence. In the future, the government cannot even think of laying irrigation canals for our farms if the mining project is approved’.
The EIA report lists the measures that the Adani Group intends to implement in order to mitigate the impacts of underground mining. The business conglomerate has claimed that there will be no air pollution resulting from the Gondkhairi project. ‘The mining activities are restricted to underground only; there will not be any significant impact on surface air quality,’ the report states.
Gondkhairi has reserves of 98.5 million tons of coal; the lease covers 862 hectares. This area comprises 687 ha of agricultural land, barren land, water bodies, roads and community land. It includes an additional 87 ha of revenue forest land and 87 ha of non-forest land belonging to the government.
Questions have been raised regarding the manner in which forest approval was granted for the project by the Maharashtra government. Based on the assumption that there would be no felling of trees for the underground project, the state’s former chief conservator of forest, Rangnath Naikade, recommended clearance in March 2023, barely ‘two months before his retirement’. The approval was granted despite objections by conservationists concerning the project’s potential impacts on the wildlife and ecology of the region.
Conservationists also pointed out that the Vena Lake Dam – a major source of water for local industries, factories and farming – might become polluted if mining is approved. The dam is a mere three km from the project site. They have also canvassed the possibility of a nearby lake, the Suraburdi Lake, becoming dry if underground mining takes place.
Taking cognizance of the water bodies and a patch of forest land over the mining lease area, the central government has proposed a hydrogeological study before allowing mining operations. The terms of reference for carrying out the EIA were granted to the project proponent by a government panel, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change. The terms of reference state: ‘EAC desired PP [project proponent] to make all effort to rejuvenate the water bodies and shall propose to treat the water before supplying to the nearby villagers. EAC emphasized that the 87.351 ha of forest land lying inside the project area should not be disturbed to develop any type of infrastructure.’
Having already faced threats to their livelihoods due to pollution from existing industries, communities in nearby villages have refused to swallow the Adani Group’s claims that the project will be ‘beneficial in terms of energy security for the development of country.’
Abhay Raut, another farmer from Kalmeshwar, told this correspondent that the development of large coal-power plants in the region has already hit the farming community hard.
‘We grow seasonal vegetables such as spinach, cabbages and cauliflowers,’ said Raut. ‘But production has declined due to pollution caused by coal-power plants. The Nagpur region is famous for oranges. But orange trees are dying prematurely due to pollution.
‘All year round, fugitive fly ash from coal-power plants settles as a coat of thick white dust upon crops. There have been instances when breaches in the dikes of fly-ash ponds have allowed a toxic slurry to flood our fields. We have witnessed first-hand the scant regard that industries have for the lives and welfare of local communities and it is for this reason that we are against any more coal-based projects’.
The Adani Group has promised roughly 860 jobs to be generated from the mine.
There are three huge coal-power plants in Nagpur near the project site of Gondkhairi. These are the 1340 MW Khaparkheda project, the 2340-MW Mauda project and the 2190 MW Koradi project. The Khaparkheda and Mauda projects belong to Maharashtra’s state-owned power generation corporation Mahagenco; Mauda belongs to central government’s National Thermal Power Corporation.
Recently, a public hearing conducted by the Maharashtra government for the proposed expansion of the Koradi plant was challenged by local environmental groups in the high court of Maharashtra. The public hearing was held in May 2023 to obtain the consent of local communities for the expansion of the plant by 660 MW. On September 20, the high court asked the state government to respond to the allegation that the hearing was conducted in an illegal manner, depriving many citizens from expressing their views and objections. The petitioner, Nagpur-based NGO Vidarbh Connect, alleged that the hearing was ‘stage managed’ to procure swift clearances.
‘There has been no progress in the Koradi expansion project ever since the high court took cognizance of the flawed public hearing,’ said a Nagpur-based environmental activist who did not want to be named. ‘Despite the high court’s reprimand, government agencies have gone ahead with another flawed hearing, this time for the Gondkhairi project.
'Despite several requests, the government has not shared a hard copy of the hearing’s proceedings. Earlier, the Gondkhairi coal block was allotted to a consortium which could not go ahead with the mining because it did not get clearance from the metropolitan development authority.’
The consortium that had been allotted the coal block comprised three private companies. In September 2010, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had issued terms of reference to the consortium for carrying out an EIA study. The consortium had proposed a 1 MTPA underground project in an area of 1130 hectares. Its allocation was cancelled following a landmark judgement in September 2014 in which the Supreme Court of India annulled the allocations of 214 coal blocks. Most of these blocks have subsequently been put up for auction by the Modi government.
Activists have also pointed to the example of Mahagenco’s Mahajanwadi coal block, which it surrendered to the central government in November 2016 because it fell within the Nagpur metropolitan region and involved largescale displacement of local communities. The block, covering 26.35 square km and with geological reserves of over than 200 million tons, is in the Hingna tehsil of Nagpur district. The 26.5 square kilometers of the block are also a part of Nagpur metropolitan region. Local Congress and BJP leaders protested against mining the coal block following its allocation to Mahagenco in February 2016 by the Modi government. The MLA of Hingna, Sameer Meghe, who belongs to the BJP, had even written to the then Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, asking him to drop the ‘unviable’ project.
‘The same set of rules that were applied to Mahajanwadi should also apply to Gondkhairi. Both blocks are within the Nagpur metropolitan region,’ added the activist.
‘If the Koradi expansion project can be questioned over the fairness of its public hearing, the same logic should also be applied to the Gondkhairi project. The government should not bend the rules for one particular business group.’