In March 2022, India’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by an Adani company against a big fine for environmental violations at one of its coal mines in Odisha. The dumping of overburden from the Talabira I mine had obliterated agricultural land and sullied local water supplies. And despite the proximity of the massive coal project, local people suffer a lack of electricity, clean water and employment opportunities. Ayaskant Das visited the area to prepare this exclusive story for AdaniWatch.
On a hot summer morning in Khinda village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, 56-year-old Chhabila Mahananda lays out a variety of green vegetables which he unpacks from a gunny sack on to a rectangular plastic sheet that he has folded in half and spread alongside the road in the main market. Another frayed piece of plastic sheet, suspended precariously overhead, will provide him with much-needed shade, as he spends the next few hours peddling the vegetables that he has brought at wholesale prices from nearby Jharsuguda town.
The place is barely a stone’s throw from the Adani-owned Talabira I coal mine in Sambalpur district. Hillocks, formed from the coal mine’s overburden, loom menacingly less than half a mile away. Mahananda has taken to this hard way of earning a living after his plot of agricultural land, allotted to him by the state government, was perennially flooded with rainwater draining from this small mountain of overburden.
‘I used to grow paddy and vegetables all year round in the small plot of land adjacent to Talabira I. Not only was my family self-sufficient in food, but I also used to sell the excess produce in the market. Now, I trudge a distance of 25 kilometres every morning to fetch green vegetables from Jharsuguda which I then sell in Khinda in order to make a living,’ said Mahananda as he went about neatly arranging the vegetables in different heaps on the plastic sheet.
In the mid-1950s, the Mahananda family had relocated to a place called Matulu Camp near Khinda village when their original homes were submerged by the massive Hirakud Hydropower Dam Project.
‘It was only during the mid-1970s that the state government took notice of our plight and allotted us an agricultural plot of land measuring around 45 decimals [less than one-fifth of a hectare],’ he says. Then, in the 2000s, came the Talabira I coal project.
‘We were not directly affected by the Talabira I mine. My plot was located just outside the boundary of the mining lease. There is no question of compensation, therefore, even though run-off from the overburden hillock has rendered the plot of land uncultivable. If the overburden had been dumped properly, my family wouldn’t have suffered this fate,’ he added.
Mahananda’s family is not the only one to have lost agricultural livelihood to unscientific mining practices in Talabira. There are another half a dozen families whose lands have been adversely affected by runoff from the great mounds of overburden. These families had been allotted government land, cumulatively measuring around 0.75 hectares, through revenue instruments referred to locally as DC Pattas [where DC is short for District Commissioner and Patta means revenue record in Odia, the local language spoken in Odisha].
There are others whose lands near the Talabira I coal block were never acquired for the mine but have been rendered unusable due to a lack of approach roads and the cutting off of water necessary for irrigation.
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Janmejaya Rohidas (60), who lives in the Beheramunda settlement adjoining the Talabira I mine, alleges that around 0.04 hectares of his ancestral agricultural land were lost when the mining company dug it up for extracting coal without ever formally acquiring it. Along with several others, Rohidas has met administration officials on several occasions with his complaints but to no avail.
Ram Nihora Panday, another landowner, alleges that overburden was indiscriminately dumped on 0.08 hectares of his ancestral land, thereby rendering it unfit for agriculture. Narayan Harijan, a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste community, alleged that the blocking of a natural stream by dumped overburden in a place called Ainlakani, dried up about 0.40 hectares of agricultural land handed down to him by his ancestors.
Similarly, Ramesh Rout (50) and Susant Biswal (36) have alleged that roughly 0.45 hectares and 0.24 hectares, respectively, of their ancestral lands were left without water for irrigation or approach roads when the mine was developed. Their land was sandwiched between the mining lease and the reservoir of the Hirakud Dam.
‘We were given a meagre compensation of Rs 2481 [approximately US $32] when we lost over five hectares of agricultural land for the Hirakud Dam Project in the mid-1950s. We underwent a lot of struggles to make our leftover agricultural land fertile. We lost a further 0.33 hectares of it through acquisition to the Talabira I mine in the year 2001. Again, we were paid a paltry amount of Rs 84,000 [approximately US $1100]. Now, our children eke out a living by driving taxis and trucks or by working as manual laborers,’ said Ramesh Rout.
Manbodh Biswal (64), is a resident of Khinda village whose long battle in the National Green Tribunal, India’s premier environmental court, resulted in penalties imposed on the Adani Group, as well as the Aditya Birla Group (from whom the Adani Group acquired the mine), for indiscriminate disposal of overburden. He owns around 0.58 hectares of ancestral agricultural land that has been rendered unusable by the Talabira I coal mine.
‘There used to be a pond in Beheramunda earlier. We used its water for irrigating our fields. This water body was lost to the mining project. There used to be a hill called Bodarai Dungri which was flattened during the mining operations, thereby affecting local topography and changing the course of the runoff. We are also no longer able to access the land using tractors or bullock carts because it lies sandwiched between the dam’s reservoir and the mud embankment of the mining lease,’ Biswal told me.
On 14 March 2022, the Supreme Court of India dismissed an appeal by Adani Group subsidiary Raipur Energen Limited, the firm that owns Talabira I coal block, against the Green Tribunal’s penalty order of Rs 2.5 crore (US $327,000) on account of damages caused to the environment through indiscriminate dumping of overburden. This particular order, issued by a division bench of India’s apex court comprising Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Justice Surya Kant, paves the way for payment of Rs 10 crore in total (which includes the Rs 7.5 crore, or US $980,000 approximately, levied on Hindalco Industries Limited of the Aditya Birla Group as well).
The money will be collected as interim penalties and kept in a separate account by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board to be utilised in accordance with the final recommendations of a six-member expert panel that has been constituted by the tribunal to look into details of environmental violations. The expert panel conducted a field investigation in the first week of March 2022 but is yet to submit its findings. Only when the panel submits its report can it be determined whether these landowners are entitled to compensation after environmental restitution is paid for. But local villagers said that, irrespective of the amount be paid as compensation, restituting the environment will be a mammoth task given the scale of violations.
One of the main bones of contention is the green belt the mining company was required to establish. As per the terms and conditions of the mine’s environmental approval, the proponent was required to develop a green belt over an area totaling approximately 29 hectares along the boundary of the mining lease.
Section (xii) of the Environmental Clearance letter, which was issued to Hindalco Industries Limited in November 2011 and ultimately transferred to Adani’s Raipur Energen Limited in November 2020, states:
‘Area brought under afforestation shall not be less than 137.905 ha [hectares] which includes reclaimed external OB [overburden] dump area (45 ha), backfilled area (60 ha), along ML [mining lease] boundary, green belt (28.905ha) and topsoil dump area (6.0 ha) by using a mix of species found in the natural forests in the buffer zone in consultation with the local DFO [Divisional Forest Officer]/Agriculture Department. The density of the trees shall be around 2500 plants per ha.’
Four years after the environmental approval was granted, the Indian government’s premier accounting institution, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India stated in a report that eight out of ten large industries in Sambalpur, including Talabira I, did not comply with the condition ‘to create required green belt to the extent of 33 per cent of allotted land’. These findings were part of the CAG’s Compliance Audit Report No. 4 of 2015 on General and Social Sector of Government of Odisha.
During the course of the hearing of the case filed by Manbodh Biswal in the National Green Tribunal, the mine owner Adani Group claimed that a green belt had been developed in the mining lease area after 2016, subsequent to the report of the CAG. But local villagers argue that claims of the project proponent are untrue since no green belt has ever been developed in the mining lease. They ask me to take a tour along the periphery of the mining lease in order to see for myself.
The car in which we are travelling can go only as far as the broken boundary wall of the lease. From here, we hitchhike on motorcycles procured hastily from local villagers, travelling along a narrow dirt track roughly two feet wide that is sandwiched between the boundary wall of the lease and a defunct stormwater drain running parallel to that wall. A couple of kilometres ahead, the boundary wall disappears altogether. So does the storm water drain. The dirt track metamorphoses into a raised earthen mud embankment with steep slopes on either side.
Biswal and his companions point out several places where coal scavengers enter the abandoned mining pits. At one point on the periphery, the villagers show us a coal seam with door-sized holes drilled into it alongside a large pit filled with rainwater. It appears to be a rough attempt at manual underground mining. These holes have been drilled by local scavengers, they explain, in order to pilfer coal in small quantities for sale in the open market.
‘The lack of a boundary wall and the absence of a green belt have made stealing coal easy for the scavengers,’ Jayaram Budhia (52) of nearby Budhiapali village tells me.
There is still no sign of a green belt, even after travelling nearly four kilometres along the periphery of the mine. The vegetation largely comprises knee-high wild grass sparsely spread across the outer reaches of the lease. There are some small trees which these villagers claim have grown naturally over the years. At places, the grass appears to have been burnt.
‘These fires are not caused naturally. Local scavengers burn the grassy vegetation in order to ease their access to the mine area for stealing coal. There is a complete lack of security alongside the mining lease. The smoke that billows out when the pilferers burn the vegetation travels long distances and makes breathing difficult for us,’ added Budhia.
Further ahead on the embankment, the villagers show us an abandoned concrete tank-like structure filled with weeds and wild grass. As we walk across the tank using a fragile platform tied together with twigs, which feels as if it could collapse at any moment, they tell us that it used to be a water-treatment plant.
‘Water accumulated in the mining pit used to be treated here before being released into the reservoir. Now, in the absence of any activity, rainwater continues to accumulate inside the mining pit. The water is toxic and laced with harmful chemicals. It leaches underground and also overflows into adjoining areas thereby polluting our sources of water and agricultural fields,’ said Subash Pradhan (36) of nearby Bomaloi village.
The road leading to the main gate of the abandoned mine, where we arrive next, is unpaved and dusty. A number of big old trees dot the area in front of the main gate. Womenfolk, who had been relocated to a nearby Rehabilitation and Resettlement Colony set up by the government when land was acquired for the Talabira I mine in the early-2000s, were busy picking up mahuli flowers shed by these trees. They complain about the lack of basic amenities such as an uninterrupted power supply and adequate potable water at the colony. They also complain about the lack of employment, which could provide them with a decent livelihood. The absence of such opportunities leaves them little option but to pick mahuli flowers which they will dry for local breweries that make a heady alcoholic brew.
‘If the government decides to buy our fallow land in order to develop green areas which are much needed in the area given the scale of mining activities, we are ready to give it over,’ said Manbodh Biswal.
‘With more mining activities on the way, dense vegetation would be our only buffer from the largescale air pollution that is to follow. The government needs to look at the needs of the local communities. Men and women in search of livelihoods can be employed to develop and maintain the green areas.’