In the Indian state of Odisha, hundreds of families are resisting dispossession and displacement by a sprawling coal mine. The Talabira II and III project is being developed by an Adani company. Many of the people in the path of the rapidly expanding excavations live in a state of anxiety because they have yet to be offered adequate compensation. A re-settlement colony several kilometres away is only slowly taking shape. Even when this regimented complex of box-like dwellings is completed, it won’t make up for the loss of treasured homes and farmland.
On an unusually hot summer afternoon, our car slowly grinds to a halt in front of a house in the village of Budhiapalli. On the verandah, 80-year-old Khirodini Dash is anxiously awaiting the return of her blind son, Ram (37). Despite his disability, he has been going out every morning in search of a job because his family depends on him.
Khirodini’s ripe old age has left her with extremely poor eyesight, but she is more concerned about Ram. He has been certified as 100% visually impaired by the health department of the Odisha government. His younger sister, Sujata, is also visually impaired and is unmarried. Ram’s wife, Satyabhama (34), who emerges from the doorway of the house, is the only able-bodied person in the family.
Soon, all of them will be evicted as a giant coal mine swallows up their home and village. Meanwhile, tension and anxiety are building across all the villages to be destroyed to make way for the coal mine.
Budhiapalli falls in the Talabira coal mining area, in the Sambalpur district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Not far away is the defunct Talabira I coal mine. The owner of the sprawling Talabira II and III coal project is the public-sector corporation Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) India Limited. It has appointed an Adani firm to carry out coal mining on its behalf at Talabira II and III.
The mining project for Talabira II and III coal blocks is spread over a massive area of 1914 hectares that straddles the districts of Sambalpur and Jharsuguda in western Odisha. This is more than 40 times the area of the smallest country in the world Vatican City. Human settlements and agricultural land account for nearly 475 hectares of the land within the mining lease. In comparison, the entire mining lease area of the disused Talabira I coal block was only 170 hectares.
As we chat with the three women on the verandah of their doomed house, the clang of machines excavating overburden permeates the sultry afternoon. This will be the second time that this family has been displaced by a large industrial project. The family had resettled in Budhiapalli after being evicted from their homes and farmland in the mid-1950s to make way for the Odisha government’s mammoth Hirakud Hydroelectric Project.
‘We have not been offered a job at the coal mine in lieu of our house and farmland that will be taken over’, Satyabhama says. ‘My husband has failed to get a job elsewhere because he lacks eyesight. We have also not been offered another house for resettlement.
‘All that the mining company is offering us is a one-time monetary compensation which we have refused to accept. The compensation is meagre and will not suffice for the needs of a family like ours.’
The family used to eke out a living from 1.07 hectares of farmland that it owned in Budhiapalli village. But since June last year, they have lost around 35 decimals (approximately 0.14 hectares) of the farmland after overburden generated from the new coal mine was dumped on it. The family says that the remaining farmland and their house will also soon be lost.
Satyabhama remembers an overcast day in June 2021. She had rushed to her farmland after news reached her that earthmovers were dumping rubble on it. With the help of farm labourers, the family had continued to crop the land even after it was acquired for the mine in 2009. But her attempt to prevent the farmland from being obliterated was met with obscene intimidation by the workers doing the dumping. Late that night, a First Information Report was registered in the matter at the local Thelkoli Police Station under sections 294 (obscene acts) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.
Nevertheless, excavation of topsoil and dumping of overburden for the mining project, which is being undertaken by Adani-owned Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited (TOMPL), continued unabated. The overburden dump adjacent to Budhiapalli has been expanding day by day, making eventual eviction of families from nearby houses a foregone conclusion.
The alley where the Dash family lives in Budhiapalli opens into a large open space of the village that is surrounded by houses, most of which are loosely put together from brick and cement with roofs of baked-mud tiles or asbestos sheets. All 200 of these dwellings are marked with the initials ‘NLC’, along with other codes. Budhiapalli is amongst numerous villages in the Sambalpur and Jharsuguda districts that will be ‘relocated’ to make way for the Talabira coal mines.
A group of men huddle together on the verandah of Akula Pradhan’s house as we walk towards the open space. They would later tell us that they had presumed us to be officials from the mining firm when they had noticed our car driving into the alley.
The men tell me that the families of Budhiapalli have taken a unanimous decision to completely bar entry of mining officials into their village. They are also refusing compensation money.
‘Dynamite is blasted in the nearby colliery, often three times a day, to break the rocks. The tremors have resulted in cracks to the walls of our houses. It is pointless to resist the miners. We will be thrown behind bars. But we have refused to move out or accept the meagre compensation,’ Pradhan (78) told me.
On 8 March 2022, the local police cracked down on those opposed to mining activities in the region. Of the 13 men who were arrested (and later released on bail), three belonged to Budhiapalli. These included Hemsagar Budhia (63), who was amongst the group of men on Akula Pradhan’s verandah when we visited.
‘Work began on the mines, in close proximity to our village, in December 2019. Not a single family has been resettled so far. There has been no job guarantee in lieu of the livelihoods that we will lose, nor has there been any provision for relocation. Not only are there cracks in the walls of our houses from tremors caused by mine activities, but the air and water in the region have become extremely polluted from fugitive coal dust,’ Budhia told me.
The Talabira II and III coal blocks had earlier been allotted to a consortium of three companies which included two Indian public-sector corporations, Mahanadi Coalfields and NLC India Limited, which at that time was known as Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited. The third partner was Hindalco Industries, a subsidiary of the Indian multinational conglomerate Aditya Birla Group. In between the years 2005 and 2008, notices were issued for the acquisition of land for the coal mine under India’s Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition & Development) Act, 1957. The process of acquisition duly followed. In August 2009, the government of India issued a formal notification stating that acquisition of nearly 384 hectares of land for the Talabira II and III coal mining projects was complete.
However, allotment of the two mines to the consortium – known popularly as ‘MNH’ – was nullified following a historic verdict of the Supreme Court of India in November 2014 in which the allocation of 214 coal blocks was annulled. The coal blocks were subsequently allotted to NLC India Limited in May 2016.
‘A public hearing was conducted regarding the proposed land takeover back in 2005-06 when the two coal blocks were with the MNH consortium,’ said Budhia. ‘In the past 18 years, priorities of the government have changed. The ownership of the mines was cancelled and subsequently transferred to a new entity after a Supreme Court verdict. But there was no public hearing after ownership changed hands.
‘Our families have expanded in the past 18 years too. Why has the government failed to recognise that priorities of landowners can change as well?’ asked Budhia.
Local communities are peeved with the government because compensation has not been uniformly distributed. They say that the government has categorised project-affected families into as many as six categories for the sake of providing compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation associated with the Talabira II and III coal mine.
A senior official of NLC India Limited told me that before determination of compensation, a study of ‘socio-economic conditions’ of local communities in the project area was carried out by a non-government organisation based in the state capital of Odisha, and that this was accepted at a subsequent formal meeting. Nevertheless, project-affected families continue to demand that compensation and other reparations are distributed uniformly.
The official said that houses under construction in Landupalli for re-settlement of displaced people will be completed within a year. He said the re-settlement project was costing the mine proponent approximately US $14 million, even though the 288 houses fall way short of the 534 first envisaged.
A short distance from the house of Akula Pradhan, the mining leaseholder has allegedly refused to pay any compensation at all for land that will be taken over from around a dozen families. In February 2015, small plots of land measuring less than one tenth of a hectare each were allotted by the Sambalpur district administration through revenue instruments known as pattas (where patta means record of rights in Odia, the language spoken in Odisha), to around a dozen landless families of Majhipada for the purpose of constructing dwellings.
‘These plots of land were allotted to us at a time when the old lease had been cancelled and a new mining leaseholder was yet to be appointed’, said 80-year-old Undu Seth of Majhipada. ‘We have constructed dwellings upon the plots. But the new mining leaseholder has refused compensation in lieu of the houses saying the allotment was made after the year 2009 when the acquisition process was ostensibly completed. It’s a case where different arms of the government are not working in tandem with each other.’
In March 2020, womenfolk of Majhipada staged a demonstration against the mining project, protesting against the refusal of the leaseholder to compensate them for the loss of their homesteads. These protests were quelled by the local police. Similarly, in Mundapada, a small settlement of a tribe known as Mundas, families that do not have landownership records have allegedly been denied compensation. The community, which belongs to the category of Scheduled Tribes, has been living at this location for several generations. The lack of land-ownership records is common amongst tribal communities in India. The dwellings concerned, located in close proximity to the mining area, are suffering damage from tremors caused by explosions in the mines. Many of these tribal families are set to be displaced for the second time in 70 years, having been displaced by the Hirakud hydro dam in the 1950s.
Families in village after village that we visit in the adjoining Jharsuguda district also complain of being deprived of their land rights by the government.
In the villages of Patrapalli, Rampur and Dumermunda, which fall under the project area of Talabira II and III in Jharsuguda district, significant numbers of families displaced by the Hirakud Dam Project in the mid-1950s face eviction again to make way for the coal mine. On 30 January 2002, the revenue department of the Odisha state government issued an order to allocate 10 decimals of land (around one-twentieth of a hectare) to all project-displaced families of the Hirakud Hydropower project. The allotment was promised irrespective of the income of the families in accordance with the Odisha Government Land Settlement Act, 1962.
‘However, even as we had been fighting at different levels to get land allocated to us under this scheme, the government handed over entire villages, comprising families ousted for the Hirakud Project, for coal mining. We are still fighting for our rights 20 years after the state government issued the order,’ said Dillip Sahu (52) who lives in Patrapalli.
A survey conducted by the administration of Jharsuguda indicates that there are 366 families living in Patrapalli, Rampur and Dumermunda that were ousted by the Hirakud Hydropower Project. A Public Interest Litigation was filed by Dillip Sahu in the Odisha High Court in March 2016 demanding allotment of homestead land to the 366 displaced families. However, after not listing the case for hearing for six years, the high court dismissed the petition on 18 April 2022.
Full-scale mining activities have yet to commence in the district of Jharsuguda. Large areas are still covered with dense forests that mostly comprise sal trees (scientific name: Shorea robusta), which not only have religious significance in India but are also a major source of hardwood timber.
In Malda village, where we travel next, parents receiving their kids from school recount frequent altercations between local communities on the one hand and mining officials and the administration on the other over the forthcoming evictions from their lands. They say there will be no avenue left for primary education in the area after the school in which their kids are enrolled is flattened to enable the extraction of coal. A sense of fear and doom pervades Malda.
‘There is nowhere for us to go. No alternative schooling facilities have been developed for our kids. It is a scandal that a resettlement colony for families displaced by the Talabira coal mines is yet to be completed,’ said Jagannath Sahu (41) of Malda.
But mining activities in Talabira are expected to pick up even more pace in the near future, increasing the anxiety for hundreds of families that will be displaced. In March 2022, NLC India Limited signed a pact with a government-owned power generation and distribution company in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu to supply 1500 MW of power from a pithead coal-power plant in Talabira. Activities are underway at the NLC for construction of a 2400MW coal-power plant in Talabira which will supply electricity to the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation as per the pact.
On our way back from Jharsuguda, we decide to visit the Rehabilitation and Resettlement colony that is being built by NLC India Limited in the locality of Landupalli in Sambalpur district. This is close to the project site of Talabira I. The ride to the colony is bumpy because the road is rough. At Landupalli, we are confronted by the sight of dozens of houses under construction in neat rows on either side of dusty, unpaved roads. These incomplete dwellings, barring a few in which workers employed in the project have been temporarily accommodated, lack electricity, water, plaster on the walls, and doors and windows.
A worker at the project site tells us that given the pace of construction activities in the colony, the houses won’t be ready for their new owners for at least five years!