India Coal
The harsh life at the coal face of Adani’s Talabira mine
Jun 25, 2024
People living on the fringe of Adani's Talabira coal mines survive as best they can, often scavenging coal for use at home or for sale. Ayaskant Das

Adani’s coal mine near the village of Talabira has displaced thousands of people. Most have chosen not to live in the soulless re-settlement colony, which is devoid of greenery and basic amenities. People in nearby villages have watched this with dismay because their houses and farms will be the next to get swallowed up by the expanding mine. Ayaskant Das is one of the few journalists to have visited Talabira to investigate the desperate situation of people in the front line of Adani’s coal-mining juggernaut. Here is his exclusive report.

Basic facts and figures

  • Name of project: Talabira II & III Opencast Coal Mining Project
  • Location: Sambalpur and Jharsuguda, Odisha, India
  • Name of owner: NLC India Limited (a public-sector enterprise)
  • Mine Developer & Operator: Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited (an Adani Group subsidiary)
  • Coal reserves: 589.21 million tons
  • Peak output: 23 million tons per annum
  • Villages, population affected: 5 villages (Rampur, Malda, Patrapali, Talabira, Khinda); 2973 families
  • Cost: Rs 2401 crore (US $288 million)
  • Current status: Operational and expanding as of December 2019

As the sun blazes mercilessly from a cloudless sky on an April morning, Talabira’s residents wake up to another hot day. Talabira is a village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. The village landscape, once verdant but now pock-marked by open-cast coal mining, is dominated by the presence of the multibillion-dollar Adani conglomerate.

Forewarned by my sources about the heat wave, we arrive at Talabira around 8 o’clock in the morning. As we meander through dense Sal forests towards the village along a winding road, signs of life and activity begin to emerge. Along the roadside, we encounter men laboriously pushing bicycles burdened with hefty blocks of coal. These pilfered loads will be sold to small roadside eateries, which serve as pit stops for truck drivers. The sight vividly portrays the relentless struggle for survival here, where individuals strive to piece together a livelihood from whatever they can find.

A scavenger pushes a bicycle overloaded with coal. Image Ayaskant Das

In the bustling marketplace of Khinda, a village surrounded by the debris left by coal mining, a semblance of daily life persists. Amidst the chaos, vegetable vendors meticulously arrange their produce on tarpaulins spread out by the road, ready to engage in the day’s commerce. Numerous mahua trees, the flower of which is used to brew a potent local brew, stand out in the stark landscape. The heady aroma of the mahua flowers, which used to pervade the still summer air of Talabira until around two years ago, is now conspicuous by its absence. The trees have stopped flowering, one of the many adverse impacts of the Adani Group’s Talabira II & III coal-mine. (AdaniWatch has previously reported on Adani’s plans for Talabira II and III).

A market stall in the doomed village of Khinda, earmarked for demolition to make way for an expanded Adani-operated coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

A central-government public-sector undertaking in India, NLC India Limited, which owns Talabira II & III, has outsourced the mining operations to an Adani-owned subsidiary company, Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited. The block covers 1167 hectares of the coalfields of the Ib valley, in the Sambalpur and Jharsuguda districts of Odisha. It contains 589 million tons of underground coal reserves. The mine became operational in December 2019, with the first coal extracted in April 2020, but is yet to occupy its full planned extent. The Adani Group also owns the adjoining Talabira I coal block, whose mine is disused on the outskirts of Khinda.

A village temple awaits demolition for the Adani-operated Talabira coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

After an arduous hour-long journey through rough terrain on a newly constructed road paved with stone chips within the mining lease, we arrive at Malda, a village perched above its surroundings. Malda faces obliteration to make way for the new coal mine. It is in Jharsuguda district. It is among many settlements awaiting demolition. Mining elsewhere is already at full throttle. The project has wiped out inter-district boundaries. We are oblivious to having crossed into Jharsuguda from Sambalpur.

A newly constructed road carves its way through woodlands en route to Adani's Talabira coal-mining project. Image Ayaskant Das

(Story continues below)

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‘We are from Dharavi’ has become a battle cry

A solemn atmosphere pervades the center of Malda, where a massive banyan tree stands as silent witness to the drama that has unfolded in the village. Local communities in Malda have been resisting takeover of their land, households and forests for expansion of the coal project. Here, the only government school sits empty owing to the summer vacation, while a temple resonates to the rhythmic toll of a bell. The school and temple will be demolished for Adani’s works.

A large banyan tree stands as silent witness to the plight of Malda, earmarked for obliteration to make way for Adani's Talabira II and III coal project. Image Ayaskant Das

Jagannath Sahoo (43), one of the vocal opponents of the mine expansion, keeps us waiting for nearly an hour at his home in Malda. He had been to the district headquarters of Jharsuguda with other people of the village to air grievances about their impending fate. After returning, he keeps us waiting while he answers numerous phone calls from inquisitive people enquiring about the proceedings of the important meeting. Visibly agitated, he shouts into the phone. All households in Malda have been recently numbered by officials conducting surveys for ‘rehabilitation’ and resettlement of displaced families. However, the numbers do not bear the initials of NLC or of the Adani company, unlike the pattern in other villages. Sahoo’s modest house, bearing signs of dilapidation, bears five different serial numbers, the meanings of which are unknown.

‘There have been no written undertakings of the great promises that have been made by the government and company officials.' Jagannath Sahoo outside his home, marked with serial numbers - a harbinger of demolition. Image Ayaskant Das

‘We are holding regular meetings amongst local communities at the village centre for fear that we will be shortchanged our rights when they take over our lands for the project’s expansion,’ says Sahoo.

‘Surveys of households to be demolished have begun. We need to stay alert because unscrupulous elements have unleashed a campaign to fracture our unity.’

Owing to the imminent takeover of land, the state government has halted grants for construction of pucca houses, to which poor inhabitants are entitled under a central-government scheme. Many families live in dilapidated dwellings.

This streetscape in Malda has been earmarked for demolition to make way for the Adani-operated Talabira II and III coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

Sahoo opens a notebook in which he has recorded the minutes of the village meetings. ‘We have raised a charter of 18 demands before we agree to move out of our households and surrender our land and forests to the company,’ he said.

‘These demands include adequate financial compensation, schools, hospitals and amenities for project-affected families. We need new houses and jobs against the loss of agricultural land. We have witnessed at firsthand the plight of those who have already lost their land and houses for the project. They have been shortchanged. Under no circumstances will we allow ourselves to suffer a similar plight’.

Meetings amongst villagers, administration officials and company representatives for carrying out valuation of land and houses have yet to be conducted. Officials have given them nothing in writing.

‘There have been no written undertakings of the great promises that have been made by the government and company officials. Not a single point in our charter of demands has yet been accepted,’ added Sahoo.

On the drive to Malda through the mining-lease area that morning, we bypassed several settlements that were inhabited despite all the mining activities taking place around them. Houses, temples, water bodies and farmlands exist side-by-side with the mining overburden.

Houses, water bodies and agriculture occur next to the ever-encroaching mounds of overburden from the Talabira coal mines. Image Ayaskant Das

Communities inhabiting these settlements are in imminent danger from blasting activities in the open-cast project as well as from air pollution. The water bodies are extremely close to the mining overburden. As we drove past, men, women and children could be seen bathing or performing morning ablutions in these ponds.

‘The water used to be clear. But now these have been polluted by fugitive coal dust. Often, when blasting takes place, rocks and debris end up in the water. Our animals drink from these ponds, putting them at risk of diseases. People who wash themselves here complain of skin and respiratory ailments,’ a source accompanying me said.

Ponds where people bathe and animals drink are becoming polluted by coal dust. Image Ayaskant Das

Coal dust and debris litter the countryside; not a single water sprinkler to suppress the dust can be seen. People breathe the dust-laden air and eat food covered with a film of fine coal particles. A common sight in the Talabira area is poverty-stricken people scrapping for pieces of coal to sell in small eateries or to burn in their own kitchens.

Despite promises that the coal mine would bring general prosperity, the reality has been bleak. At a small food stall in Khinda village, people tell us that compensation money has dwindled, agricultural production has plummeted, jobs have remained elusive, and environmental degradation has ravaged the once-fertile farmlands and water bodies.

A group of elderly men lounged outside the eatery, quite early in the day, for a round of cards over tea, snacks and gossip.

In limbo: their lands have either been taken over or have become unusable due to the ever-widening impacts of the Adani-operated Talabira coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

‘We have nothing better to do than to hang around here,’ one of the men, Manmath Das (56), tells me. ‘Much of our farmlands are yet to be taken over physically though acquisition-related formalities are complete and compensation disbursed. These farmlands no longer yield crops owing to pollution caused by fugitive coal dust. At the same time, jobs promised to our kids have not materialised.’

Das was amongst the villagers resolutely opposed to the mining project. His extended family owned around 1.6 hectares of agricultural land which they refused to give over. Despite several objectors gradually relenting and breaking away from the ranks to obtain compensation, Das and his family remained resolute.

‘This was until the government deposited the compensation money in the treasury of a local court,’ he said. ‘Topsoil excavated during mining was dumped on our farmland two years ago, destroying standing crops. Company officials ran a bulldozer around our ancestral house, during which it was damaged. We complained to officials of the district administration to no avail.’

Brambles and other weeds infest abandoned farmland near the Talabira coal project. Image Ayaskant Das

Das and his family members continue to live in the same house despite the damage incurred. A solatium (compensation to account for emotional impacts) which was promised to project-displaced families awaiting resettlement has not materialised for Das’s family.

Another project-affected individual, Balram Budhia (65), from Budhiapali village, said his family has lost more than four hectares of farmland. They have, however, continued to hold on to their ancestral house, which has also been acquired.

‘My son has matriculated but has no job. My nephew has a diploma in mining engineering but he has no job either,’ said Balram. ‘Some of our ancestral farmland is still left after the takeover, but pollution and lack of access prevent us from cultivating those lands.

‘This farmland is just outside the mining lease and bears the brunt of the mine’s air pollution. This summer, we could not access our mango orchard to gather the produce because the access road had been cut off.’

Machinery, overburden and coal dust invade what's left of the Talabira agricultural precinct. Image Ayaskant Das

As the morning sun filtered through the dense canopy of a huge tree in front of the eatery, Balram extended an invitation that promised a journey into the past. ‘Come, join me,’ he said, his voice carrying a mixture of nostalgia and determination. ‘Let me show you what once thrived here.’

I agreed to ride pillion on his battered motorbike, ready to explore the remnants of his once-prosperous farmland and orchards. Balram kicked the engine to life, and we set off along a rugged footpath that wound its way through what had once been cultivated land. The path led us past skeletal frames of abandoned houses, now strangled by layers of creeping foliage. Balram maneuvered the bike with practised skill, navigating the twists and turns until we reached the edge of a tranquil pond, its surface shimmering in the morning light. Here, our motorbike ride ended, for the path ahead was swallowed by ankle-high undergrowth. We ventured forward on foot, Balram leading the way along a narrow ledge that bordered the pond’s perimeter. Each step was deliberate as we picked our way along the edge, mindful of the perilous drop into the water below. Balram’s words painted a vivid picture of the past, as he pointed out the fallow fields that had once yielded bountiful harvests, and the now-rusted farming equipment.

The impacts of coal mining affect everything, from crops to water bodies to villages. Image Ayaskant Das

In the quiet of that moment, amid the whispers of the wind and the rustle of dry grass, Balram wove a tale of loss and resilience, a testament to the ever-changing landscape of life and the enduring spirit of his people.

‘Often the crops that we plant now are destroyed by fire,’ he lamented. ‘The farmland is no longer easily accessible. There is no one to keep a watch for fires that break out frequently in the summer. Coal dust gathering over the crops intensifies the fires.’

Balram led me further into his realm, to where his orchard lay bathed in the warm embrace of the sun. The branches of mango trees sagged under the weight of their fruit. Yet beyond the orchard’s verdant canopy, a little distance away from the banks of another pond, ominous mounds of coal and overburden occupied land that once yielded rich crops. Balram’s voice carried a note of resignation as he gestured towards the laden branches.

‘The mangoes have been affected by pollution - the entire crop will be wasted'. Balram Budhia (65). Image Ayaskant Das,’

‘This season, the mangoes have been affected by pollution,’ he said, his tone heavy with regret. ‘The entire crop will be wasted before the fruits ripen.’

Returning from the fields of Balram Budhia, the atmosphere at the eatery remained unchanged, the men engrossed in their card game as if the world beyond held no consequence. Yet, for each person I interviewed, a tale of dispossession, exploitation and dejection unfolded. Among them was Sanatan Budhia, a weathered soul of seventy-five, whose family once owned productive expanses of farmland, but retains only a fraction. Around half a hectare of Sanatan Budhia’s farmland lay fallow, devoid of water and access roads, rendering cultivation an impossible task.

‘There are at least ten members in our family who are older than 18,’ said Sanatan. ‘But only six of them have jobs with the mine. Most of these jobs are manual and not commensurate with their educational qualifications or vocational skills.'

Local people allege that the jobs offered to eligible youngsters came neither from the Adani-owned mining company nor from the coal-block owner, NLC India Limited. The jobs came from subcontractors and sub-subcontractors engaged by the Adani company. Most jobs fetch salaries in the range of Rs 10,000-13,000 (US $100-155) per month. Manbodh Biswal (68), an activist whose petition in India’s premier environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, resulted in a hefty fine on the Adani Group for adverse impacts of the Talabira I project, said his son holds a diploma in mechanical engineering. He has been employed only as a security person on the project at a wage of Rs 13,000 a month.

‘Wages are computed according to the numbers of workdays,’ said Biswal. ‘There is no provision for sick leave. There are no holidays either. Payments are reduced even in instances of absence from work due to illness.’

It is close to noon and the sun overhead beats down. The temperature is inching past 45 degrees celsius and, with the accompanying humidity, even normal breathing is laborious. Nevertheless, overcome by curiosity, I broached the subject that lingered heavy in the air.

‘Why have you not made the move to the re-settlement colony in Landupali village? There, you could forge a new beginning, away from the relentless toll of coal mining.’

The stark re-settlement colony at Landupali, devoid of greenery and many essential amenities. Image Ayaskant Das

My inquiry was met with scoffs of bitter laughter. Their response spoke volumes, testament to widespread disillusionment. Despite it being more than four years since construction began, the re-settlement colony remained a promise unfulfilled. Located around five kilometers away from the marketplace in Khinda, the colony is still under construction.

‘Some of us have visited the under-construction colony,’ said one of the men. ‘But looking at the quality of construction work and the lack of basic amenities, we decided never to settle there.’

Many families, the men said, had opted out of the housing units on offer in the re-settlement package and had, instead, obtained equivalent cash compensation.

The next morning, at around at around eight o’clock, we reached the resettlement colony via a road navigating Landupali village and endless tracts barren land. The colony is a considerable distance from any semblance of civilization, close to the reservoir of the Hirakud Dam, the largest hydroelectric project of Odisha.

Many of the houses – which were ready for occupation during a visit to the area by this correspondent in April 2022 – sat empty and forlorn. Weeds choked the exteriors of these units while rust crept on to the steel fittings of doors and windows.

Construction crews add finishing touches to a re-settlement colony where no one wants to live. It is for people displaced by the Adani-operated Talabira coal projects. Image Ayaskant Das

Even though completed units had yet to be occupied, construction crews were seen laying down arterial roads and giving finishing touches to new units in this bleak landscape. There was no sign of vegetation in the entire colony, except for a single large tree which had perhaps escaped the axes of builders flattening the vegetation for the colony. Amenities such as marketplaces, schools and hospitals were nowhere to be seen. One of the houses has been repurposed as a coal-testing laboratory by NLC India Limited. From the terrace of an unfinished unit, the entire colony sprawled below like a ghost town frozen in time. Workers said only a handful of units were occupied, but not by families displaced by the coal mine. Instead, they served as quarters for the police of the Odisha Industrial Security Force, entrusted with the task of guarding the mine.

A knock on the door of one of the occupied units brought forth a young man who identified himself as a member of the security force. In a candid interview, he bemoaned the lack of amenities and the deteriorating quality of construction.

‘Even though we have been asked to stay in these units temporarily, the lack of basic amenities is a huge problem,’ said the young security guard. ‘We travel miles to buy groceries and vegetables. The walls and terraces have developed cracks less than four years after completion.

‘The houses will not be able to weather the next few years. We were told that the government plans to build schools, hospitals and shopping complexes for the project-displaced population. Given the pace of work, these houses would have crumbled by the time such basic amenities are in place.’