Coal India Indigenous People
Tribal forest dwellers resist Adani’s Bijahan coal project
May 24, 2024
'Once the farmland is gone, it will be difficult to provide food to my large household.' Ganesh Pradhan (61), whose farmland will be destroyed if Adani's Bijahan coal mine proceeds. Image Ayaskant Das

A coal mine proposed by the Adani Group in the Indian state of Odisha will, if it proceeds, obliterate the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of tribal forest dwellers. Unscrupulous local authorities attempted to hoodwink villagers by calling formal consultative meetings about the Bijahan coal-mining project with just a day’s notice. The courts, however, ordered the situation to be redressed. This is a temporary reprieve, with preparations for uprooting local residents moving full-steam ahead. AdaniWatch’s Ayaskant Das is the first journalist ever to visit these people to report on their struggle.

Basic facts and figures

  • Name of project: Bijahan coal-mining project
  • Location: Hemgir, Sundargarh
  • Name of owner: Mahanadi Mines & Minerals Private Limited (an Adani Group subsidiary)
  • Coal reserves: 327 million tons
  • Peak output: 5.26 million tons per annum
  • Villages, population affected: 4 villages affected (detailed R&R study not yet conducted)
  • Cost: Rs 2600 crore (US $312 million)
  • Current status: Awaiting land acquisition, environmental clearance process underway.

A forest and river scene in the Bijahan area of Odisha - threatened by Adani's proposed Bijahan coal mine.

The verdant forests of Sundargarh district, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, are the stage for a battle between environmental protection and the Adani Group’s relentless pursuit of coal mining. On a humid and overcast morning in late April, we traverse winding roads that lead deep into the heart of these woodlands where billionaire businessman Gautam Adani’s conglomerate has proposed to develop the large greenfield Bijahan coal-mining project.

Sharing its political boundaries to the north and the west with the coal-rich Indian states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, more than half of Sundargarh was once blanketed by dense forests. Sundargarh, in the vernacular Odia language translates into ‘beautiful fort’. These hills and forests are inhabited by communities that are mostly tribal. However, the discovery of extensive coal reserves beneath these woodlands has beckoned corporate interests, resulting in a drastic reduction of forest cover. The Bijahan coal project is Adani’s first foray into these forests.

The threatened village of Bijahan, set in forests earmarked for obliteration for an Adani coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

Amidst this verdant expanse, a road freshly paved with stone chips snakes its way into the heart of the forest, its purpose clear: to facilitate the transportation of coal in a steady procession of lorries and dumpers from the already-operational Jamkhani coal mine. Jamkhani belongs to another multibillion-dollar business conglomerate, the Vedanta Group. On this serpentine road, we encounter Maheshwar Kanwar (60), a tribal man, who is emblematic of the symbiotic relationship between indigenous communities and their forest habitat. Kanwar’s shoulders bear the weight of a load of mahua flowers, and his feet, rough and calloused, are caked with forest soil. The load of delicate blossoms has been carefully gathered. Kanwar will dry the blossoms and then trade them to local breweries. The brewers, in turn, will transform the dried blossoms into a potent liquor.

Maheshwar Kanwar (60), a tribal man whose family lives off the produce of forests. Image Ayaskant Das

‘Every summer, I manage to sell roughly four to five quintals of mahua flowers to local breweries,’ Kanwar tells me before hurrying to his home. ‘I earn around Rs 40-50 per kilogram of the flowers.

‘My household members engage in cleaning and drying the flowers. The forest produce is free. Our communities have conserved the forests since time immemorial.’

The survival of Kanwar’s local community is deeply intertwined with the riches of the forests, highlighting a fragile equilibrium. However, a pervasive sense of fear and mistrust lingers among these communities that claim to have been unfairly treated in previous deals where land and forest have been acquired for coal mines. They regard the Adani Group’s upcoming project with great apprehension.

(Story continues below)

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‘They should not believe in the promised land that the Adani company tempts them with.’

The Adani Group subsidiary, Mahanadi Mines & Minerals Private Limited, which won a bid conducted in March 2022 by the Narendra Modi government for the Bijahan coal block, will clear approximately 608.64 hectares of this forestland. The block contains geological reserves of 327 million tons of coal. The Adani Group will pump in a Rs 2600 crores (US $312 million). Four villages – Bijahan, Jharpalam, Girisima and Bhograkachhar – of the Hemgir tehsil (an administrative unit) of Sundargarh district will be affected by the project. Initial estimates indicate that roughly 450 families will be displaced. Another 376 families will be impacted in varying degrees through loss of land or livelihood.

Earlier that morning, I contacted a local activist, Niranjan Bhoi, who had promised to take me around the villages and the adjoining forests that are threatened by Adani’s Bijjahan coal project. Bhoi, along with a group of local people, has petitioned the Odisha High Court about the ham-fisted manner in which the state government rushed through mandatory public consultations required for the takeover of lands for the Bijahan project. The consent of local communities, through meetings of Gram Sabhas (village councils comprising all people of voting age), is a legal requirement in Sundargarh, where special provisions in governance are applicable owing to the preponderance of tribal people. It is a district categorized under Schedule V of the Constitution of India, where takeover of land or natural resources requires clear consent of local communities.

Niranjan Bhoi (head scarf), one of the petitioners to the courts, challenging the government's sham of an approval process for the Adani Group's Bijahan coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

Bhoi asks us over the phone to wait for him at an inconspicuous eatery on the wayside of the stone-paved road. As we introduce ourselves to the eatery owner, his expression betrays skepticism and distrust. Yet, upon mentioning Bhoi’s name as a reference, his demeanor softens, and he guides us to the rear of the establishment. Through a couple of dark and dingy anterooms, filled with large cooking utensils and stocks of food material, he leads us into a large hall lined with wooden cots. The eatery owner shuts the door behind him after leaving us in the hall where we bake in the immense heat trapped under the low tin roof. He reappears with a bottle of chilled water. We wait for several minutes before Bhoi, along with three other men who identify themselves as local people affected by coal projects, make their way into the oven-like hall.

‘There are many outstanding issues pertaining to the mine,’ says one of the men. ‘These include resettlement and rehabilitation, jobs and compensation for agricultural land subject to takeover.

‘The government has dragged its feet over the years and local politicians have not been fair to us either.’

Farmlands and forests threatened by the Adani Group's proposed Bijahan coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

As our conversation deepens, fear and mistrust seem to give way to a growing sense of camaraderie and understanding. The men are, nevertheless, guarded in their responses.

‘What are your grievances against Adani’s proposed Bijahan coal project?’ I ask.

‘For this project, the government seems to be in a hurry to take over of our land and forests,’ says one of the men. ‘Our consent does not seem to be important for the officials. We seem to be under constant watch by government officials and company lackeys. We have no idea if we will be suitably compensated for the takeover of our houses, farmlands, forests and water sources.’

A member of a tribal community dependent on the forests around Bijahan for her family's livelihoods. Image Ayaskant Das

During the discussions, the men lament that there is a profound dearth of information about the final shape of the project. The absence of sufficient information leaves them grappling with uncertainty and a sense of disorientation.

‘Surveys of land and forests are taking place,’ said another man. ‘But we are not told the purpose of these surveys or the project for which these are taking place. Consequently, in the recent past, villagers have forced officials to abandon surveys of households. A drone survey of the mining lease area was also hastily called off when local communities objected to it.’

Street scene in Bijahan - local people have driven away Adani surveyors. Image Ayaskant Das

The district administration of Sundargarh allegedly conducted sham Gram Sabha consultative meetings about the project on 26 November 2023 at the scandalously short notice of just one day, instead of the mandatory period of 15 days. As reported by AdaniWatch in an earlier article, the Odisha High Court directed the government to redress this lack of notice which prevented the communities from putting forth their objections adequately.

Following this rap on the knuckles, the district administration issued an order through a circular claiming that the meetings held on 26 November 2023 were not Gram Sabhas in the first place!

‘… it is found that the meeting held on 26.11.2023 between the Sub-Collector, Sundargarh and Villagers of the four villages i.e. Bijahan, Bhograkachhar, Girisima and Jharpalam, were not Gram Sabhas. The said meetings were part of the consultation process aimed at identifying and resolving issues related to land acquisition …,’ states the order dated 13 March 2024, an English version which is published here by AdaniWatch.

A government circular concedes that the contested village council meetings were not the legitimate formal meetings mandated as part of the approvals process.

Given the circumstances, the looming question as to whether Gram Sabha meetings will ever be held has no clear answer. Most forms of government work are in limbo in Odisha owing to the ongoing general elections in India and the simultaneous elections for the state’s legislative assembly.

Meanwhile, a public hearing for environmental clearance of the project was conducted by the Odisha government through the state pollution control board on 1 December 2023. Local people allege that the sham Gram Sabha meetings of 26 November were notified by the government as an afterthought. Even if legitimate Gram Sabha meetings are held, the legality of the project’s approval processes will be questioned. How could the government go ahead with a public hearing on 1 December 2023 for environmental clearance of the Bijahan project without first obtaining the consent of Gram Sabhas?

Perched atop a hill, enveloped by greenery, Bijahan seemed like a tranquil oasis. Image Ayaskant Das

Accompanied by Bhoi, we leave the eatery to visit the project-affected villages. As we travelled further down the stone-chipped road, our path diverged onto a rugged dirt track winding through a forest, leading us towards the village of Bijahan. Perched atop a hill, enveloped by greenery, Bijahan seemed like a tranquil oasis. Upon reaching the village, we found its main street eerily deserted even at the usually bustling hour of noon, with only a handful of souls dotting the quiet thoroughfare. Yet, despite the apparent calm, an air of unease hung palpably in the atmosphere. Every encounter we had was tinged with a profound sense of apprehension. The wary eyes of the villagers spoke volumes, betraying the deep-seated concerns plaguing them.

The biggest landowner of the village, Ganesh Pradhan (61), who owns over 14 hectares of farmland, was worried about the impending fate of his extended family comprising 19 members. Seated on the long verandah of his ancestral house, Pradhan recounts how his entire family has been, for years, self-sufficient with their farm produce.

Ganesh Pradhan (61), whose 14 ha constitute the biggest land-holding in the Bijahan. Image Ayaskant Das

‘The paddy, oilseeds, lintels and seasonal vegetables that we grow in our farms take care of our dietary needs,’ Pradhan says. ‘We just buy spices, salt and oil from the market. Once the farmland is gone, it will be difficult to provide food to my large household. Several of my family members are more than 18 years old. Will they be given jobs in lieu of the land takeover?’

He added: ‘Forget about new jobs. We are concerned if project-affected people will be able to hold on to their existing jobs. One of my sons is a teacher in a government middle school in Bhograkachhar. The school building has been identified for demolition. Will he retain his job?’

Smaller landholders, who do not generate enough produce on their farms, are equally concerned. Nand Kumar Sahoo (42), whose family of five members owns a tiny agricultural plot of four decimals, about 40 metres by 40 metres, supplements his meagre farm income by working as a mason.

'The entire village will be obliterated'. Nand Kumar Sahoo (42), whose family of five members owns a tiny agricultural plot. Image Ayaskant Das

‘The entire village will be obliterated,’ Sahoo tells me on a village verandah. ‘The government’s track record in providing alternate means of livelihood to displaced families is poor. The predicament of those who lost land and houses for other projects is there for all of us to see.

‘The resettlement colony developed for that coal mine is of such substandard quality that none of the displaced families agreed to shift there.’

All households that we visit tell us stories painting grim pictures of the impact wrought by past mining ventures and believe it will be no different for the Adani project. Most courtyards were laid out with clusters of freshly-picked mahua flowers, arranged neatly on the ground, in various stages of drying before their eventual dispatch to nearby breweries.

Most courtyards were laid out with clusters of freshly-picked mahua flowers, arranged neatly on the ground, in various stages of drying before their eventual dispatch to nearby breweries. Image Ayaskant Das

I walk along houses flanking both sides of the street. At the street’s end, a handful of men who had sought respite from the midday sun in the shade of a small community gathering space, exchange furtive glances with each other and smile at me. The concrete-paved street ends at this community place and transforms into a dirt track which merges with a slope running upward to a hillock. On my way up the hill, a group of men resting under the dense shade of a huge tree tell me they have travelled from Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh in search of menial work.

Labourers searching for menial work lounge in the midday sun just outside Bijahan. Image Ayaskant Das

The ramshackle dwellings of a few tribal families at the crest of the hillock are engulfed in a deathly silence. Their inhabitants have ventured into the depths of the forest in search of mahua, leaving behind their pet dogs, who greeted my presence with wariness.

From this vantage point atop the hillock, the expanse of the Bijahan region unfolded before me in panoramic splendour, offering an unobstructed view of its undulating terrain and sylvan character. The clock ticks past 1 pm, and the digital display on my mobile phone reveals a scorching 40 degrees Celsius. Yet, despite the heat, nature offers respite in the form of a breeze sweeping through the valley. The fresh air dries the beads of sweat on my skin, leaving behind a refreshing coolness that rejuvenates my senses. With eyes closed, I surrender to the embrace of this revitalising wind, inhaling the clean mountain air. In that moment, I am transported on the wings of memory to the tranquil hill stations of north India, a fleeting escape from the tumultuous and uncertain atmosphere pervading a community that is about to be uprooted to make way for yet another gigantic coal project of the Adani Group.

My reverie is shattered by a shout echoing from the village street below, drawing my attention to the figure of a man beckoning me from afar. Descending the hillside, my eyes fix on the scene unfolding before me. Bhoi is engaged in a fervent exchange of words with a lean, youthful stranger. This newcomer, unseen during my earlier interactions with the villagers, seems to have materialised during my visit to the top of the hillock.

The men in the shaded village gathering place. Image Ayaskant Das

With an air of brashness, he confronts me, demanding to know the purpose of my inquiries among the locals. I identify myself as a journalist seeking to understand the concerns surrounding the proposed coal mine. His breath reeks of country liquor. He ushers me into the enclosure of the community space and latches its waist-high grille gate after me. The handful of men, who had already been lounging under the shade of the community space, join him to surround me. He insists that I prove my identity. I am dumbfounded when he asks me to produce ‘a licence’ for doing news reporting work in the area. My wallet yields only an old press card, a relic from my brief stint with a media organisation years ago. Snatching the card from my grasp, he proceeds to photograph it with his mobile phone, his movements unsteady under the influence of liquor.

As I try to walk out the gate, I am physically blocked by the man. He insists that I delete all the pictures that I have shot on my mobile phone. Bhoi intervenes and tries to pacify him saying that I have travelled a long distance to enquire if the interests of the villagers will be compromised by the mining project. But the young man angrily retorts: ‘Don’t you remember what happened with us during the establishment of the last coal-mining project here?’

I manage to walk away to our cab parked at the entrance of the village even as Bhoi is engaged in an animated conversation. Bhoi follows me and we quickly drive away from the village. On our way back, Bhoi says those men are lackeys on the payroll of stakeholders who are in favor of the short-term inducements of the coal-mining project.

Ancestral forests of tribal people - threatened by the Adani Group's Bijahan coal project. Image Ayaskant Das

Later that evening, I called up Sundargarh’s superintendent of police, Pratyush Diwakar, and briefed him about the altercation in Bijahan. He assures me that I would encounter no further trouble during my field visit planned for the following day. He also asks me to call him up directly on his mobile phone in the event that any stranger obstructs me from discharging my news-reporting duties. Two days later, however, when I had already moved out of Sundargarh, a disquieting development emerged: a source reached out to inform me that the individuals who had confronted me in Bijahan village had lodged a complaint against me at the local police station. Their accusations, as detailed in the complaint letter shared with me via a screenshot on a mobile phone, alleged that I had presented a counterfeit identity card to deceive the villagers. Furthermore, they accused me of coercing innocent members of the tribal community to provide false information under duress.

As we made our way back from Bijahan on that eventful afternoon, my sources drew my gaze to a disheartening sight: sprawling structures, erected from fly-ash bricks, had been imposed on the verdant farmlands and dense vegetation. These edifices, a recent addition to the Bijahan skyline, stood as stark monuments to the short-term inducements of land takeover.

One of many new buildings erected during a spree of speculative building, reportedly by people seeking compensation once the mine gets the go ahead. Image Ayaskant Das

My sources shed light on the true nature of these constructions: they were speculative ventures, erected in anticipation of the impending land acquisition for Adani Group’s coal mine with the aim of securing inflated compensation and resettlement packages. Pausing by one of these large structures, I engaged in conversation with a handful of labourers to gain further understanding. The workers said affluent traders hailing from Raigarh city in neighboring Chhattisgarh had seized the opportunity to purchase land from locals, leveraging their wealth to erect these structures as investments. My sources corroborated this, revealing that even individuals of modest means, including petty traders and low-ranking officials, had joined the speculative frenzy. This correspondent has witnessed a similar phenomenon on land to be acquired for the Adani Group’s Dhirauli and Gare Pelma II coal mines in Singrauli and Raigarh, respectively.

‘These ventures seemingly promise lucrative returns for their investors,’ said one of my sources as we drove away from Bijahan. ‘But it is the tribal communities and local populace, particularly those at the bottom of the socio-economic strata of the society, who will ultimately bear the brunt of the mine’s impact.’

Woodlands, fields and villages - all earmarked for obliteration by Adani's Bijahan coal-mining project. Image Ayaskant Das