By R. Krishna Das
Surajbai, 80, hailing from Barkutta village, “repents” giving birth to four girls. Owner of six acres near the Kusmunda opencast coal mine, Surajbai has five children. Her son, Kumhar Singh, suffering from a deleterious mental illness, is bed-ridden and could not be employed when Coal India Limited (CIL) acquired her land and offered a rehabilitation package. Her four daughters could not either. Coal India policy did not provide jobs to women under the rehabilitation package.
The anger in her family added fuel to the anger-filled public hearing that South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) held on Wednesday to expand its existing Kusmunda opencast coal mine in Chhattisgarh fourfold, from 18.75 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) to 50 mtpa.
“The prime minister (Narendra Modi) talks about promoting girls in the country, while CIL has been denying rights and creating discrimination on gender basis,” fumed Surajbai’s daughter, Nirupama, at the public hearing convened for expansion of the Kusmunda coalmine operated by SECL, the country’s largest coal producing company and flagship entity of CIL.
Currently, Kusmunda produces 18.75 mtpa. Expansion of this project — identified as one of the projects in the Emergency Coal Production Plan (ECPP) of CIL — has been planned to a targeted capacity of 50 mtpa by mining about 3,510 hectares of area. In favourable techno-economical circumstances, the project might produce 1.25 times of the normative capacity and might attain production level of 62.50 mtpa.
Such public hearings are mandatory under the environmental clearance process. But the public hearings are only consultative in nature under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. They do not hold a veto over the project.
But Nirupama carried the anger from the previous experience of acquisition of land done for the mines. The family failed to secure a job and the issue remained pending even as the authorities evicted the family from their house, forcing Surajbai and her family to stay in a makeshift hut.
“The issue of providing a job to the girl would be brought to the notice of higher and appropriate authorities,” Kusmunda Coalmine project General Manager Ranjan Saha said. He said as jobs in coal mines was not suitable for girls, they were denied.
But, on Wednesday, the poor track record of rehabilitation had brought the villagers out in strong protest against the CIL project.
Of the 38 people who spoke at the function, only one spoke in favour of the expansion. He was a CIL employee. “SECL never kept the promise it had made to the affected people and this was one of the main reasons for people’s opposition,” said Girdhari Agrawal of Gevra village.
Government’s project approval documents show that the new expansion will displace 9,250 people from 17 villages in the area. The earlier expansion of the project from 15 mtpa to 18.75 mtpa was approved post-facto by the Union environment ministry in February 2014, after it found the company had been operating beyond the levels permitted under the clearances.
The new expansion, too, faced accusations of irregularity. The Korba district administration came under the scanner on Wednesday for keeping norms at bay for organising the public hearing. “The meeting was organised at the stadium of SECL in Kusmunda and not the villages that were going to be affected,” local legislator of ruling BJP Lakhanlal Dewanjan charged. Public hearings are to be held in the vicinity of villages to ensure participation and at neutral grounds not offices of the companies. The public hearing was illegal and need to be cancelled, Dewanjan added.
Laxmi Chouhan, a social activist, said the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project contained the air pollution data compiled six years ago. “The report circulated to the villagers was in English and most of the people could not underline the impact,” he added.
By the environmental rules, the state administration would now need to compile a report of the public hearing and send to the Union government. Based on the public hearing and the environment impact assessment report the company has got prepared, the Union environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee will review the case for giving a green clearance. Surajbai and her family’s woes could find a mention in the report. But her or other villagers’ grouse might not hold back the expansion. Their views do not hold a veto over the project, under the law. The Union environment ministry holds the veto.
First published in Business Standard.