A public hearing held on 11th February 2015 in Korba, Chhattisgarh on the nearly four-fold expansion of the Kusmunda coal mine operated by South Eastern Coalfields (SECL) failed to meaningfully consult adivasi and other vulnerable communities who would be affected by the mine’s expansion, Amnesty International India said.
“The public hearing was conducted at an SECL stadium far from many villages that would be affected by the proposed expansion, which led to several people not attending,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International India, who was present at the public hearing. “Local communities did not receive adequate information on the project’s potential impacts, undermining their rights to participation and consultation under international law.”
SECL is a subsidiary of the state-owned Coal India Limited, one of the world’s largest coal mining companies. In December 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) gave SECL permission to expand production at its open-cast coal mine in Kusmunda from 18.75 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) to 62.5 mtpa. The expansion is expected to lead to the displacement of 9250 families in 17 villages and affect another 5475 families.
The public hearing was held as part of the project’s environmental clearance process, as required under Indian environmental law, and was intended for authorities to consult local people and address their concerns.
According to the Environment Impact Notification, 2009 issued by the MoEF – which prescribes the procedure for conduct of public hearings – hearings must either be held at project sites or in their close proximity. However the public hearing on 11 February was conducted inside an SECL-owned sports stadium in Kusmunda, located between 5 and 12 kilometres away from many of the 17 affected villages. Authorities did not heed requests from residents of Khodri, Pali, Khairbawna and Amgaon villages for a change in venue to facilitate access for communities and open expression of opinions. A large number of security force personnel were present at the hearing, which locals and activists told Amnesty International had an intimidatory effect.
The hearing was conducted on the same day that recently-elected local village representatives from the region were being sworn into office. Kamlabai, a local government official from Pali village, told Amnesty International India, “Why did the district authorities choose to conduct the hearing on a day that village representatives were being sworn in? Many from my village, including me, were not able to participate in the hearing because of this.”
Limited information was made available to communities about the impact of the project ahead of the hearing, and much of what was provided was not accessible. The Environmental Impact Assessment Report, which contains much technical information, was made available only in English, with a summary in Hindi.
Brajesh Shrivas, a local lawyer, said, “You write your impact assessments in English and a technical language, only sharing with us brief summaries in Hindi. How do you expect people to understand anything?”
Laxmi Chauhan, a local environmental activist, said, “The EIA report prepared provides no information regarding the rehabilitation and resettlement of families living in Khodri, Churail, Khairbhawna or Amgaon, despite being clearly asked to do so by the MoEF.”
The EIA report also did not mention details about the indigenous communities who could be affected by the expansion, and contained insufficient details on impacts on health, data on health monitoring, and how damage from past evictions, pollution and poor waste management would be remediated.
At the hearing, discussion on the impacts of the project was limited to a few minutes. Authorities did not clarify whether affected communities would be eligible for compensation and rehabilitation under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which a recent central government ordinance made applicable to cases of land acquired for coal mining by the state.
Mahesh Mahant, a resident of Khodri village, told Amnesty International India, “We’ve lived next to this mine for almost 30 years, and watched our wells go dry, forests disappear and fields become unproductive. What is the point of this environmental public hearing, except to tell us that we’re not fit to live here anymore?”
“Authorities have a duty to ensure that people’s concerns on pollution and rehabilitation are addressed, and carry out a full assessment of the project’s human rights impact in genuine consultation with affected communities, before approving the mine expansion,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar.
On 19 February 2014, SECL received an environmental clearance for expanding its mine’s production capacity from 15 million tonnes to 18.75 mtpa. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests exempted the project from conducting an environmental public hearing to inform and consult communities on the impacts of the expansion. On 1 December 2014, the Ministry again cleared the expansion of the mine’s production capacity from 18.75 mtpa to 62.5 mtpa.
The last public hearing for the project was conducted in 2008, regarding the expansion of the mine’s capacity from 10 to 15 MTPA. Local residents, activists and lawyers say the issues raised during this public hearing have still not been adequately addressed.
The Korba district is protected under the Indian Constitution as a ‘scheduled area’, where Adivasi communities have special customary rights over land. Under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, communities in these areas have the right to be consulted before acquisition of any land or resettlement of people for development projects. To date, state authorities have not conducted such consultations with affected communities. A single meeting of the Rehabilitation and Peripheral Development Advisory Committee in December 2010 did not involve village-level representatives or affected communities.
SECL’s plans to expand the 2,382-hectare Kusmunda mine involves the acquisition of an additional 1,127 hectares of land. The project involves a total of 372 hectares of forest land. However, community consent for diversion of this forest land for non-forest purposes, as mandated by India’s Forest Rights Act, has not yet been obtained.
In 2009, India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) ranked Korba as India’s fifth most critically polluted industrial cluster. The CPCB’s assessment reports, and a subsequent pollution abatement plan developed in 2011, stated that dust from the transportation of coal from SECL’s mines is a major contributor to air pollution and laid out steps for SECL to take by end-2011, including proper reclamation of existing mine sites. It is still unclear whether this has been achieved.
India is obligated under international law to ensure that both the Chhattisgarh state authorities and the central government take all necessary measures to safeguard people from human rights abuses, including by third parties such as companies. This requires enforcing laws against pollution and preventing the contamination of water, air or soil.
All pics: Aruna Chadrasekhar / Amnesty International India