Published by MAC on 2021-06-22
Source: Down to Earth, Mongabay India, Hindustan Times (2021-06-22)
The government has not shied away from putting activists behind bars.
Villagers near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block, Sundargarh district, have been suffering from coal pollution for over a decade. In January 2021, the villagers launched a “do or die” agitation. Mahanadi Coalfields Limited has promised that the issues voiced by the community will be addressed.
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A “do or die” agitation against coal pollution in Odisha
14 May 2021
For over a decade, the villages near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block in the Sundargarh district have been fighting coal pollution without respite. In a desperate bid to highlight their unrelenting situation, the people of the area are now locked in a “do or die” agitation against the project since January 2021.
In February, Rajendra Naik, a human rights defender from Ratanpur, one of the affected villages located ten kilometres from the Kulda mines, filed an application in the Odisha High Court, against the central and state government and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of Coal India, which manages the mine. He submitted that the coal transport passing by Ratanpur and 25 villages along a 30 km stretch to Chhattisgarh violated the environmental clearance for the mine in 2002 and in 2018, which stipulated that the coal transported by road, shall be carried out by covered/conveyers with effective control measures.
The High Court in its order on March 17 directed the collector of Sundargarh district to hold a detailed enquiry involving local villagers and representatives of the government of Odisha and the centre. The collector, Nikhil Pavan Kalyan, held a meeting on March 23 following which he passed an order on March 24 restricting the plying of vehicles from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. except on public holidays.
His order called for covering the vehicles, increasing the water sprinkling in the villages for dust suppression, raising the school walls high to prevent dust. The district administration was asked to assess crop damage due to dust and impact on ponds in the area.
Since 2007-08, the residents of Taparia, Ratanpur and other nearby villages in the Hemgir block of Sundargarh district have suffered incessant dust pollution from the daily 3,000 dumper trucks of coal which pass through their villages. On January 19, they launched an agitation that is still going on, even though the authorities have tried to suppress it in many ways. Despite the collector’s order in March, the restriction on trucks plying is already being violated, according to local residents. Earlier court directives to control coal pollution have failed due to administrative apathy.
The villagers affected by pollution had opposed the expansion of the mine’s capacity, citing non -compliance with an earlier environmental clearance for a year in 2018, which increased the mine’s capacity from ten million tonnes per annum (mtpa) to 14 mtpa per annum. There were many conditions attached to this clearance which included regular medical camps, controlling fugitive emissions along the road with mechanised sweeping and spraying, and creating a thick green belt in the downwind direction of the project site,
Despite the residents’ opposition, in January 2021, an Expert Appraisal Committee of the Indian government’s environment ministry recommended the expansion of Kulda mine’s capacity from 14 mtpa to 19.6 mtpa. A news report in January 2021 mentions “the “economic blockade“ at Taparia village by locals who disrupted the movement of coal-laden trucks on Bankibahal-Taparia road”. It said that initially the protestors were demanding repair of the damaged road but now are adamant about stopping the transportation of coal through their village.
Resolving the issue of coal dust pollution is a long-pending demand
Far from it being an issue of road repair or merely transportation or even an economic blockade, it is a critical issue of coal pollution which the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste communities which live in these villages near the Kulda and Basundhara mines have suffered for over a decade. The coal is transported to various places in Chhattisgarh and the 25 km road stretch between Bankibahal and Tiparia on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border has dwindled to an unmotorable mess of potholes and stones.
Every day the trucks from the opencast mine at Kulda pass through 19 villages, and swathe the villages with fine coast dust which affects thousands of people, said Naresh Meher, one of the protestors. The road, which is the main bone of contention, is not the only thing at stake for the communities. The intense coal pollution disrupts every single minute of their lives.
It is after a decade long struggle against pollution and exploring legal avenues that the affected villages embarked on a “do or die” agitation as one of the protestors, Naresh Meher told Mongabay-India. He is among those jailed and harassed for the protests.
Odisha has the second-largest coal reserves (24 percent) in the country with stocks of almost 80 billion tonnes. On April 2, at the MCL annual press conference, P.K. Sinha, who is the Chairman-cum-Managing Director, said that coal production and despatch of the MCL during the financial year 2020-21 was the highest ever at 148.01 million tonnes (mt), and 146 mt respectively. Earlier in October 2020, it had bagged five Coal India awards, including two corporate awards for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Quality and also the first prize for the CSR implementation in Coal India.
Despite these sterling qualities, the company has clearly fallen short of controlling coal pollution. A site inspection and monitoring report of 2019, by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) shows that concentrations of Particulate Matter 10 and 2.5 are above permissible limits in the area and it was suggested that more sprinkling and control measures needed to be carried out. Also, the company was not monitoring fugitive dust emissions from the mining operations, among several shortcomings.
Moreover, the promised green belt is also nowhere to be found and there is no proper health assessment on the impact of coal pollution, said Meher, from the Janshakti Vikas Sanghatana, a coalition of affected communities from 25 villages in the area. He alleged that the health situation has worsened over the years. He suffered from tuberculosis as do other people in Ratanpur village and two of his uncles passed away due to cancer. His younger brother died after he contracted tuberculosis and then cancer.
Finally, unable to take it any longer, the community formed a group this year mainly to deal with the long pending issues of pollution, livelihoods and health.
Meher said that his father owned seven acres in Ratanpur, which was acquired for the mines, about ten km away. “We have lost land in the mine but there are no jobs for us. In Ratanpur village alone, there were some 19 acres of cultivated land which was acquired for mining,” he pointed out.
This area had a dense forest with panthers but since a few years, there has been no sighting, said Sarita Barpanda, a lawyer with the Human Right Law Network (HRLN) who is helping Meher and others in the local region with their legal cases.
Dust from mines is impacting agriculture and forest produce
The pollution is not only impacting the health of the people but is also affecting the livelihoods of the people. The dust from coal has adverse impacts on the cultivation of paddy and kendu (or tendu leaves used for rolling tobacco in beedis) leaves.
Often they are discoloured and do not fetch good prices in the market, Meher said. But this is not all, as there is an additional problem of slag being dumped on the roads from a sponge iron factory, one km away from Ratanpur, in the name of road repairs. The scheduled castes and tribes in the area do not own much land and they cultivated the nearby forests. Meher said their claims for titles for the forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have been unsuccessful.
“We have scaled back the level due to Covid-19 but the agitation continues. Many of us were detained and some including me went to jail. When we started our protest in January in Taparia village, false cases were filed against us and 16 persons were jailed. Then the police enforced prohibitory orders, so we moved to another village – Kandadhoha – to protest,” Meher said.
There, he alleged that the local transporters and members of a coal mafia, operating in the region, filed cases of attempted murder and dacoity against the protestors following which the police arrested 12 men and 12 women.
After that, the protest soon moved to Ratanpur where they voiced their concerns about poor roads and pollution. On 23 March, the district collector arrived with many police personnel.
Barpanda said: “We spoke to the tehsildar but he supported the MCL while saying the company will suffer losses if they do not run the trucks. He had no sympathy for the villagers,” she said.
Though the protesters are all geared up to take their latest protest to a meaningful conclusion this is not the first time they have voiced their concerns. The community had filed cases in court to divert the trucks away from their place of habitation but even then, Meher said, the timings were not being adhered to and nothing changed except the police repression.
In 2016, an order by the Odisha High Court had said that the road should be repaired and till then, no vehicle should ply on it. It had reviewed the road from Bankbihal to Taparia and said that two-ton multi-axle vehicles should be stopped till it was repaired. Prior to that, in 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Odisha government and the MCL for the construction of a four-lane coal corridor from Bankibahal to Bhedabahal (in Sundargarh district where an ultra-mega power plant is proposed), as the existing road is not fit for multi-axle heavy vehicles.
Since that was not done, the heads of 26 gram panchayats (village councils) filed a writ petition in the Odisha High Court in 2016. On that, the court ordered the formation of a committee that inspected the road from Sundergarh to Bankibahal/Taparia and submitted its report in March 2017.
The report ordered stopping the movement of trucks from Bankibahal to Taparia till the road was widened and repaired. The court ruled that a coal corridor must be built within a period of two months of the order and must be completed by the end of 2018 “on a war footing basis.”
It had also asked the collector to restrict the movements of vehicles and said that one of the conditions should be that multi-axle vehicles would only ply from 11 pm to 6 am. But none of this happened and orders to restrict truck movement has been wilfully disobeyed.
An MCL spokesperson said that there is no alternative to this road and it was being repaired by Jindal Power. He claimed that the timings regarding the movement of trucks are being adhered to and the MCL was cleaning the ponds and spraying water to control coal dust. He said there was some proposal for a coal corridor but did not have any details.
The spokesperson said the problem the people are facing should be resolved in a few months. MCL was also dealing with the pollution, and while there will be some pollution due to coal dust, the company was doing all it can to improve the matter, he said while stressing that the MCL holds health camps for the people as well.
Odisha stir against coal trucks emitting smoke: Nearly 170, including children, detained
The movement of coal trucks sparks pollution concerns; police claim no forceful detention of children.
18 March 2021
Odisha Police detained nearly 150 people, including 17 children, in Sundargarh district earlier this week after more than 3,000 villagers of nine Gram Panchayats came out in protest against coal-laden trucks passing through their villages.
A police official claimed that the “children were adamant to come to the station with their parents”.
Ramakanta Sai, inspector, Himgir police station, said: “The children were not forcibly detained. Some people had gheraoed the police station at night, but there was no lathi-charge on them.”
He added all 17 children, along with 55 women, were released on March 16 upon the intervention of child protection officer, Sundargarh. At least 24 women and 25 men were formally arrested later, Sai added.
These trucks, emitting smoke and dust, travel through Bankibahal-Taparia road in Hemgir block from the Kulda and Basudhara Open Cast Mines to Jindal Steel and Power Ltd and other plants in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh.
The villagers also started a road blockade to stop the movement of trucks on March 15, following which police picked 150 locals. The collector, Sundargarh, and regional officer of the State Pollution Control Board declined to speak on the issue.
The Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) February 10, 2021 had issued a recommendation barring movement of trucks on the village roads for up to six weeks.
The court, however, stayed the recommendation March 9 after the state petitioned through Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL), the owner of the mines.
As the movement of trucks resumed, the villagers started protesting, said environmentalist Rajendra Naik.
The collector, Sundargarh March 11 wrote:
“In exercise of power conferred U/s 115 of Motor Vehicle Act, 1998, I, Nikhil Pavan Kalyan, IAS District Magistrate & Collector, Sundargargarh-cum-Chairman, RTA, Sundargarh do hereby allow the plying of heavy commercial vehicles, multi-axle vehicle both empty and loaded, which are engaged in carrying coal, iron ore and other materials in Bankibahal-Taparia road with conditions and restrictions”.
Kusum Tete, member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Bharatiya Jananta Party, said: “The concerns of protesting locals are genuine. I will raise the issue in the Assembly.”
Former MLA of Sundargarh, Jogesh Singh, declined to comment since the matter was “sub judice and pending in the high court”.
Naik added that the expert appraisal committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had also recommended that environmental clearance for expansion of the capacity of Kulda Open Cast Coal Mine by 20 per cent would have an impact on the health, agriculture and water bodies of the region.
According to Naik:
“The expansion of Kulda Open Cast Mine would increase its capacity to 19.60 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) from 14 MTPA. Moreover, the clearance was recommended on the condition that MCL will plant 100,000 trees in the villages as well as 50,000 avenue trees along the transportation routes in two years.”
Naik alleged the MCL lied in its compliance report, saying the trucks did not on any route through the villages.
Moreover, the coal corridor project of Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd between Bankibahal and Bhedabahal in Sundargarh is yet to be realised.
Odisha: 16 held for stir against coal trucks emitting smoke
On January 19 this year, around 5,000 people from 45 villages of Hemagir block of Sundargarh district started their peaceful protest against pollution from the trucks carrying coal from Kulda Open Cast Mine and Basundhara open cast mines.
Feb 19, 2021
Sixteen tribal activists and villagers of Sundargarh district are in jail for the past 4 days for allegedly protesting against the expansion of a mines operated by state-owned Mahanadi Coalfields Limited that is allegedly causing massive pollution near their villages.
On January 19 this year, around 5,000 people from 45 villages of Hemagir block of Sundargarh district started their peaceful protest against pollution from the trucks carrying coal from Kulda Open Cast Mine and Basundhara open cast mines to an unit of Jindal Steel and Power Limited in Chhatisgarh’s Raigarh, 41 km away. The villagers, most of them Hill khadia, Bhuyan and Gond tribals, started a blockade to stop the trucks from Sundargarh travel to Chhatisgarh.
“It is impossible for most villagers in the area to not beathe the air laced with coal and flyash. The paddyfields are covered with a layer of coal dust,” said a tribal villager requesting anonymity.
A villager of Hemagir block said on February 14, police came and arrested Rajendra Naik, a tribal leader of Jana Shakti Vikash Parishad and 15 others on charges of murder, criminal intimidation among other charges. “Since January 19, around 200 people would gather at Taparia and block the way of the trucks headed for Chhattisgarh. Even at night, about 150 people continued the blockade. We had no other way as the trucks carrying coal leave behind a trail black dust on schools, hostels, houses as well as farmlands. Now police said if we do not stop agitating then many more would be arrested,” the villager said.
However, inspector of Hemagir police station, Ramakanta Sai said 16 persons were arrested after a truckdriver lodged a complaint that the activists tried to strangle him and beat him up. “The truckdriver was beaten up by the people who were opposing the transportaion of coal. In his complaint, the truckdriver alleged that there was an attempt to murder him. As per his complaint, we made the arrests,” said Sai.
Locals said the the ministry of environment and forest’s expert appraisal committee recently had recommended environmental clearance for expanding the capacity of the Kulda opencast coal mine by 20%, despite popular opposition over the project’s impact on their health, agriculture and water bodies.
The expansion would lead to increase of Kulda opencast mine’s capacity from the current 14 million tonnes per annum to 19.60 MTPA. The clearance was recommended on condition that Mahanadi Coalfields Limited which is the owner of the mine, will plant 100,000 trees with broad leaves along the villages and 50,000 trees along the transportation route in two years to prevent air pollution. MCL, in its compliance reports, said that it had avoided transporting coal through any village.
The agitating villagers however said MCL had lied in its compliance report. “Around 3,000 trucks pass through the 45 villages every day, leaving a trail of black dust. This month we had filed a complaint with the Odisha Human Rights Commission detailing the impacts of pollution from the coaldust after which the OHRC recommended that coal transporting vehicles should not be allowed to ply until the district administration reports on the action it has taken in the matter,” said an activist.
The Kulda mines was initially allowed to mine 10 MTPA. In 2018, it was allowed to scale up the mining to 14 MTPA. After the recommendation of the EAC of the Ministry of Environment and Forests the capacity was increased from 14 to 16.8 MTPA.
Many of the activists on the ground said that they are scared of the police arrest, but would not stop the agitation. “We want a special corridor for coal transport so that our villages are spared of the coal dust. The coast dust has polluted out agricultural fields and water bodies,” said an activist.
However, Sundargarh sub-collector Abhimanyu Behera said he was aware of the pollution caused by the trucks and a new corridor would be built at a cost of ₹146 crore. “The construction of the corridor would soon start. But till the new road is made the villagers should not try to blcok the trucks. We have ordered MCL to transport the coal by covering with tarpaulins,” said the sub-collector.
Environmental activists said Odisha government’s arrest of the 16 activists in Sundargarh was another example of stifling popular opposition. “Starting from Niyamgiri to Posco, the state government has not shied away from putting activists behind bars if they dare to oppose its industrialisation dreams. The government should release the activists and take steps in controlling the pollution due to coal transportation,” said activist Prafulla Samantra.