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As Bengal moves on coal block, chorus on the ground: ‘Talk to us’

The Indian Express crisscrossed the region to track the first key steps in the land acquisition process for the Deocha Pachami project that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has estimated will supply coal for the next 100 years.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Birbhum |
December 6, 2021 3:48:34 am
Robin Soren, secretary of Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta, says while people are for the project, they have questions. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

AS THE West Bengal government reaches out with a rehabilitation and compensation package to the 16 villages situated on what is estimated to be the second largest coal block in the world, there is a mix of expectation and apprehension in the region that is home to 3,010 families, including 1,013 from tribal communities — and several questions about livelihood and new homes.

The Indian Express crisscrossed the region to track the first key steps in the land acquisition process for the Deocha Pachami project that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has estimated will supply coal for the next 100 years.

It found that while there is support for the project, there are some concerns as well. It also found an undercurrent of state politics with the BJP and CPI(M) raising questions even as a key group of local protesters from the tribal community joined the ruling TMC last month.

“I have six bighas of land and a home. I work in a stone quarry and earn Rs 600 daily. What will happen if I lose my job? The officials should come to each village and answer our questions,” said Buddhinath Hembram, who lives with his wife, mother and two children in Harinsingha village.

On November 20, the state government organised a “direct meeting” between the local administration, led by District Magistrate Bidhan Ray, and a range of stakeholders, including the chiefs of panchayats, villages and tribal bodies, members of local clubs, and representatives of the 20 stone quarries and 300 crusher units in the area.

“We have given them hard copies of the compensation and relocation package in Bengali and Santhali. We have stressed that the package also has a provision for a government job (as a junior constable) for those who lose their land. The police and gram panchayat officials are conducting awareness camps,” Ray said.

According to officials, the proposed project area covers around 3,400 acres, with an estimated yield of 2,102 million tonnes of coal. And according to the Rs 10,000-crore compensation and rehabilitation package announced by the Chief Minister in the state assembly on November 9, Rs 10 lakh-13 lakh will be paid for every bigha acquired apart from homes in resettlement colonies.

Apart from the police job for each family that loses land, it will get a 600 sq ft home and Rs 1.2 Lakh for relocation. Workers in stone crusher units will get one-time compensation of Rs 50,000 and Rs 10,000 every month for a year. Agricultural workers will get Rs 50,000 in a one-time payment and 500 days work under NREGS.

The owners of stone quarries and crushing units will get the price of land and compensation for homes. Besides, the stone crushing units will be relocated to the Basalt Industrial Park near the project area and get 10 trucks of stones every day for free for six months.
At the villages inside the project zone, however, questions persist.

“Many of the people don’t have proper land records, how will they get compensation? And in our families, if one brother gets that police job, what about the others? We have cultural and religious links with our villages. It is difficult to move to some colony overnight. But I am happy that the government has started a dialogue. The people are for the project,” said Robin Soren, who is the secretary of Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta, a collective representing tribal communities.

“Many of our youth have never been to school. Many others have not studied after Class 8. Will they get jobs? The officials should talk to villagers directly and answer their questions,” said Panmuni Murmu, a 19-year-old Class 12 student who lives in Harinsingha with her mother and brother. Together, they own 2.5 bighas of land.

In Alinagar, about 2 km away, 60-year-old Sheikh Abbasuddin is worried about his stone crushing unit and space for his family. “We employ 10 people in our unit. This area’s economy runs on quarries and crushing units. Thousands are employed. It is not possible to stop without a proper alternative,” Abbasuddin said.

“Also, I have two sons and a daughter. I have a big family that lives in a proper house here. How will we move to a 600 sq ft quarters?” he asked.

For Sentu Sheikh, 37, the worry is all about his job. “I earn Rs 500 daily as a truck driver. My job is connected to the stone mining and crushing industry. I have only two cottahs of land here and a home. What will I get as compensation? Will I have a job?” he said.

According to District Magistrate Ray, officials are assuring local residents that “rehabilitation colonies will be near the project area”. “We are holding camps where people are being given papers for their land. We have made it clear that the minimum educational qualification for the police job will be relaxed. We have to give people time to realise the benefits,” he said.

Then, there’s the politics.

On November 20, the BJP sent a delegation led by Raju Banerjee, the party’s state vice president, to visit the villages in the project zone. They held discussions with residents in one village but were shown black flags in another.

Four days later, local tribal leader Sunil Soren, who had been leading protests against the project, joined the TMC with his followers.

According to BJP district president Shyamapada Mondol, his party is “not against the project”. “But the tribals are always deprived. This time, they are demanding proper houses and land before the project starts and they lose their homes and livelihoods. They do not want 600 sq ft rooms in a colony,” he said.

The CPI(M) is concerned about the environmental and social impact, and is planning to soon launch an agitation.

“There will be a huge impact of the project, directly and indirectly, on 70 per cent of Birbhum district. Water resources will be affected, forest land will be destroyed. The coal is deep seated, and the government is planning open cast mines. Most of the tribal population do not have papers for their land, they will lose everything,” said Ramchandra Dom, a central committee member and former MP from Bolpur.

TMC MLA from Birbhum’s Labpur, Abhijit Sinha, claims this is “the best compensation and rehabilitation package in the country”. “Each section has been covered, be it farmers, tribals, landless labourers, crusher units and others. I appeal to everyone to leave their narrow interests and make this project successful,” he said.

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