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Friday, October 30, 2020

West Bengal: Political faultlines at Ground Zero of coal block in Birbhum

The local administration is now trying to sit together with all stakeholders and sort out issues.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Updated: December 28, 2019 8:07:26 am
A stone quarry in Bharkata gram panchayat, which falls in the Deucha Pachami coal block zone in Birbhum. Partha Paul

There is no signboard or landmark in the Mohammed Bazar area of Birbhum, about 200 km from Kolkata, to indicate that it’s perched on what is estimated to be the second largest coal block in the world. What is obvious, though, is a palpable sense of apprehension, hope and caution about the future — once work starts on the block.

Around a fortnight ago, at a business conclave in Digha, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that her government will “start work within seven days” in certain areas on the Deocha Pachami Dewangunj-Harinsingha coal block project. She, however, acknowledged that “there is some eviction problem” in other sections.

“We have decided to start mining where there is no eviction problem. There are some areas where we can start extracting coal. If we start work shortly, we will start to get coal within 24 months in Dewangunj and Harinsingha, where we have got clearance from the Centre. In the near future, coal will ensure the next 100 years of power generation in our state,” said Banerjee.

The local administration is now trying to sit together with all stakeholders and sort out issues.

However, with 784 families in over 90 villages in the tribal-dominated area identified for displacement in the coming years, the project has already led to political battlelines being drawn.

The West Bengal government made the first tentative steps on the project this year with a series of announcements, and an initial survey. And with a wary eye on the Singur land agitation that helped it topple the Left government eight years ago, the ruling TMC assured residents that due process would be followed, including resettlement and environmental clearances.

But with the state polls coming up next year, the Opposition BJP has warned of protests if “proper rehabilitation and jobs” are not given.

Explained

Why project is important for Bengal

The block has an estimated 2,102 million tonnes of coal and is spread across 9.7 km. West bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has said that the project requires investment of Rs 12,000-15,000 crore and would supply coal for the next 100 years. The state has also set up a committee under the Chief Secretary to monitor the project.

On the ground, which is a hub of stone-quarry units, local groups are divided: one section, including quarry owners, wants its land to be spared, and the other hopes the project will be scrapped.

It was on September 17 that the Centre entered into an allotment agreement with the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd (WBPDCL) for the coal block. A day later, Banerjee meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and invited him to inaugurate the project.

Days later, the BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP, Swapan Dasgupta, sent a letter to Modi, suggesting caution. Posting the letter on Twitter, Dasgupta wrote: “…the inauguration of the Birbhum coal block should await proper environmental clearance and rehabilitation package. Any inauguration by PM at this juncture will lead to serious distortions and open the way for unscrupulous operators.”

According to official estimates, the block has an estimated 2,102 million tonnes of coal and is spread across 9.7 km. Banerjee has said that the project requires investment of Rs 12,000-15,000 crore and would supply coal for the next 100 years. She has also set up a committee under the Chief Secretary to monitor the project.

When The Indian Express visited the project site and surrounding areas in Birbhum, it found that like in every key issue in the state over the last few years, the political discourse over the coal project, too, was sharply divided.

“We are happy that the Chief Minister announced the project and said that she will talk to the people first for rehabilitation. If the government follows her direction, people will be happy and the area will see development. The BJP may try to disrupt the project but people are not with them,” said Kaliprasad Banerjee, TMC’s working president in Mohammed Bazar.

“We are not against development. But we have seen earlier that Trinamool leaders meddle in government projects and try to make quick money, cheating the land owners. The government should not rush into the project. If the process is correct and proper rehabilitation and jobs are given to people, we will cooperate. If not, the people will protest,” said Shyamaprasad Haldar, BJP district president, Birbhum.

Incidentally, while TMC’s Satabdi Roy won the Birbhum Lok Sabha seat this year, the BJP got a lead of 15,000 votes in the Rampurhat assembly segment in the constituency. In 2010, the area saw clashes between tribals and stone quarry owners over rising pollution. With the conflict leaving three dead and the quarry industry shut for seven months, a compromise was reached after the intervention of the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

This time, the administration and tribal groups are cautious. “The state government has made a preliminary survey of the area. That is all I can tell you,” said Moumita Godara, District Magistrate, Birbhum. Sources said the survey was conducted by WBPDCL on households, families and land — the government will have to acquire 9,000 acres in an area where the population is 40 per cent tribal.

“Educated tribal youths are all for the project. But job guarantees and rehabilitation in the true sense is the first priority. Earlier, in major projects that affected tribals, the promises were not fulfilled properly. One should understand the special relation tribals have with land and forest,” said Madhurima Hembram, who is pursuing his post-graduation and is part of a local NGO Kendipara Bhorui Development Society.

Outfits like Birbhum Adivasi Unnayan Gaonta and Adivasi Gaonta have already started holding “small meetings” in some of the villages that The Indian Express visited in areas such as Chanda, Dewangunj, Hatgacha, Harisingha and Nischintopur.

“We are not against the coal block or any kind of industry. But the government must consider our plight. We will demand an open cast mine since an underground mine would lead to a water crisis. The stone industry should also be not disturbed because it employs thousands. Many people do not have proper land deeds, either. Everyone must be provided proper rehabilitation, not just small houses,” said Sukumar Saha, a non-tribal member of the Adivasi Unnayan Gaonta, in Habrapahari village.

However, other tribal leaders are planning to launch an agitation called ‘Jal Jangal and Jamin’.

“We will not allow the project here. Past experience has shown that the tribals end up losing their land and livelihood but also their identity. Even when the stone industry came up, tribals did not get any benefit. There was no development, only pollution,” said Sunil Soren, secretary, Adivasi Gaonta.

There are over 1,000 stone crushing units and 500 stone quarries or mines, many of which continue to flout environmental norms, say officials. The owners of these units hold sway in the area, say residents and officials, especially with land prices rising — from about Rs 50,000 per cuttah (720 sq ft) three years ago in areas such as Deucha Bazar, Sorthal and Raipur near the project area to Rs 5 lakh per cuttah.

“The government should not touch our quarries or crushing units. We employ thousands of local youths, and they will all lose their jobs. We have seen what has happened in Nandigram and Singur. The government should talk to us first,” said Sartaj Mollah from Bharkata village who owns three mines and a number of crushing units.

But quarry workers in the area say all that they want is for the government to communicate. Says Saheb Murmu, who earns Rs 300-400 per day from breaking stones at Kendrapara village: “There is fear about what will happen. If the stone crushing unit where I work is shut down, will I get work at the mine with the same pay? The government should come forward and tell us what they will do for us. We are not against development or the coal block.”

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