Environment in elections: Deucha Pachami coal mine project in Birbhum unlikely to be an issue in May 13 polls

State government provided job largesse and promised financial help to local population to nip the movement in the bud
Deucha Pachami coal mine is billed as having one of the largest reserves of coal. iStock photo for representation
Deucha Pachami coal mine is billed as having one of the largest reserves of coal. iStock photo for representation

The proposed Deucha Pachami coal mine project in Birbhum district of West Bengal is unlikely to be a major electoral agenda when the district votes on May 13, as uncertainty over its completion has taken steam out of the movement highlighting green concerns, locals and activists have told Down To Earth (DTE).

The Rs 20,000 crore project involving the mine, billed as one having the highest coal reserves in India, has been pitchforked as a mega employment and investment initiative by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The opposition in the state though has claimed that the positioning by Banerjee is more to milk political dividends.

“A few years ago, the Deucha Panchami project was on verge of turning into a Nandigram for the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government. But the movement has largely slowed down since then and is unlikely to become a significant agenda in the coming election,” said an activist who has been following the issue closely since it came to the fore.

The proposed chemical hub project in Nandigram had triggered environmental concerns and had played a catalytic role in triggering a mass protest regarding forced land grab issues against the Left regime. The protest continued for a record duration of 1.5 years. 

Samirul Islam, a Rajya Sabha member of Parliament from the ruling Trinamool and member of an erstwhile committee set up by the state government to scan  Deucha Pachami-related social issues closely, pointed out to DTE that the Rarh region project is a far cry from Nandigram.

“Mamata Banerjee herself has fought against forcible land grabs. Hence, there is no question of acquiring land forcefully here. Nearly 1,000 people have got government jobs and all will receive the compensation package promised by the government. It is but natural that the movement will die down,” said Islam.

No government official, associated with the project, wanted to comment on the slow progress of the project and peoples’ claims that the much vaunted coal mine would be actually executed or not.

‘Coal mine unlikely’ 

Activists and environmentalists, working on the ground, feel that the coal mine project is unlikely to be a reality.

“The movement has stagnated to an extent. This is because the dominant perception among locals is that the government claims are political and the coal mine project is unlikely to come off finally. I consider it a valid point of view as you will find that the project is far behind schedule, and earlier studies have clearly underlined the complexity of executing the project,” explained Prasenjit Bose, a Left leader who tried hard to push the green agendas related to project in the wider public domain; and also filed a case in the Calcutta High Court.

Bose claimed that a major section of the 9,000-strong tribal population among the proposed project area’s 22,000 people has not accepted the compensation package.   

“The project is moving slowly. Also, members of a few hundred families, whose land will be acquired, have already got jobs in the state police. All this has played a role in slowing down the green movement against the project,” said Avik Saha, a farmer and activist working on the issue. 

Ayesha Khatun, a local environment activist, agreed. But she pointed out that the local administration is also creating pressure on people who oppose the project. “Unfortunately, the local people are not able to fathom how the project, once executed, can negatively impact the environment and their lives,” lamented Khatun.

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“The movement against the proposed coal mine project in Deucha Panchami was prodded by the stone crusher lobby in the area, who have been minting crores through the illegal stone business. Their fear is that the project, once executed, will put a stop to their clandestine stone business,” Kunal Deb, an activist working among local stone crushers, told DTE.

Deb added that a section of local leaders from the ruling party and otherwise — including a few tribal leaders hand in glove with the crusher owners — had joined hands. Now the understanding that the project may actually end up as a basalt mining one has comforted these people with vested interests and subsequently the movement has dried off, according to him.         

Environmental questions remain

A few green activists had shot a letter to Banerjee in February 2022, raising pointed questions about the environmental impact of the proposed project. But no response has come from the government in the last two years.

The letter reminded the chief minister about how she opposed Nayachar’s chemical hub project on environmental grounds. It quizzed whether appropriate protocol to obtain environmental clearance was followed for the coal mine project.

“As environmentalists, we are especially worried as there is no information or data available in the public domain about the possible impact of the proposed project as well as any mitigation steps planned to counter those impacts ... However, the land acquisition process has already started and the compensation package has been announced ... ,” reads the letter issued by Naba Dutta, secretary of Sabuj Mancha. The Mancha is a platform of environmental organisations and environmentally conscious people in West Bengal.

The letter quizzed whether the detailed project report (DPR) and environmental impact assessment (EIA) report have been prepared for the project and whether public hearings will be conducted for it.

It asked as to how much forest area and how many trees will have to be cut for the project, what is the status of the groundwater and surface water in the area; and whether those water sources as well nearby rivers, will be impacted by the project, or not.

The greens also raised questions about the possible air pollution in the area resulting from the mining of coal, particularly with the use of huge explosives. They also had queries regarding whether the project plan would be able to manage huge amounts of toxic waste or preserve biodiversity.

A factsheet prepared by non-profit Nagarik Mancha also refers to the Geological Survey of India’s report that cites the “existence of thick basalt layers” that will make mining of coal difficult.

A senior official in the state environment department pointed out that the project is yet to start the procedure of obtaining mandatory clearance from the Union government. “It’s a major mineral project, falls in the ‘A’ category and hence needs clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change,” the official added.

“The state government is trying to ride over the political and local opposition with an attractive package to those who stand to lose land. But the challenge lies in getting environmental clearance. However, we may have to wait till the next Assembly elections to see whether the government actually wants to implement the coal mine project on the scale as originally proposed. As of now, it seems ornamental,” said a green activist.

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