Deocha-Pachami mining project: Compensation disbursal begins but details of plan hazy

A total of 203 landowners have received job letters and compensation, said Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

By Taran Deol
Published: Monday 28 February 2022

The Government of West Bengal February 23, 2022 started disbursing compensation to residents of villages under the Deocha-Pachami and Dewanganj-Harinsingha coal blocks in the state’s Birbhum district, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at a press conference in Kolkata February 24. The project report and mining plan, however, are yet to be finalised, among other details about the project that remain hazy. 

The area is the site of the largest coal mine project in India and the second-largest in the world. 

A total of 203 landowners have received job letters and compensation, Banerjee said. She added: 

We will employ women in social work. Jobs will be generated for more than a 100,000 youths. Many have been given jobs as police constables. Different industries will be created. Local residents will be given jobs.

The disbursal of compensation comes on the heels of a protest that took a violent turn the past weekend. Several people were arrested, whose bail was denied by the Birbhum district court in Suri on January 24. The next hearing has been scheduled for March 1.

During the protest attended by around a 1,000 people, villagers (mostly from the Santhal community) demanded the coal mine project be withdrawn. The Deocha-Pachami-Harinsingha-Dewanganj mining block will not only displace 21,000 people but also destroy local ecology, which the tribal community relies on.

As many as 5,100 posts have been created, she added. “We have to ensure that no one is deprived. Whoever will give land is being paid more than double (as compensation).”

While the disbursal of compensation and job offers has commenced, details about the project remain unclear. The mining block is yet to be fully explored to estimate actual and mineable coal reserves, quantity of basalt to be removed, draw up a project report and a mining plan. 

The mining area is greater than 150 hectares. So, the West Bengal Power Development Corporation — the nodal agency — needs environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC).

For this, the state body must apply for Terms of Reference from the ministry, after which it has to put together a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) study which has to be cleared by the center. Once this is done, the West Bengal Pollution Control Board gives consent to establish the project, followed by consent to operate that is renewed every seven years. 

An RTI application was filed on January 6, 2022 by economist and activist Prasenjit Bose, which sought details regarding this project, particularly “under which law and rule is the land being acquired”. On January 18, the RTI application was transferred from the district magistrate of Birbhum to the district land revenue officer. Since then, no further correspondence has been received by the applicant. 

Other information sought in the RTI application includes: 

  • Draft or final social impact assessment report 
  • Draft or final EIA report
  • Social management plan
  • Records of public hearings held in the project affected area “including the feedback from local households” and whether the administration has obtained consent from the affected families to carry out the project
  • Details of any independent expert group or committee appointed by the state government to evaluate the project and recommendations.

While the compensation has been revised to make it more attractive, villagers this reporter spoke to maintain that they will not give up their land for any amount of money. But they have few legal provisions to rely on.

A majority of the local population belong to the Santhal community — a Schedule Tribe. This region, however, does not fall under Schedule V. The Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, which empowers the Gram Sabha to put forth the people’s opinion and consult them for such projects, is also not applicable here.

A Schedule V area is declared, according to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, based on the following criteria:

  • Preponderance of tribal population
  • Compactness and reasonable size of the area
  • A viable administrative entity such as a district, block or taluk
  • Economic backwardness of the area as compared to the neighboring areas.

These criteria are subjective, Ritwick Dutta. founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), said. “New areas have always been added as a result of a social or political movement and there is no such sentiment here.

Article 243(b) of the Indian Constitution defines the role of the Gram Sabha as the primary body of the Panchayati Raj. This body is empowered to register dissent from the majority villagers against any project proposed by the government. 

“Under PESA, the Gram Sabha has strong powers where no project can be established without consultation with the people. However, if PESA is not applicable, then their powers weaken,” said Rahul Choudhary, founder-member of LIFE. 

However, Dutta is pessimistic, arguing that an area being under Schedule V, at best, makes the process of establishing such projects more cumbersome and not impossible.

However, the 12-year long Plachimada versus Coca Cola battle in Kerala that began in 2002 sets a hopeful precedent for the people of Deocha-Pachami, Choudhary noted. 

PESA was not applicable here either, despite the presence of the adivasi population. The Perumatty panchayat refused to renew the company’s license to operate its bottling plant on account of it severely polluting their environment. 

This was challenged in the Kerala High Court, after which the Local Self-Government Department stated the panchayat had exceeded its powers, thereby staying the cancellation. The conflict garnered media attention, and the legal battle continued.

The Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act came into effect by November 2005, and by 2006, the company “began considering ways of moving operations from Plachimada.”

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.