Photo Story: The Coal Curse of Raigarh

The people, whose land was turned into geometrical black holes, are rising against further land acquisition and forest diversion for mining in the area.


Enraged residents of Bhengari have witnessed their landscape transform and have failed to get the government regulatory and local authorities to act. Credit: Manshi Asher

Metaphors unfurl at the strangest moments and in the most unexpected ways. In a seemingly uneventful adivasi region of Chhattisgarh, flags of black smoke, hoisted from power plant stacks, are reaching for the sky. Today, it’s not just the grey skies that narrate the story of Raigarh. The Earth, stripped bare and quarried, has a lot to say.

The arteries of the Mahanadi basin ­– Kelo and Mand – that are now transporting toxic residues of a mineral more precious than gold, are carrying the proof with its every ebb and flow. The children of this soil, who are being hauled by the changing tides, part resisting part relenting, are still waiting to be heard.


Kosampalli village. Credit: Manshi Asher

In Kosampalli village, there is a lull in the early morning air. Pictured above is Tamnar, a subdivision of Raigarh district, now known for the Gare Pelma coal block of the Mand-Raigarh coalfields (the largest coal reserve in the state). It is spread over an expanse of over 112000 hectares. The Gare Pelma coal block alone has close to 13 mines, the oldest being Gare IV/1.


A young boy sits at the edge of a miniature mud village that he created. Credit: Manshi Asher

For those who sat in faraway places and carved out pieces of this ‘treasure’, the land was merely a numeric and the Earth on it was ‘overburden’. Underneath lay 21,117 mt tonnes of coal, which has to be removed to fire the engine of economic growth and achieve development. For this boy, sitting at the edge of a miniature mud village that he has created, Earth has a different value.


Protest rally in Kosampalli against any further land acquisition and forest diversion for mining in the area. Credit: Rinchin

Affected by Gare block IV/2 and IV/3, which was allotted to Jindal Steel & Power Limited (JSPL) in the late 1990s, there has been no mining activity in the area after a reallocation was ordered by the Supreme Court.

South Eastern Coalfields Limited is the new custodian of these mines, but the people of Kosampalli are at the forefront of a movement against any further land acquisition and forest diversion for mining in the area. On June 23, 2016, the people of the region organised a massive rally demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act and compensation as per the new Land Acquisition Act of 2013. In July, they also carried out a week-long blockade.


Kanhai Patel points out how unfit the drinking water from the tube well is. Credit: Manshi Asher

Kanhai Patel – one of the leaders of the struggle that recently held a blockade in the region – points out how unfit the drinking water from the tube well is. A report by the Public Health Engineering Department also documents that the ground water levels in over 100 villages in Tamnar had fallen by up to 100 feet since the mines opened. In about 40 villages, the water table has dropped by up to 150 feet.


The Jindal power colony. Credit: Manshi Asher

Not too far from Kosampalli, the JSPL is discharging its untreated sewage into Karra Nala, which meets the Kelo river downstream.


Fly ash dump opposite the Jindal power plant on a plantation. Credit: Manshi Asher

A fly ash dump opposite the Jindal power plant has buried a forest plantation. Forests of mahua, tendu and sarai are being wiped out by coal mining and the thermal power plants. The region was once known as the centre of tendu collection and kosa silk production. But the increasing pollution and deforestation has destroyed these forms of local livelihoods.


Jindal’s thermal power plant in Tamnar is pictured in the background and in the fore is the ash dyke, which is spread over close to 300 hectares. Credit: Manshi Asher

After the controversial expansion of its thermal power plant from 1000 MW to 2400 MW, Jindal still needs to acquire an additional land of about 240 hectares for another ash dyke. Residents of the villages whose land is to be acquired are fighting in court to oppose the move.


Gare IV/1 at the Nagramuda village. Credit: Manshi Asher

JSPL adopted the Nagramuda village and has been mining here for the last two decades. People of the village, who were once dependent on agriculture and forests for their livelihood, turned into coal mine workers. After the reallocation of the mine, many of them lost their jobs and are now struggling to survive.


Underground fire in Nagarmuda mine. Credit: Manshi Asher

Underground fires may be considered an unusual event, or one that occurs only after extensive long-term mining. But in the Nagramuda mines, they are simmering and slowly eating away the land at the edge of the village forest.


Tailings in paddy field. Credit: Manshi Asher

Jindal’s footsteps were promptly followed by all its competitors, perhaps because there is no other way to mine coal and turn it into power in an area abundant in forest and farm resources. Tailings from the Jayaswal Neco mines are destroying the paddy fields in Kokdel village.


Fly ash dump in Gharghoda. Credit: Manshi Asher

Fly ash dumps on paddy fields in Bhengari village of the neighbouring Gharghoda subdivision, which is slowly turning into a hotbed of power plants and mines.


Felled trees. Credit: Manshi Asher

Close to 960 trees were felled by TRN Energy Private Limited, which is running a 600 MW power plant in Gharghoda. According to the locals, it is a part of elephant corridor and it is not just humans who are suffering the consequences of these activities.


TRN Thermal Power Plant at Gharghoda. Credit: Manshi Asher

The smoking stack of the TRN Thermal Power Plant at Gharghoda stands tall and proud. Meanwhile, Naveen Jindal, whose name has become synonymous with Raigarh in the last decade, was proudly uploading images of unfurling of the tricolour at the campus of Jindal Power Limited on Independence Day, a right he won from the court so that we all could share the feeling of nationhood via the national flag. ‘We’ excludes indigenous people or adivasis whose land was turned from lush forests and fields into geometrical black holes.

Manshi Asher is a researcher-activist and carried out this documentation as a part of an independent fact finding team looking into environmental violations in coal based projects in Tamnar and Ghargoda, Raigarh.