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New Delhi: A collective of teachers has condemned the arrest of nine activists who were protesting the Deocha Pachami coal mining project in Birbhum district of West Bengal, saying legitimate concern about the harm coal mining may cause to agriculture and related livelihoods should be addressed with sympathy.
Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC) said, “In these intolerant times we are living through, is that the intolerably long process of seeking justice itself becomes the punishment. There are innumerable cases in this country of unnamed resisters languishing as undertrials in jails on trumped-up charges.”
TACC is a group of college and university teachers who believe that the climate crisis has become one of the most pressing concerns of our time.
TACC also questioned the wisdom of initiating such a massive expansion of coal use when equally affordable energy options are now widely available. “Repressive response to those who interrogate the wisdom of such projects seems foolhardy, in both the short and long term,” TACC said in a statement.
The full statement is reproduced below.
Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC)
23 February 2022
Public statement on arrests of activists opposing the Deocha Pachami coal mining project
Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC) unequivocally condemns the arrests of nine activists on 21 February protesting the Deocha Pachami coal mining project in Birbhum district of West Bengal. We are dismayed by the gravity of the absurd charges against them, including under section 307 (attempt to murder) and section 364 (kidnapping or abduction of a person in order to murder) of the IPC. It is shocking that two of them, both local activists, have been remanded to police custody.
The context for this unfortunate development is the growing resistance to coal mining in the area. Local Santhals and members of other communities have recently organized themselves under the banner Birbhum Jomi, Jeebon, Jeebika o Prokriti Bachao Mahasabha (Platform to save land, lives, livelihoods, and the environment). The two local activists in police custody are active members of this organization. Many people in the area are justifiably concerned about the harm coal mining may cause to agriculture, related livelihoods, water bodies, and other environmental damage in the area. They are also worried about the loss of their lands to the coal mining project. It has been reported that thousands of people across a number of villages would be potentially affected.
Both the law and justice would suggest that such concerns be addressed with sympathy and transparency. However, there is little reason to believe that due process has been followed so far, including the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act, 2013. There has been no social impact assessment (section 4), or public hearings for social impact assessment (section 5) that this land acquisition makes mandatory on “the appropriate government”. Instead the West Bengal state government – in keeping with authoritarian responses by governments elsewhere in the country – has planted grave, false cases on leading activists at the slightest hint of resistance to such projects. Our concern, in these intolerant times we are living through, is that the intolerably long process of seeking justice itself becomes the punishment. There are innumerable cases in this country of unnamed resisters languishing as undertrials in jails on trumped-up charges.
The Deocha Pachami mining project is part of one of the largest coal blocks and projects in the country. We question the wisdom of such a massive expansion of coal use when equally affordable energy options are now widely available. Data from the Central Electricity Authority suggests that there has been an impressive expansion of solar power in the country in recent years. However, much else can be done to meet people’s basic energy needs by promoting wind power, decentralized solar, biogas, and small hydropower, all of which, this official data indicates, are stagnating or at best growing very slowly. At the state level, expanding solar projects of varied kinds – to meet agricultural demand, decentralized solar, grid-connected solar – and wind power along West Bengal’s 158-kilometre coastline – would not just generate cleaner energy, it would also create jobs in large enough numbers to more than compensate for the loss of employment from coal projects halted at their inception. Which is why the Birbhum Jomi, Jeebon, Jeebika o Prokriti Bachao Mahasabha has requested the government to set up a solar plant in the area instead of a coal mining project.
Given how vulnerable West Bengal is to the ravages of climate change, one would expect that the state government would respond with more sympathy to such demands. Due to its unique landmass, the West Bengal Sunderbans is already facing the highest rate of sea level rise in the country and possibly in the world. The IPCC’s latest, Sixth Assessment Report suggests that sea level rise will continue inexorably for centuries. Millions of farmers, fishers, and other communities along West Bengal’s and India’s coastline will also be affected by erratic rainfall, heat stress, more intense cyclones, and other effects predicted by the 2020 climate change report of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. In the face of the looming climate, pollution, and other ecological crises, a conventional reliance on coal power and a knee-jerk, repressive response to those who interrogate the wisdom of such projects seems foolhardy, in both the short and long term.
In this context, TACC demands that:
- All the nine detained activists be immediately released.
- All the charges against them be unconditionally dropped.
- The West Bengal state government engage in a transparent dialogue with those opposing the coal mining project, and follow due process laid down in the relevant land acquisition laws.
- The central government speed up the expansion of solar, wind, biogas and other renewable energy, prioritize people’s basic energy needs, and engage meaningfully with farmers, workers, trade unions, and other concerned bodies in civil society around a just energy transition.