Uncertainty Exacerbates Locals' Fear Around India's 'Largest' Coal Block

The area earmarked for the coal project in Bengal's Deucha Pachami, is home to tribal communities, extensive forests, densely populated villages, religious sites, rivers, schools, and numerous stone quarries.

Deucha Pachami (Bengal): There is absolute silence in Bengal media on Deucha Pachami, the largest coal block in India. The project, if successfully implemented, has the potential to attract an investment of Rs 20,000 crore according to the West Bengal government and can transform the state which is struggling with unemployment.

However, the future of Deucha Pachami, touted as the largest coal block in India, is shrouded in uncertainty.

The proposed Deucha Pachami coal project has significant implications for the local communities and landowners in the region. The mine, which would occupy over 11,222 acres, encompasses a substantial portion of tribal land, with over 9,100 acres (81%) belonging to tribal residents. The coal block itself spans across 13.7 square kilometres. Within the coal block area, there are approximately 4,134 houses that belong to various marginalised communities, including Adivasis (who belong to the Scheduled Tribes list), and others who belong to the Scheduled Castes and various minority groups.

The area earmarked for the coal project is home to tribal communities, extensive forests, densely populated villages, religious sites, rivers, schools, and numerous stone quarries. The fact that the government needs to relocate all these entities to make way for the project has naturally created fear and anxiety in the area. Despite the promise of a total of Rs 10,000 crore in compensation and rehabilitation offers, many tribals are unwilling to accept these measures, fearing not just eviction but the several subsequent changes that their lives and livelihoods will go through.

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According to Birbhum District Magistrate Bidhan Roy, work on the Deucha Pachami coal project is progressing despite initial protests and opposition. Many of the people who were initially against the project have now written to the administration offering their land, resulting in the project moving forward, claimed Roy. Additionally, some of the land donors have been rewarded with government jobs and have joined the project.

The forests of Deucha Pachami. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

The nature of the claim made by Roy and the government’s assertion that as many 5,000 local families have willingly offered their land for the project is facing contention from a certain section of people. According to them, the actual number of families affected by the project is 21,000, significantly higher than the government’s figure of 5,000. This disagreement suggests a significant discrepancy between the official narrative and the concerns expressed by the larger number of families residing in the project area.

Toton Sardar, a local belonging to a tribal community at Panchami says, “If the government wants to excavate the soil and extract coal, it can dig hundreds of feet deep inside the rock mine. But the way the government wants to take over everything is scary. They say they will give us jobs. What kind of jobs? They haven’t said. We are not ready to accept temporary jobs.”

Sardar said that the government had earlier tried to take control of the area with the help of police and workers from the ruling party, Trinamool Congress, who were brought to the area in buses.

“But locals chased them out. Now they claim that we have become Naxalites. How can we survive without the forest? Most of the tribals in the area are illiterate. How could they get government jobs?” Sardar asked.

“The government is trying to take our land without a permanent job offer,” says local

Another local, Bhootnath Das, alleged that the government’s intention was to take over their land without making any permanent job offers.

The Adivasi Mahal, a tribal organisation, has held that the project is primarily intended to benefit the Adani group. They accuse Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, of implementing the project under the instructions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Their argument revolves around Adani’s existing thermal power plant in Godda district of Jharkhand, which has agreements to export electricity to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Interestingly, despite the power plant being operational, the coal required is reportedly being imported from Australia.

Protests against the Deucha Pachami coal mining project. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

The Forest Rights Act in India, which aims to protect the rights of forest-dwelling communities, has been a topic of concern, along with fears of it being diluted to promote industries. In the context of the Deucha Pachami coal project, there are claims that tribal lands are being taken over without proper adherence to the provisions of the Forest Rights Act.

Environment activists have expressed their concern about pollution in the area due to open-pit mining and the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants using low-quality coal. These include the consequences of open-pit mining, the eviction and employment rehabilitation of affected people, inadequate planning for coal transportation, lack of transparency in land acquisition, absence of forest resource conservation policies, air and water pollution problems, noise and soil pollution, and the undisclosed management of mining waste. Despite promoting ease of operations, the government seems to have overlooked crucial issues.

The project may also involve cutting down hundreds of thousands of trees and causing pollution through the emission of smoke and dust.

The purpose of mining this coal and how it will be used in thermal power plants is also unknown. Despite demands by tribals, environment activists and opposition parties, the government has not released a white paper detailing the entire project, the extent of land acquisition, or the possibility of open-cast coal mining.

The project, under the supervision of the Power Development Corporation Limited (PDCL), is being closely monitored by the district administration of Birbhum. The confirmation and progress of the project have had a notable impact on the local real estate market. Land prices in the region, stretching from Deucha to Rampurhat, have experienced a sharp rise.

Also read: No Clarity on Compensation for Bengal Coal Mining Project, Land Owners Stall Decision

By some estimates, once completed, this is expected to become the largest coal mine not just in India but also in Asia. The Deucha Pachami Dewanganj Harinshinga block reportedly covers an area of 12.28 square kilometres, with an Geological Survey of India report mentioning a coal reserve of 1198.31 million tonnes. The coal is located at a depth of 135 to 850 metres – considered beyond Coal India’s technological capabilities

The GSI unearthed this significant coal deposit along with methane gas in the region way back in 2000. The then state government led by the Left was turned down by the then Union government. However, since then, drilling activities have been carried out at around 60 different locations in the area, without encountering significant opposition.

Workers at the project site. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

After the TMC government came into power, it swiftly obtained approval from the Union government’s coal ministry for the project. The Union government assured the TMC government its support.

The project has also faced strong opposition from scientists, technologists, and educators in West Bengal, who voiced their concerns through a recent public convention held in Kolkata. The main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party, has remained silent on the issue, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has criticised both BJP and TMC.

Dr. Ramchandra Dom, a former MP and member of the CPI(M) politburo, says, “The Left government had the intention of extracting this coal, but our approach did not involve eviction of people or open-pit mining. The opposition to the project lies in the way the Trinamool government is endangering the environment and displacing people. The focus is on advocating for industry without destroying forests and displacing impoverished individuals who depend on the existing stone industry.”

Amidst these tensions, the affected tribals find themselves caught in a complex situation, where their rights and livelihoods are at stake, leading to ongoing challenges and uncertainties for their future.

Joydeep Sarkar is an independent senior journalist with over 20 years of experience in covering Bengal politics.

Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya.