Talabira: In the cold and quiet winter nights of the past week, away from the cacophony of shrill primetime debates, residents of the Talabira area in Odisha – Munda and Gond Adivasis – camped around Munda Pada, the site where thousands of trees were felled in December last year amid heavy security. But this camp was unlike any other. Men returned from their daily wage work, while women returned to their homes from the protest site with their children in toe, some as young as six months.
Digging work for the proposed open cast coal mines in Talabira region spread across Sambalpur and Jharsuguda districts of Odisha has continued even as several issues – especially related to the rights of forest dwellers and concerns of forged Gram Sabha resolution – remain unresolved and unaddressed by the state government.
But the residents of Talabira are relentless in their protest and resistance. In the past week, they carried out day and night long vigils and took turns to stage protests, demand the protection of their rights. They succeeded in stalling digging work for the proposed mine and halted the transportation of felled trees from the site, which was allegedly attempted by the Odisha Forest Development Corporation (OFDC).
Giant JCB machines stood frozen in the dead of the night as the villagers stopped the ravaging of the lands – in which they have lived for at least a hundred years – by the sheer strength of their collective will. On seeing their determined resistance, the district authorities asked for additional time to respond to the allegations of forged Gram Sabha resolutions, informed Hemant Raut, a resident of Khinda village near Talabira.
Talabira, a revenue village, consists of five hamlets – Budhia Palli, Munda Pada, Padhan Palli, Khatun Pada and Padar. The Talabira forest’s now abundant Sal trees were raised from stubs-up by active protection by the local community who funded a forest watcher with their meagre daily incomes.
Guarded by heavy police and security forces, tree felling in Talabira started in early December 2019. While the locals estimated that around 40,000 trees were felled, official sources placed the number at ‘only’ 15,000.
The proposed Talabira II and III blocks coal mining project belongs to the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) India. The Odisha state government submitted a proposal in May 2014 to obtain approval of the Union government for diversion of the 1038 hectares of forest land. This included 4.051 hectares under the safety zone within the leasehold area of 1914.063 hectares allocated for opencast coal project (OCP) in Jharsuguda and Sambalpur Forest Divisions.
Stage II clearances for the project came through in March 2019. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) gave permission to divert the forest land for an opencast coal mining project. Locals said that the permission was given based on forged Gram Sabha resolutions. For forest land to be diverted for non-forest use, the consent of the communities living there in the form of Gram Sabha resolutions is mandatory, as per the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
“Despite the outrage [after the tree felling began in Talabira], they [NLC authorities] started the digging [for the mine]. They also started carrying the trees that had been cut. One day, we stopped the OFDC truck.”
Earlier, The Wire highlighted how proper procedure to fell the trees was not followed and many trees were uprooted from their roots. Shankar Pani, an environment expert and Odisha high court lawyer had highlighted that standard procedures were not followed while felling the trees and even unmarked trees were felled.
“The administration has no response apart from asking us to withdraw our legitimate protest. They send the police to ask us to stop protesting,” added Hemant. But the villagers are unmoved. They will not move from the site until their demands under the FRA are met, nor will they allow further destruction of the forest, adds Hemant.
“We have demanded Jangal Surakhya (protection of our forests), enforcement and recognition of our right. We have also demanded that the crores of money that has been appropriated in the name of development, should be returned for the ‘actual development’ of the forest and our communities.”
Risks of increased pollution
Another concern raised by the villagers is that of pollution. They ask, “Who will take responsibility for the destruction that will be caused once the mine becomes functional?” Activists who joined the struggle said that the area was already plagued with critical environmental issues and now there was a risk of those getting exacerbated. This may lead to an increase in the number of diseases and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.
Opencast mining generates huge quantities of waste dumps that involve huge quantities of overburden removal, dumping and backfilling in excavated areas. Scientists believe that the process can result in huge environmental degradation of mining area which entails the release of toxic materials, air-water-soil pollution, sulphide minerals and acid drainage. In the current scenario, the proposed site of the Talabira II and III coal mines is next to the Ib valley, which has been identified as a “severely polluted area” as per the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI). The valley is known to be one of the most polluted industrial regions in Odisha as several industries and coal mines are spread along its length. The project is likely to add to the already burdened area.
Hemant says that there is a threat to the very survival of all the residents in these five hamlets. Meanwhile, as per local sources, the NLC reportedly even tried to bribe the villagers. “They selected a few villagers from one village and paid them Rs 4,000-5,000 and promised to continue to pay more in the instalments. In the next month, some other villagers were bribed,” Hemant added. When the villagers who received money in the first month didn’t receive the next ‘instalment’, they realised that they were being cheated. This, the villagers believe, helped bring the conspiracy to divide the villagers to the forefront.
“They showed the villagers some papers before paying them money. The papers were neither signed by the collector nor the DIG, raising suspicions on the intentions of the authorities,” Hemant said. Asked if the government responded to this in any manner, Hemant says, “They seem to be in deep slumber. They are in the pockets of the company, they will not do anything.”
Before news of the tree felling first came to light till a few days ago, NLC continued with the digging work, even as the authorities didn’t answer the allegations of forged Gram Sabha resolutions, which The Wire has previously reported. Several mails to the authorities, right from the collector to the DIG and the NLC have gone unanswered. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik hasn’t commented on the issue either.
Dubious claims of compensatory forestation
Moreover, as in any large scale deforestation drive, NLC’s representatives say that they will plant 25 lakh trees as compensation. In reports that have appeared since the felling of trees came to light, the authorities have maintained the narrative that the project will help the ‘development’ of Talabira.
Local experts are not convinced. Forest rights activist Tushar Dash, responding to the claims of tree plantation by NLC says, “The claim by project proponents of doing plantations is highly questionable as research studies show that compensatory afforestation-plantation projects have completely failed to restore forests but rather have created ecological devastation by monocultures.”
Apart from the fact that plantation drives don’t do much for carbon sequestration and can’t replace natural forests, it is the recognition of the rights of the villagers under the FRA that has remained a point of concern. Apart from claims that the clearance was granted based on forged Gram Sabha proceedings, Community Forest Resources Rights (CFRs) claims remained pending at various levels of the district collectorate. In Talabira, land claims were not filed because of lack of awareness, activists say. However, the villagers allege that the diversion of land took place without their consent.
Das highlights, “Talabira forests, for long protected and nurtured by Adivasis and local communities, have been denuded for coal mining in blatant violation forest rights while exposing the entire area to serious threats of environmental degradation. This could increase the vulnerability of people living in Jharsuguda to extreme climate conditions as the district is already declared as one of the critically polluted zones in India.”
As of now, villagers continue their protest despite the harsh winters and an apathetic government, which instead of taking measures to protect their rights, seems to be in a great rush to complete the digging.
Sushmita is a researcher and writer with the International Institute of Social Studies (IIST), Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Her research interests include forest rights, agrarian rights and gender-based violence and she tweets at @sushmitav1.