Mining disaster

The land acquisition law itself needs to be rescued before it can save villages from mining

By amending the land acquisition law through an ordinance, the Modi government has made it harder for people in Chhattisgarh's mining areas to fight displacement.

You cannot reach Kosampalli village without getting your feet wet. The village lies about 50 km to the west of Raigarh town. Once accessible by roads on three sides, it is now nearly marooned, buffeted by two expanding coal mines, which have eaten up all the roads.

The only access to the village lies through the river Kelo. “That is how we reach home every evening after work,” said Bhagwati Bhagat, a resident of Kosampali, “by walking through waters that are knee deep during rainy season.”

The mines that surround Kosampalli are called the Gare-Pelma mines. They are part of the Mand Raigarh coalfield which stretches over several kilometres in the district of Raigarh in forest-rich eastern Chhattisargh. With total reserves of about 19,000 million tonnes of coal, the coalfield is a goldmine. In the late nineties, the private power company, Jindal Power Limited, struck gold when the government allotted two of the blocks for its upcoming thermal power plant in Tamnar.

When the company started the first round of land acquisition for the Tamnar power plant, there was a public hearing with the district collector, representatives of the company and the villagers. “The company brought some people along with them who didn't let the villagers speak,” said Bhagat, who was present at the meet.

Bhagwati Bhagat with her sister-in-law Ramvati Bhagat

Once land was acquired for the power plant, getting land for the coal mines was simple, said Rinchin, an activist who is helping the people of Kosampalli fight the expansion of the mines. The land for the power plant was acquired under the colonial land acquisition law, while the lands surrounding the power plant were leased out for coal mining.

In the first round of land acquisition, one part of the village was taken. The second round cordoned off another portion. When it appeared that the village would be surrounded by coal mines on all sides, people decided they could take it no more. As the protests gained strength, Raigarh was lifted into the wave of unrest sweeping across the Indian countryside, which finally pushed the United Progressive Alliance government into replacing the colonial era land acquisition law of 1894 with the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act of 2013.

But even before the new law could be implemented, the Modi government has amended it through an ordinance. The amendments are likely to come up for legislative approval in the forthcoming budget session.

If passed, what does the amended law hold for the people of Kosampalli and those like them who are being edged out of their lands?

Only one-third of the homes remain in the village of Kosampalli

Passed in September 2013, the new land acquisition law sought to empower local communities by making it mandatory for the government and private companies to seek the consent of 80% of those who stood to lose their land to industrial and infrastructure projects. It also introduced the idea of social impact assessment: that no land could be acquired without first taking into account the impact of the upcoming project on the area and its people. Both the provisions have been done away with.

The Modi government has maintained that consent and social impact assessment would mire projects in needless delays and bureaucracy. Defending the ordinance, it has pointed out that the compensation rates under the new law remain untouched, as does the need to provide for rehabilitation and resettlement of people.

But Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer based in Chhattisgarh, argues that without consent, "where is the question of fair compensation?” Bharadwaj is representing the people of Kosampalli in their fight in the High Court against land acquisition by Jindal Power. The case is one among many that she has taken up. "Are they (the government and the companies) scared of social impact assessment because there will be open discussion on the information surrounding the mines?” she asked. “When you scrap SIA, you have successfully kept all the information hidden,” said Sudeip Shrivastava, a lawyer and activist.

In January 2015, the central government  stopped foreign funding to four environmental organisations who have said to have campaigned against the use of coal as a source of energy or have questioned individual coal mining or coal-based power projects. Activists maintain this is an attempt to stymie the flow of information on the impact of these projects.

“The main reason for opposition to the land ordinance is that the LARR Act of 2013 was never implemented. So, how do they know that it is not workable?” asked Bharadwaj.

Power plants have transformed the landscape of Raigarh

Simultaneous to the changes made in the land acquisition law are the amendments to the coal mine allocation process. After the Supreme Court cancelled the allocation of more than 200 coal blocks in 2014, holding the process illegal and arbitrary, the government has put up 24 blocks for auctions. The auctions are expected to be wrapped up in March. At the end of the month, the mines would change hands. The clearances given to the mines would be automatically transferred to the new allottee, but not the liabilities, which includes pending disputes and litigation.

“This essentially means that Bhagwat and others, who have filed a case against Jindal Power, would have to file a case against the new allottee all over again," said Rinchin. “Where will they get the resources from?”

Sudha Bharadwaj said the changes to the land and coal laws should be seen together. “After all, the most valuable lands are those that have mineral deposits in them,” she said. “In totality, these ordinances disregard the poor’s constitutional right of owning property.”

From her small hut less than 10 metres away from the edge of the mine, tired of fighting what seems like a losing battle, Bhagwat offers a startling new perspective: the government need not acquire her land at all. People in her village will be forced to move out sometime soon, she said, due to the health hazards of living next to a mine.

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