As night fell in the desolate landscape of Tamnar in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district last week, a group of people hunkered down. Rain plodded down in large, unforgiving drops, adding to the misery of miners and their supporters. The agitators prepared to sleep in shifts, and a small fire was lit. The silence was eerie compared to the bustle of the day.

This scene was repeated every night for a week.

A blockade starts

Braving incessant rains and a distant state, women from over half a dozen tribal villages in this area led an eight-day-long blockade of the Gare Palma IV/2 and IV/3 coal mines in Raigarh district, which ended on Monday with the state, and the interim custodian of the mines, South Eastern Coalfields Limited, acceding to most of their demands.

The primary demands of the people behind the blockade were employment and compensation as per India’s rehabilitation policy, and strict and full implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.

It was a significant victory. But warned by previous experience, the villagers indicate they will restart the agitation if the promises made to them are not kept.

The land in Tamnar is pockmarked by open cast and underground mines in every direction as far as the eye can see. Hardly any village in the area is unaffected by mining.

During the blockade, transportation of coal from the two Gare Palma mines located in the Fifth schedule area of Tamnar tehsil came to a complete standstill – thousands of coal-laden trucks were stranded for days. This resulted in losses amounting to several crores of rupees for South Eastern Coalfields.

The blockaded mines produce 6.9 million tonnes of coal a year. They have changed hands a number of times in the past few years. They were earlier allocated to Jindal Power Limited, but were deallocated in 2014 by the Supreme Court as part of a judgement that deallocated 204 coal blocks all over the country.

Jindal Power Limited then won the two blocks in a fresh auction in February, 2015. However, since the final closing bid price did not reflect the fair value of the mines, the government did not approve the declaration of the preferred bidder (Jindal Power Limited) as the successful bidder. The private firm has challenged this in court.

In this ongoing battle, South Eastern Coalfields Limited, an arm of Coal India Limited, was made interim custodian of the two mines.

People’s demands

The Forest Rights Act recognises that individuals have rights over the land that they have been historically dependent upon, and that the forest dwellers have rights over the use and management of those forests and the resources therein. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act extended panchayat rule to tribal areas, devolving powers to village-level gram sabhas, which play an important role in participatory democracy.

The agitating villagers allege that both these Acts have been severely violated in Tamnar. They say that forest land has been encroached upon for the construction of the mines even though forest rights have not been settled, and free and prior informed consent of the Gram Sabhas had not been taken.

In addition, they are concerned about environmental pollution, land degradation and a dramatic fall in the water table, saying that mining companies have continuously flouted environmental norms.

Rinchin, a land rights activist working in the region, said that air pollution levels according to the state-run Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board were high, but an independent test done by the villagers and an environmental group have found it to be alarmingly high. “The PM2.5 levels found in village Libra are almost 500 ppm [parts per million], which is 10 times the acceptable limit,” said Rinchin. “The ground water levels in nearby villages have also dropped sharply since the mines opened.”

A report by the Public Health Engineering Department documents that ground water levels in over 100 villages in Tamnar had fallen by upto 100 feet since the mines opened. In close to 40 villages, the water table has dropped by upto 150 feet. The report also indicates that the area has become water scarce, a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice of the local elected representatives.

Jindal Power blamed

The anger against Jindal Power Limited is especially palpable.

The villagers claim that Jindal acquired Adivasi land through illegal means and have demanded an investigation into the complete acquisition process. “The illegal way in which Jindal took our land needs to be investigated by a high level committee,” said Kanhai Patel of Kossampalli village.

Shivpal Bhagat, the sarpanch of Kosampalli, said that Jindal Power was largely to blame for the condition of the environment in the area. “The indiscriminate way in which Jindal mined this land flouting every environmental rule has left our condition vulnerable,” said Bhagat. “Any new owner also won’t be able to rectify it. They need to be held accountable”.

The locals also accuse Jindal Power of being behind the several false cases filed against protesting villagers.

Both Shivpal and Kanhai, and several othervillagers, have been booked under the Indian Penal Code under sections related to rioting and wrongful restraint.

Rinchin echoed the thoughts of villagers when she said that they weren’t really afraid of cases being filed against them. “Jindal has filed so many false cases against them, a few more are not going to scare them away,” she said. “The villagers are demanding the quashing of all these false cases.”

How it started

The agitation started with people from around half a dozen villages blocking the Tamnar main road amid incessant rain on July 11.

The people of Saarasmaal, Libra, Kosampalli, Dongamoha, Kodkel and other neighbouring villages were the first to besiege the mines. Seeing the strength of the agitation, and recognising that they shared a common plight, villages not directly affected by these two mines also started pouring in. At the forefront of this second wave were those from villages affected by mines operated by Hindalco. They were later joined by villagers from Sakta, Milupara, Saraitola, Gare and Palma.

Asked about the possibility of new mines in the area, all villagers were unanimous in saying: “We will not let any new mines open up here, or let existing mines expand. We demand a complete moratorium on the same.”

Getting to the negotiating table

The villagers are aware that the confusing document and ownership trail will make resolving legal infractions difficult for them to navigate. “Now the custodian is SECL and then the owner will be someone else,” said Bhagwati Bhagat, also of Kossampalli village. “Who will pay for our losses? How will changing ownership ensure our rights?”

The possibility that the two mines might change hands again with the new owners overturning any promises made by South Eastern Coalfields forced the affected villagers to ask for a tripartite agreement between the mining company, the villages and the district administration to ensure that any promises made are binding on the new mine owners too.

But though officials of the mining company agreed to come to the negotiating table quite early on, the district administration was initially hesitant.

Niranjan Patel, the South Eastern Coalfields mines manager at Raigarh said on Saturday: “We have suffered losses to the tune of Rs 4 crore to Rs 5 crore. Our output has fallen from 18,000 tonnes to zero. We want to resolve this issue as soon as possible, but the district administration needs to get involved. At present, the matter is still stuck at the lower rungs of administration”.

Repeated calls to the Raigarh district collector, Alarmelmangai D, and to Tamnar tehsil’s sub divisional magistrate, Vineet Nandanwar, by this author failed to elicit a response.

A significant, but cautious victory

However, early on Monday, bowing to sustained pressure, on the orders of the district collector three people – Vineet Nandanwar, officer on special duty ML Soni, and mining manager Niranjan Patel – were ready to sign an agreement with the committee constituted by the agitating villagers.

The agreement accepted most of the villager’s demands.

The administration has promised to investigate the accusations of illegal land purchase by Jindal Power, including the cases of sale of tribal land to non-tribal people. It has also promised to look into allegations that the Forest Rights Act had been flouted. It has said that it will update the village committee with progress on the investigations every 15 days.

The state administration also assured the agitators that it would direct the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board to investigate instances of environmental degradation and infringement of environmental clearance conditions by the mine’s operators, as has also been ordered by the National Green Tribunal in an ongoing case filed by these very villages.

Additionally, South Eastern Coalfields has accepted the demand that it provide employment to project-affected families and that it will not pursue any cases filed thus far against protestors.

Though a significant victory, a long history of broken promises has made the agitators apprehensive about the state’s willingness to follow up on its promises. But they say they are ready to get back on the ground with greater force if they find the mining company or the state administration going back on its promises.