Shubho Ghosh was laying bricks at a construction site, humming to himself. But the very mention of “the coal project” triggered palpable anxiety in the 26-year-old. As he later revealed, his family is worried, very worried. A resident of Makdamnagar in Birbhum district of West Bengal, that sits on a corner of what is said to be India’s largest coal mine project, Ghosh fears a double blow is waiting to hit the family in the coming months when the work for the coal mine picks up pace.

Makdamnagar, where they live in Ghosh Para locality, falls within the area of the Deocha-Pachami coal block. Saldanga, about 10 km from their home – where Shubho’s father, Debashis, operates a drill machine at a stone quarry and his elder brother, Subal, operates a pokland (excavator) machine at another quarry – also falls within the proposed coal mine.

“Our family is on the verge of losing both, our jobs and our home,” Shubho told Mongabay-India. “My father has developed anxiety.” He operates an excavator machine in a stone quarry in winter and summer and works as a mason in the monsoon season when quarries function with limited capacities due to waterlogging in the pits.

With 438 households, as per data from the government of West Bengal, Makdamnagar is the largest of the 12 villages spread over the coal block in Mohammad Bazar community development block of Birbhum district where the Deocha-Pachami coal mine project is slated to come up.

An inactive stone quarry at Harinsinga village in Birbhum district, West Bengal. The legal and illegal stone mining and processing units will soon be replaced by the Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block, expected to be the largest in the country. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay

Recently, the government said that there are 1,198 million tonnes of coal and 1,400 million cubic metre basalt deposits and that the government will invest Rs 35,000 crore in the project, apart from Rs 10,000 crore in relief and rehabilitation. A little more than 21,000 people, including 9,034 from the Scheduled Tribe and 3,601 from the Scheduled Caste communities live in 4,314 houses in the coal block area.

West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in a tweet last year, had said that the state “will create a model for India to execute large projects like Deocha Pachami Coal Block” and it would be done “with full public support by adopting best mining practices in a time-bound manner”.

But Shubho has not been not convinced. He said that there will be resistance if the government went to evict people forcefully. “No one wants to leave their home and land for an unknown place with an uncertain future,” he said.

This conversation took place in October, a couple of weeks before Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced the compensation package at the state Assembly. But even five days after her announcement, the local residents were uncertain about whether it was acceptable or not.

The government’s package says those owning land with a house will be compensated in multiple ways: they will get between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 13 lakh per bigha (0.33 acre), another Rs. 5.5 lakh for relocation-related expenses and a 600 square feet home at a rehabilitation colony.

Additionally, one member from each family losing land and/or home, as well as from the families of tenant farmers engaged with those land plots, will get a job as a junior constable in the state police. A total of 4,942 persons will get this job. Additionally, about 3,000 workers at existing crusher units will get a “maintenance charge” of Rs 10,000 per month for a year, while 160 agricultural workers will get Rs 50,000 as one-time compensation and 500 days of jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The rehabilitation colony will include roads, drinking water connection, electricity, health centre, fair price shop, anganwadi centre, bank, playground, community centre, places of worship and a crematorium and burial ground nearby, the chief minister announced.

From what’s on offer in the compensation, the point about the size of houses in the rehabilitation colony was clearly opposed by the local indigenous population. “We would not be able to adjust in a cramped space,” said Momoi Mardi, a resident of Harmadanga village. “Who knows if there will be land to till or if water for drinking, household work and farming would be easily available, or if the land yields well?”

Mardi’s son studies in college and her two daughters are in school. Her husband, Tui, farms their own land and works as an agricultural labourer on others’ land. “Besides, if a family has three young adults, who of them is going to get the job and how would that mean justice to the others?” she asked.

A farmland adjacent to a stone quarry. The 13.7 sq km coal mine will be the largest in the country and will replace both the farmland and the quarry. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay

Impact of project

The mineral-rich, often-arid land of Mohammad Bazar community development block, along with neighbouring Rampurhat and Nalhati blocks, is home to several hundred, mostly illegal and unregulated, mining and processing units in black stone, china clay and fire clay.

According to a state government report, of about 400 stone crushing units in these three blocks, only 100 were registered as small scale industrial units. The report said that while the stone industry “provides a relatively more attractive livelihood option to a good number of people who lack education and skill, a costly trade-off is being made by them between higher earnings and serious health hazards”.

The low water retention capacity of the soil and the lack of an irrigation system allows only one crop a year, during the monsoon. This has been one of the reasons why local people depend on mining, legal or illegal, polluting or not. Still, the area witnessed repeated protests, the last major one being in 2010, when Deocha-Pachami had made headlines after the local indigenous people’s agitation against rampant pollution turned violent, leading to arson and vandalism at several crusher units.

Now, as the Deocha-Pachami project comes back in the limelight with the upcoming coal mining project, a regulated industry with the government’s direct involvement and promise of thousands of income opportunities, the organisation behind the anti-pollution movement, Birbhum Adibasi Gaonta, has split into two factions. The one led by Sunil Soren actively opposes the project and the one led by Rabin Soren is holding talks with the government over the local indigenous people’s concerns.

Asked why anyone would object if a polluting and unregulated industry is being replaced by a government initiative, Dewanganj resident Dilip Bauri told Mongabay-India, “The movement of 2010 forced the industry owners to follow some regulations to restrict pollution. The situation is better now.” To run his family of six, he farms of his own land and doubles as a helper in loading crushed stones.

At neighbouring Mathurapahari village, Hopna Tudu’s family was no less tense. They presently farm on a three-acre land plot but it is still in the name of Tudu’s father’s elder brother, who died years ago. “If the government takes this land, we will get nothing as compensation, as we have no proof of land ownership,” his wife, Sonamoni, told Mongabay-India.

There were several others who pointed out that many tribal families were living on forest land, formally recorded as government land, for several decades. These people have no land recorded in their name either.

Unwilling to enrage people with eviction and trigger a resistance movement, at least until the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the state’s Mamata Banerjee government has decided to start mining at several hundred acres of government land, which is available and mostly free from occupation.

However, in the long run, the mining operations, for their own economic viability, will require the entire reserve to be available. The project will actually require more land beyond the reserve, as a Geological Survey of India report has mentioned “large area needed outside block area, for external dumps as well as for access trench”.

Due to the nature of the coal reserve, a huge amount of overburden (materials such as rock and soil that lie above a coal seam) will need to be removed and then dumped outside the block.

Sara Tudu (left) and Jobarani Tudu sit under a hibiscus tree at their residence in Harinsinga village. Behind the smiles lies their anxiety as they await an uncertain future after relocation. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay

Shaping up mine

Sprawling across 3,400 acres (approximately 13.7 sq km), the mining area is made of two coal blocks – the Deocha-Pachami coal block spread over 9.7 sq km and the Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block spread over 2.6 sq km. The project, which would be implemented in a public-private partnership model, has the potential to draw investment to the tune of $3 billion (approximately Rs 22,500 crore), according to a state government publication. There will be five end-users of the coal extracts – the thermal plants are Sagardighi Phase II, Sagardighi Phase III, Santaldih, Bakreswar and the pit head of Deocha-Pachami coal block.

There are two special characteristics that make this a unique mining area in the country as well as make it difficult to mine – high thickness of the coal seam (layers of deposits) zones that occur between thick layers of “partings”, or beds of noncoal rock, including very hard basaltic rocks of volcanic origin with 90 metre-245 metre thickness.

“This is a unique type of coal deposit that has no parallel in Indian coalfields,” said a Geological Survey of India report, adding that “for the construction of a large mechanised mine of phenomenal output, this is not easy to mine with the currently available technology of both underground as well as opencast mining”.

Coal mining office under construction at Harinsinga block. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay

An earlier document says that in the south-central part of the coalfield, in the Deocha-Pachami area, “a super thick seam zone with a maximum recorded thickness of 156-metre having 118-metre of clean coal has been recorded.” The Geological Survey of India’s report described the seam as one of “enormous thickness“ that “has not been found in any of the coalfields of India.”

This high thickness of the coal seams has thrown underground mining out of option, as pointed out by the Geological Survey of India report.

Notably, high seam thickness has also been cited as one of the major reasons for spontaneous heating and incidents of fire in Indian coal mines in multiple research papers in the past. The Geological Survey of India’s report, too, said that mines with high seam thickness are “very vulnerable to spontaneous heating.”

According to former Coal India Limited chairman Partha Sarathi Bhattacharyya, it will take several years to reach the coal seams after removing the overburdens.

“The top layer is quite deep,” Bhattacharyya told Mongabay-India. “In most of the mines, it usually takes about two years of opencast mining to remove the overburdens and reach the coal seam. But here it will take much longer.”

“Removing overburdens will be a very difficult exercise due to the enormous thickness and hardness of the rocks,” Bhattacharyya told Mongabay-India. “The state government will probably need to rope in international agencies because the required technology is not available in India.”

A state government document said that the basaltic capping of 135 meters has its own commercial value and thus it has been included in the compensation package. Owners of 285 crusher units, apart from the price for their land and buildings, Rs 50,000 as shifting allowance, and rehabilitation at the proposed basalt industrial park nearby, will also get 10 trucks of basalt for free every day for six months. The owners of 27 stone quarries will also get compensation for their land and buildings.

The Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block, which is to be operationalised in the first phase according to a state government document, include Dewanganj, Nischintapur and Harinsinga.

Local residents trust newspaper vendor Basudeb Raut with the latest updates on the project. He scans every Bengali daily for news on the project, hoping for fresh information. “After the government package was reported in the media, the people started discussing it, ” said Raut. “But no one is convinced yet that it’s a good package.”

Samirul Islam, president of Bangla Sanskriti Mancha that has a significant presence in Birbhum district, said they would not take a stand until the local people decided on the package. “We will wait to see what the local residents have to say on the package. We’ll stand by whatever decision the local residents take,” he told Mongabay-India.

In August 2021, the West Ben­gal Power Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion Limited appointed a nine-member committee, headed by actor-director Parambrata Chattopadhyay and including civil society members from the indigenous population, to supervise social work activities in areas where the work is expected to start. The social work is aimed to “gain the trust of and build confidence among the local residents for the full operationalisation of pre-mining activities,” the West Ben­gal Power Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion Limited’s notice said. That committee is yet to start functioning.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.