Panchanan Mandal is a resident of Chalkari village in Petarwar Block in Bokaro district in Jharkhand. He has been waiting for a job at Central Coal Limited since 1984 but in vain. Now, at 62 and dejected, he waits in anticipation for a job for his children. Mandal had given up his land to Central Coal Limited, a public sector company that manages nationalised coal mine, in return for a job that he still awaits. Like Mandal, several other people from Chalkari village had given up their land to Central Coal Limited for the ambitious Damodar River and Rail Diversion Project.

In the 1980s, Central Coal Limited, a subsidiary of the government-owned coal mining corporation, Coal India Limited, had planned coal mining in Chalkari and other adjoining villages. However, even after four decades have passed, there is no sign of the project starting up and no explanation about the delay. Meanwhile, the fate of thousands of Chalkari residents hangs in balance as they wait for the promised jobs.

Damodar River and Rail Diversion Project is a project of Central Coal Limited under which the diversion of the Damodar river and rail line was planned for starting coal mining activities. To undertake the proposed project, a total of 6,436 acres of land – a little over the size of New Delhi airport – was acquired in the 1980s in the Petarwar Block of Bokaro district, from villages including Chalkari, Jhunjhko, Khetko, Angwali, Ghutiyatand, Jaridih and others. This region is around 115-km northeast of the state capital Ranchi.

The objective of this project was to do coal mining in the areas after diverting the river and rail line.

As per the initial plan, the rail link between the Gomoh-Barkakana railway division, from Phusro railway station to Amlo halt, would be diverted directly to the Jarangdih railway crossing.

Kashinath Kewat who has been protesting against the displacement of people for this project, for many years, told Mongabay-India that the plan was to shift the Jarangdih railway station in Jaridih colony and to shift the Barmo station to Ghutiyatand.

Damodar river, one of the prominent rivers of Jharkhand and West Bengal, would be diverted through the Khetko colony, via Chalkari towards Angwali. A total of 3.35 kms of the river stretch was to be diverted.

Kewat said, “The objective of this diversion was to do coal mining over 6,436 acres of land. Due to this, the project was named as Damodar River and Rail Diversion Project,”

Project report

The detailed project report for the Damodar River and Rail Diversion Project was made in 1981, following which several patches of land in two divisions of the Bokaro district were acquired. Lakhan Lal Mahto, a prominent leader of the Dhanbad-Bokaro Coal Mining and General Secretary of India Trade Union Congress area told Mongabay-India that a total of 6,431 acres of land were acquired under the Coal Bearing Act of 1957. But after that, it seems that Central Coal Limited has lost interest in the project, he said. Mahto said that a railway bridge was also made for the diversion project but nothing happened after that.

He said that if the project had actually started, it could have given jobs to around 1,000 people. But now, despite giving up their land, nothing has changed. There are around 25,000 people from around 12 villages affected by the project. They cannot do farming on such lands nor sell those lands as they have been acquired, he explained. Also, because the land is no longer theirs, they cannot receive government aid. He adds that if there is no project now, the land acquisition should also be cancelled.

Md Rizwan who owns a tailoring shop lost four acres of his land for this project. Photo credit: Rahul Singh

Lal Mahto pointed out that in certain laws there are provisions to cancel land acquisitions if a project has not been started by a certain time, but there is no such provision in the Coal Bearing Act of 1957. According to the Act, the acquired land would be treated at par with the land acquired by the Union government and force could also be used to ensure possession of such land.

Lakhan Lal Mahto and Kashinath Kewat are fighting for the rights of people displaced by the project. They also formed the Vishthapit Sangarsh Morcha (Displaced Struggle Wing) and both are president and general secretary of the organisation respectively. Kewat himself belongs to Chalkari village.

This proposed project comes under the Bokaro and Kargali areas of Central Coal Limited. MK Rao, general manager of Central Coal Limited (Bokaro and Kargali region) did not respond to the queries of Mongabay-India on the situation.

Government response

Brajesh Kumar Srivastava, circle officer of Petarwar told Mongabay-India if the land has been acquired for any project, any activity by non-owners is illegal. He also admitted that there is no buying-selling or other settlement of the land. He said that the land belonged to Central Coal Limited and the company has to decide if it will be mining there or not. When asked about the diversion actions, he cited lack of directions and information from the higher authorities on the matter.

Meanwhile, the circle officer of Bermo told Mongabay-India that no one can undertake any work illegally on the land acquired by Central Coal Limited. When asked about the compensation and jobs, he said that it was up to Central Coal Limited to take a call on this and he had no information as his department’s role was only to verification of the land and not concerned with the compensation payment.

Though the land has been acquired in different parts of the state for coal mining the Central Coal Limited case of Dhanbad is a unique story whose answers are with nobody or kept secret till now as the government subsidiary remained mum on the issue.

When contacted, James Surin, Deputy Collector (Land Reforms) of Bokaro, said that the matter was related to the revenue department and was not concerned with district administration.

Chalkari village’s tale

Chalkari has a population of around 10,000. Due to its size, it has been divided into North Chalkari and South Chalkari panchayats. Mohammad Rizwan works in a tailoring shop in Chalkari. He told Mongabay-India that he lost four acres of land to this proposed project. His brother Md Jainul who had got a job is now retired.

At that time, work by Central Coal Limited was in progress. But now everything has stopped. If work would have continued, they would have got employment opportunities, said Rizwan.

In the same village, Ashok Kumar Mandal retired as an accountant from Central Coal Limited. He said that the lands were acquired in three phases – in 1982, 1983 and 1985. According to him, around 6,500 acres of land were acquired and 631 people got jobs.

Mohammad Gulam runs a medicine shop in the village. His land was also acquired by the project. His uncle did get a job as compensation, but it was not long term. He said that farming is over and the whole situation has created distrust among villagers about Central Coal Limited.

Suraj Mahto hails from Pichhli Panchayat, one of the sites under the proposed project. He claimed that the Pichhli and Khero mouza lost 1900 acres of land for the project and only five people from his area got jobs while the rest remained unemployed.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of corruption in handing out jobs under the project. Local people claimed that Union Minister Piyush Goyal, who was the then coal minister, during his visit to the site during the 2014 Jharkhand state elections, had announced that the project would start soon if his party won the polls. But nothing happened about it.

River and project

Himanshu Thakkar, Convenor of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and Peoples told Mongabay-India, “The detailed project report of a project can reveal the impact that the diversion of a river can have. However, the diversion of a river increases the threat of its flooding. Such actions can adversely affect the local biodiversity of the area. Some of the nearby areas will become submersion zones too.”

He added that a proper understanding of the impact of the project can only be made after assessing the social and environmental impacts of the project.

The proposed project comes under the Bokaro and Kargali region of Central Coal Limited. Photo credit: Rahul Singh

He also added, “Given the threat of climate change, such projects should not be considered in the first place and no new coal mining projects should be started. It would be better that the acquired land is made fit for agriculture and returned to the farmers.”

Siddharth Agarwal, founder of Veditum, a not for profit research organisation told Mongabay-India that Damodar had been a big river and undertaking such a project would not be good for the environment. The delay in such a project could be because of these environmental concerns related to the project.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.