Mining disaster

As coal auctions begin in Delhi, a splendid forest in Chhattisgarh awaits slow death

Auctions might introduce greater transparency in coal mine allocations but won't resolve the questions over social and environment costs of mining.

Krishna Kumar remembers his father talking about how “the company” will eventually take over their land and livelihood. Fifty years ago, Kumar’s father Dhanraj was considered cynical. Today, the people of Pali village consider him a visionary.

The village lies in Katghora block of Chhattisgarh's Korba district. South Eastern Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of the government company Coal India Limited, has been mining in the district since the 1960s. With more than 70 million tonnes of coal excavated annually from 13 coal mines, including three of the largest in Asia, and 10,000 megawatts of power produced in about half a dozen thermal power plants, Korba is now one of India’s critically polluted areas. 

The juggernaut of mining has transformed the landscape so dramatically that brown hills have sprouted around the city of Korba. These aren’t natural hills – they are made of accumulated overburden, or the soil excavated from the earth to get to the seams of coal.


Overburden hills made of loose soil 


Seventy kilometres north of Korba, the air becomes cooler, the sound of flowing water is clearer and only tall green trees meet the eye. The forest, called Hasdeo Arand, is spread over 1,200 square kilometres in north Chhattisgarh. It is one of India’s last remaining biodiversity rich forests with an unbroken canopy that acts as an important wildlife corridor. Amidst the generous natural beauty rests the village of Salhi, which has not more than 500 homes.

Sitting cross-legged on a cane cot in front of his modest house, Seva Ram, the sarpanch of Salhi village in Sarguja district, rubs dry tobacco on his left palm, contemplatively. “When a wild elephant enters our village," he said, "we know what harm it would cause us and we prepare ourselves accordingly. But when the company entered our village surreptitiously, we didn't know how to react.”

Ram was referring to Adani Mining, a wholly owned subsidiary of Adani Enterprises, which came to the area in 2009 to mine the 450 million tonne rich coal blocks of Parsa East and Kanta Basan. The two blocks were among the 20 coal blocks in the region that stood allocated to government and private companies, until the Supreme Court in September 2014 struck down the allocations of more than 200 coal blocks across the country, holding them illegal and arbitrary.

For a while, the people of Sali breathed easy. But the reprieve was short-lived. In October, the government passed an ordinance to make it possible to reallocate the mines. The executive order was followed up with the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2014, which received the approval of the Lok Sabha in December. The bill awaits the final passage through the Rajya Sabha before it can become law.


Seva Ram, the sarpanch of Salhi village


The new bill seeks to make amends for India’s two decade-long history of corruption-tainted coal mine allocations. Earlier, coal mines were allocated by a committee of bureaucrats in a process that was riddled with irregularities. Under the new system, companies have to bid to get mining rights. The government has put 23 blocks for auction in the first round which began in January and is expected to conclude in March.

While competitive auctions would introduce greater transparency in the process, activists say they are not the panacea for the crisis that plagues the system of natural resource allocation in India. Currently, the government first allocates the mine to a company and then assesses the social and environmental costs of the project. Well after companies have sunk funds into the project, the views of local communities are sought. By then, the dice is loaded against them, with both the government and the corporations pushing hard to see the project through. At best, local people are able to stall the project for some years. The resulting logjams extract both social and economic costs.

The cancellation of the coal mines by the Supreme Court presented the government with a clean slate. It could have fixed the systemic flaws in the allocation process, say activists. But it missed the bus.


Hasdeo forest in the backdrop of the mine operated by Adani in Sarguja


For one, it overlooked the strong rationale to keep intact forests like Hasdeo Arand. In 2010, the ministry of environment and forest superimposed forest cover maps on coal bearing regions and marked out nine forests that were too dense to be lost to coal mining. These forests were called “No-Go areas”. Hasdeo Arand was one of them.

Ignoring its own categorisation, however, the United Progressive Alliance government gave clearances to three coal mines in Hasdeo Arand. The Bharatiya Janata Party government has put one of those blocks for auction in the first phase itself. Another two blocks, Parsa East and Kanta Basan, are likely to be allotted to public sector companies soon. Speaking with Scroll, Anil Swaroop, the coal secretary, justified the decision. "We will only auction those mines that have the necessary permissions," he said. 

But activists are dismayed at the decision. Contrary to popular perception, they argue that preserving the No-Go areas involves little economic trade-off. Put together, the No-Go areas represent only 8.11% of the total potential coal bearing area of the country. "Even if current energy needs are tripled, we can meet the demand for coal without venturing into ‘no-go’ areas for the next 66 years comfortably,” said Sudiep Shrivastava, a lawyer and mining activist.

Not only does the forest of Hasdeo Arand house endangered species, it ensures regular rainfall and maintains the water levels of the majestic Bango dam built across River Hasdeo. The dam irrigates 630,000 acres of agricultural land in Chhattisgarh and provides water to the coal mines and power plants in Korba. “How will those objectives be met if the dam loses its catchment area?” said Shrivastava.

“If you dig up coal in Hasdeo-Arand, you will ensure that the country potentially risks losing 10,000 MW of electricity in the next 20 years,” said Alok Shukla, the convenor of the non-profit, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.


The Bango Dam on Hasdeo river in Korba


Closely linked to the environment are the lives and livelihoods of the people. In January, before the auctions began, a group of people living in the villages of Hasdeo Arand decided to make one last attempt to persuade the government to not rush ahead with the coal mine bids. A contingent of a dozen people from Chhattisgarh arrived in New Delhi. Armed with letters from 16 gram sabhas, or village councils, that expressed strong opposition to mining projects, they met union minister for environment and forests Prakash Javadekar.

Among the group was Jainandan Singh Porte. Until a year ago, Porte used to grow rice and sell mahua seeds (a flower used to make liquor) in Ghatberra village. But since Adani entered the region, disturbed by the future threat of displacement, he jumped into activism.

“When I told the minister that I am opposed to mining in the Hasdeo region, he smiled and said ‘Bring your son to me next time. I will ask him what he wants.’” He chose not to argue with the minister, but the conversation left Porte convinced that his 14-year-old son faces a bleak future. “He might be doing menial jobs in the city, going at this rate.”


Porte and other mining affected people in New Delhi in January


Not only does the new coal bill fail to empower local communities, activists believe it legalises the excesses of private companies. Under the previous law, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act of 1973, a company was allowed to mine coal for a specified end-use. That is, only as much coal as needed to run a power plant that they had established. This clause was put in to restrict the indiscriminate sale of a source of non-renewable energy in the open market. But Prakash Industries, a private company mining coal from the Chotia block in the Hasdeo region since 2006, extracted more than the amount of coal stipulated in its licence. While this amounted to illegal coal pilferage under the previous law, it might stand legitimised in the future since the new coal law has an enabling provision that could allow private companies to sell coal in the open market.

Similarly, the Parsa, Parsa East and Kanta Basan coal blocks were allocated entirely to public sector power companies belonging to Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan governments but Adani Mining found a backdoor entry into them by getting a mining development and operations contract wherein Adani held a 74% majority ownership of the joint venture. Joint ventures between government companies and private sector players were illegal according to the 1974 law, but the new law has found a way to make room for them.


Kante village in Sarguja district of north Chhattisgarh


The Supreme Court’s verdict might have put mining in Hasdeo Arand on hold. But Bajrang Singh, a 34-year-old farmer from Kanta village, has already lost the world he grew up in. His village, not more than 10 metres from the open cast mine, used to have ponds on three sides. But after the mining began, the lush greenery and abundant water dried up. Even ground water levels have fallen. When land is hollowed out to mine coal, the water from the surrounding areas tends to flow down to the deeper excavation site, drying up even ground water. 

“The company sends water tankers to our homes everyday," said Singh. "We are free to take as much water as we want, but how much can we possibly store? So, we end up rationing the water by default.” An email to Adani Mining seeking a response on the company's impact on the area went unanswered.

The sarpanch of Salhi village, Seva Ram, is keeping calm in the face of the impending storm. “Not only will we lose our lands, livelihoods, heritage and freedom, but we will be forced to migrate to your cities, in turn crowding them. Do you want that?” he said with an ironic smile.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.