A coal mining project in Singrauli, home to India’s power industry, has dimmed the lights on a teenage girl’s dream to study.

Angira Kewat, a resident of Muher village in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh, was forced to abandon her dream of studying further after a coal mine started next to her village and rendered the access road to the nearest high school hard to navigate for her.

Muher village is just a few kilometres away from Waidhan, Singrauli district’s headquarters. The coal mine, owned by one of India’s top industrial houses, started next to Muher village less than 10 years ago and brought with it the usual problems associated with mining. The dust from mines that settled in farms over the years has led to a drop in the crop yield. Blasting in the mine has damaged the houses of villagers. The water supply has been affected and the villagers have been experiencing an increase in cases of respiratory problems, among other issues.

Angira Kewat (far right) of Muher village had to leave her studies due to coal mine adjacent to her village. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
Angira Kewat (far right) of Muher village had to leave her studies due to coal mine adjacent to her village. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

For Angira though, the mines have also blocked her access to higher education. Her village school teaches up till class eight. To study beyond that, she needs to travel at least 10 kilometres to the nearest school. The journey involves passing through a severely polluted road with dump from the coal mines.

“It has been three years since I finished class eight,” said Angira. “I wanted to study further but could not. Anyone who wants to study beyond class eight in our village needs to travel to Waidhan but there is no transport facility to go there. The road to Waidhan involves going through an unpaved road which has dump of mines on both the sides. The road is secluded and unsafe for anyone to travel.” Angira’s time is now spent working in her family’s fields and in the next few years, she will get married.

Ramprasad Jaiswal, a farmer from Muher, said the unpaved road to Waidhan results in frequent accidents for villagers who travel on two-wheelers that skid on dust and sand. To get daily provisions or visit the market, the villagers have to travel through the unsafe road which has mine dump on both sides.

“Our life here is torturous,” Jaiswal told Mongabay-India. “Our crop yield has drastically reduced. There is no water, no power, no transport facility, no medical facility, no higher educational facility, our houses are being damaged by blasting, there is air pollution leading to regular health problems and our food is polluted. There is no one to listen to us. Even for the smallest requirement, we have to travel for at least 10 kilometres,”

His friend, Rajendra Singh, standing alongside, said the villagers are indifferent to elections as that is just a few days affair. “The candidates will come only once in five years seeking votes, may offer something to us on that day and then will vanish. They only work for the welfare of these companies who wants coal. They have nothing to do with us,” said Singh.

The road that people of Muher village take to reach Waidhan, which is the district headquarters of Singrauli. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
The road that people of Muher village take to reach Waidhan, which is the district headquarters of Singrauli. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

As Mongabay-India travelled through the district, the irony was unmissable. The Muher coal mine will light up many urban homes kilometres away, but has failed in bringing any light in the lives of the villagers living right next to it.

Coal development races ahead

Singrauli is more than 670 kilometres away from Madhya Pradesh’s capital city, Bhopal, and less than 200 kilometres from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

According to the MP government, the exploration carried out in Singrauli area, so far, has revealed that the area has an abundant resource of power grade coal. The government believes that coupled with easy water resource from the nearby reservoir Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar, Singrauli region is an ideal location for high capacity pithead power plants.

Sonebhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Singrauli in MP are adjacent to each other. Together, the Sonebhadra-Singrauli belt is one of India’s major power industry strongholds with scores of coal mines and power plants in the region.

A majority of the coal produced in Singrauli district is by Northern Coalfields through mechanised opencast mines. As per government data, the coal supplies from the Northern Coalfields in Singrauli have made it possible to produce more than 11,000 megawatt of electricity from pithead power plants of the National Thermal Power Corporation . The ultimate capacity of power generation of these power plants is 13,295 megawatt. In addition, Northern Coalfields supplies coal to power plants of Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam, Delhi Vidyut Board and Haryana Power Generation Corporation Limited.

The abundant reserves of coal have made Singrauli a hub for India’s energy industry. It is estimated that in the years to come Singrauli would alone feed around 35,000 megawatt of electrical power to the grid.

Ill effects of coal mines in Singrauli have become a part of life for its citizens. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
Ill effects of coal mines in Singrauli have become a part of life for its citizens. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

For the nearly 1.1 million population of Singrauli, the ills and side effects of coal mining and thermal power plants seem to have become a part of life. Mongabay-India travelled across the district recently and found that for many in the region, the air pollution or the polluted groundwater/water bodies are not even an issue anymore.

Northern Coalfields however, claims that since its inception it has been a leader in environment management among the opencast mines in India and their work is “guided by sound environmental practices, second to none.”

“New reclamation techniques and initiatives have been taken to operate all the mining projects in environment friendly manner. The planned development of mines with proper layout, greening, colonies, black topped roads, planned backfilling and bio-reclamation has been the highlights of environment management,” notes Northern Coalfields on its website. “The number of trees planted till now has been the highest among all the coal companies and more than 2.33 crores trees have been planted.”

Though environmental degradation is certainly a matter of concern for the poor farmers and Adivasis, who heavily depend on natural resources like local water bodies for their daily needs, the basic requirements like food and employment trumps everything else.

Atul Dubey, a local activist and the founding editor of a news website, Singrauli Ki Awaaz, said that, “central government’s (planning think tank) Niti Aayog had counted Singrauli district amongst the most backward districts of the country” where “education, health, basic infrastructure development and agriculture were the basic issues of the region”.

“Later, the government implemented a programme called ‘Transform Singrauli’ which led to improvement in SingrauIi’s rank on paper but on the ground, the reality didn’t change,” he emphasised.

Not a poll issue

Madhya Pradesh is one of the five states – along with Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram – that go to polls in November and December this year. The polls for the 230 seats of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly on November 28 will seal the future of over 72 million people of the state. In Singrauli district, there are three legislative assembly constituencies in Chitrangi, Singrauli and Deosar.

While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is mostly silent about these issues in its election manifesto for the state, the Congress party in its 116-page “Vachan Patra” promises to use “use 25% of the royalty received [from mining for providing drinking water, infrastructure, skill development to educated unemployed, education, health and empowerment of women in the village itself”. It also promised implementation of the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Schedule Area) Act 1996 in all the scheduled (tribe) areas. This promise may find some resonance with many of the Adivasi people, who have lost their land to coal mining and thermal power plants and still continue to fight for proper rehabilitation even years after they were displaced.

For instance, the Krishna Vihar colony is now home to Adivasis of the Baiga community who were displaced from their forest land for a coal mine several years ago. However, several years down the line, the affected Adivasis are yet to get promised fruits of development. The colony, which is within the Singrauli headquarters, Waidhan, has electricity meters installed but the Adivasis have no money to pay for it. Many of their houses are made of mud and they are yet to get a proper job which was promised to them. As a result, they are forced to work as daily wage labourers. Some of the Baiga Adivasi people have not been able to afford even a mud house after their relocation from the forests.

Ramlalu Baiga, who was displaced from his land for a coal mine, with his family. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
Ramlalu Baiga, who was displaced from his land for a coal mine, with his family. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Ramlalu Baiga and his wife Promila have no source of income and have a small hut made of mud. His brothers who live in the same plot have made a small ten 10 X 10-foot room of metal sheets. “As you can see we don’t have any belongings,” said Ramlalu. “We have no money, no food or no job. To survive, we daily try to find some work. The financial support that was promised to our newborn child from the government has not been given as well. Even for that, bureaucrats make us run from pillar to post. The disability in my and my wife’s feet only hinder our ability to work efficiently and earn.” He said election season for them is just a few days of opportunity for them to earn some money.

Sanjay Namdev, who is the head of the Communist Party of India in the Singrauli, district, said that Singrauli is an area dominated by Adivasis and was a land of abundant water, forests and agriculture.

“It was never meant for industries but when coal was discovered here, it led to the destruction of forests,” Namdev told Mongabay-India. “All the big companies of the country developed power plants here and slowly farmers of the area turned into labourers. This resulted in problems of displacement and unemployment. People now are not even able to get work for survival as companies operating here prefer to bring labourers from other states because they feel the locals will sooner or later start demanding permanent jobs. This, in turn, led to the serious problem of migration as people are living Singrauli to go and lives in slums in urban areas. Pollution is a huge issue here neither the industry nor the district administration is doing anything to address it.”

Of the three assembly seats in Singrauli region, CPI is fighting on only two seats – Singrauli and Deosar – where displacement from mines is an issue.

CPI leader Sanjay Namdev calls displacement a major issue in the region. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
CPI leader Sanjay Namdev calls displacement a major issue in the region. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Environment degradation

Activists and experts point out that there are scores of cases going on in the National Green Tribunal about the problems of Singrauli. NGT has passed series of orders to improve the environmental condition in the area but on the ground implementation of the orders of NGT remains questionable.

Singrauli is classified as a critically polluted industrial area by the Central Pollution Control Board, India’s top pollution watchdog.

Sunil Dahiya, who is a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India, said, “Singrauli is a classic case of what’s going wrong about our energy choices”.

“The area, having one of the last remaining natural carbon sink in form of oldest Sal forests, is burdened with beyond capacity mining and power generation and has been lost at a rapid rate over the past decade,” he explained. “Livelihood of people, most important elephant migratory corridors along with flora and fauna of the area is on the verge of extinction due to uncontrolled and rampant coal mining here.”

He added, “Most of the power plants in the region emitting beyond the permissible limits issued by the union environment ministry for coal-based power plants is nothing more than a crime to people of Singrauli wherein on one side, the power plants such as Badarpur have been shut down due to pollution issues in Delhi, but on the other hand the power plants in Singrauli are allowed to keep polluting beyond permissible limits for years to come.”

Dahiya emphasised that if coal burning would have been a sign of development then Singrauli would have been the most liveable place in India by virtue of single-handedly providing about 15% of coal-based electricity of the country. But the truth is quite contrary to it.

“Coal has been a resource for geographies and countries but for Singrauli it has turned out to be a curse which has not only impacted the human health, environment and economy but also the ecosystem as a whole. The power plants should be forced to retrofit to control the emissions of SO2 and NOx as soon as possible and no new coal-based power plant or industry should be allowed to come up in the areas as the cumulative capacity of the area for withholding any new polluting unit has been exhausted long back,” Dahiya warned.

Ravi Shekhar of the Kisan Adivasi Visthapit Ekta Manch said “Singrauli is suffering from heavy environmental damage. The term of sustainable development holds no meaning for people of this area where coal mining started several decades ago. The tribal people of the areas have been displaced from their homes and forced to live a difficult life. Once upon a time this area was known as a pulse bowl but today farmers are suffering at the hands of power companies who are acquiring their lands.”

Shekhar said that the forest produce, a source of livelihood for the locals, has also degraded. “As a result, the whole area of Singrauli is today in a state of emergency where people are suffering from poor health,” he said. “In some cases, mercury is being found in the blood of the newborns which shows that the so-called development in the area in the last 50-60 years has turned the food cycle of the area poisonous. It has caused irreversible damage.”

However, the ground realities have not changed the continued development of the power industry in the region. Case in point is the expert panels of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which reject or grant clearance to new projects, are in the process of clearing diversion of forests for more mining projects in Singrauli.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.