In January, the Ministry of Coal issued coal-block allottees a few weeks to show cause why delays in beginning production should not become basis for deallocation. Given the threat of deallocation, companies have scrambled to get clearances in the last few months with district and state officials' collusion.
In Jharkhand, Tata Steel and Adhunik Power and Natural Resource Limited (APNRL) were jointly allotted 237 ha Ganeshpur coal-block in Latehar district in May 2009. Almost the entire area of the coal block falls in Jala village, where predominantly Oraon tribal villagers had refused to give consent to allow coal mining till their pending forest rights claims were settled first. They have alleged that they were threatened by the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee, a left wing extremist group and the “company’s dalal [middlemen]” for opposing the mining project, allegations the companies have denied.
An environment ministry circular of August 2009 requires that all FRA claims must have been settled in an area and the gram sabha should have given their consent before any forest land is diverted to industry. But Tata Steel and APRNL had been unable to submit these evidences from 2009 till last year because of Jala villagers' resistance. Between 2011 and now, the tribal hamlet has passed at least six resolutions against the project, most recently on February 8 in which the villagers complained that the Sub Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) had not yet notified them on the status of their 2011 community forest rights (CFR) claims over 456 ha, even as the companies had begun erecting boundary markers in the village.
On 15 January, the Inter Ministerial Group on coal blocks gave 61 allottees, including Tata Steel and APRNL, 20 days to show cause why delays in reaching milestones in starting production should not lead to de-allocation. Soon after, on 24 January, the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave Ganeshpur coal block environment clearance citing a public hearing on 2 June 2012. Two days later on 26 January, the Deputy Development Commissioner acting as the ad-hoc District Commissioner rejected Jala's villagers community forest rights claims over 456 hectares forest pending since 2011. According to the meeting minutes, the SDLC inspected the villages on 28 January, and found the quorum present, and that the villagers had given consent for diversion.
Before this, on October 23, 2013, the Inter-Ministerial Group on coal blocks held that no significant progress had been made by Tata and APRNL towards development of Ganeshpur coal-block. Two months later, on December 19, 2013, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) gave stage I forest clearance to the project. It asked the state government to submit documentary evidence that FRA had been completed. In its decision the FAC has cited documentary evidence of a gram sabha meeting on October 1, 2011 which Jala villagers say is fake. The villagers showed a letter of February 25, 2013, by the Jala gram pradhan informing Latehar district officials that the resolution of October 1, 2011 submitted by the companies as proof of Jala villagers' consent was false.
“We had refused to hold gram sabha in October 2011. We wrote to three circle and district officials asking them not to hold a gram sabha that month as 65 individual FRA claims were pending,” said Shivratri Oraon, secretary, village forest rights committee (FRC) who is shown as among the 74 villagers who consented to the coal-block in the October 1, 2011, gram sabha demanding Rs 30 lakh per acre for land in the documents submitted for FC clearance. Mr. Oraon instead showed a letter from him and other FRC members received by Circle Officer (CO) Balumath on the same date, October 1, 2011, in which the villagers had refused to hold a gram sabha.
Tata Steel spokesperson Ashish Kumar and APRNL's vice president Sanjay Jain declined comment. “We rejected Jala's CFR claims as the villagers could not give any reason for claims over 456 hectares, there is no grounds for this. I will ask affected villagers to submit documents on October 2011 resolution again,” said Latehar's district forest officer Mamta Priyadarshi adding she was not aware of the villagers' claim.