Mine allottee accused of influencing public hearing through company owned newspapers.

The Chhattisgarh High Court has directed that no further action be taken towards granting environmental clearance to a coal mine operated by DB Power Ltd, a subsidiary of DB Corp, one of India’s largest media corporations. The respondents have been given three weeks to reply. A writ petition filed in the court accuses the company of adopting “deliberate, illegal and manipulative” measures to influence the outcome of a public hearing held to assess the impact of the proposed open cast coal mine. D.S. Maliya, the lead petitioner in the case, also told The Hindu he had been personally targeted by the Dainik Bhaskar in a series of articles published days before the hearing. A spokesperson for DB Corp has denied the charges.

DB Corp reaches out to 17.5 million readers across 59 newspaper editions and 135 sub-editions in four languages in 13 states, including the leading Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar, and English language Daily News and Analysis (DNA). The company also owns MyFM, a radio station broadcast in 17 cities across the country.

Financial disclosures submitted to the Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), reveal that the company’s promoters also own at least 69 other companies with interests in mining, power generation, manufacturing, real estate, construction, air freight, and textiles. While the company-owned Diligent Power hopes to install 6400 MW of generation capacity, DB Malls Pvt Ltd has built one of Asia’s biggest malls on 6.2 acres of land in Bhopal, while Bhaskar Industries Ltd claims to be one of India’s leading manufacturers of denim cloth.

The writ petition, admitted in July, pertains to a mining project in Chhattisgarh’s coal-rich Raigarh district.

On February 28, DB Power Ltd sought to acquire 693.2 hectares of land for an open cast coal mine in Raigarh, approximately 141 hectares of which falls within the municipal boundaries of the Dharamjaigarh township. The coal is intended for a 1320 MW power plant in the neighbouring district of Janjgir-Champa. At the hearing, 438 residents of Dharamjaigarh registered their opposition to the plant; not a single project affected person gave her or his consent. Protestors said they feared the mine would pollute the air, water and land of Dharamjaigarh, and the relentless stream of coal carrying trucks would lead to a surge of in road accidents.

Anticipating the protests, the company submitted an affidavit stating that it would not undertake mining activities in the Dharamjaigarh Nagar Panchayat area. While the villagers do not believe this undertaking, the petition also alleges that this change in mining plans substantially altered the nature of the project, was not reflected in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted by the company and is a violation of the terms of reference issued by the MoEF. Official summaries of the public hearing, submitted as annexures, make no mention of the affidavit.

In a Right to Information request filed in April this year, the petitioners allege, a public information officer for the Regional Office of the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board stated that his department had not received an application for amending the project proposal in line with the company’s commitments.

A spokesperson for DB Corp has denied these charges.

“The DB group will never do anything that will discomfort the public in any way,” said Sushil Nahar, a spokesperson and special correspondent for Dainik Bhaskar in an interview, “We have listened to the people of Dharamjaigarh and will not take any land that falls in the Nagar panchayat area.”

In a written response to a questionnaire sent to DB Power, a spokesperson for the group stated “in the said affidavit, there is no mention regarding the extent of the area allocated to DB Power which falls in the Dharamjaygarh Nagar Panchayat Area. However, the company has stated and reiterates that it will not carry out any mining activists in the Dharamjaygarh Nagar Panchayat area.” The spokesperson also told this correspondent that the company would not acquire land in the nagar panchayat land, and said that a fresh EIA and public hearing were not required as the project required less land than previously applied for.

“A change involving reduced land area does not necessarily require a new EIA… If it is a reduction [in mining land], it may actually lead to less pollution,” said a senior official handling environmental clearances, making clear he was not commenting on the principles involved and not the specific case. But “if [the company] wanted longer mining leases on the remainder of the land, or if there were key facilities located on the nagar panchayat land according to the original plan which would now have to be re-sited, then a revised EIA, or even fresh Terms of Reference may be required.”

Responding to questions on possible conflicts of interest between DB Corp’s media and mining business, spokesperson Sushil Nahar said, “The newspaper is kept completely separate from the rest of the business.” When asked why, for instance, the Dainik Bhaskar’s Raigarh edition carried stories headlined “Black Diamond to lend sparkle to Dharamjaigarh’s Destiny” and “Villagers move forward in support of DB power,” on the eve of the public hearing for DB Power’s coal mine, Mr. Nahar said, “Because that is what will happen,” he said, “All the coal in India will be mined, but no one will mine with the laad-pyaar [love and care] that we will. There will be prosperity…there will be jobs… Kismet chamkegi [destiny will sparkle]”

Kismet, as the matter currently stands, shall be decided by the courts.

[Disclosure: DNA competes with The Hindu in some markets].