It is an exercise by State government to hand over 350 hectare of land to JSPL

Standing on the edge of a monstrous, black gorge, 72-year-old Kaniram, a Birhor tribal, stretched his left hand to point at the mud thatched house that he had in the hill slope. However, one could only see waves of unending charcoal coloured hills in the backdrop. The area — definitely not less than a few hundred square kilometres — looks grey but Kaniram found the whole thing funny. “We never thought there is so much coal under our house, but it was,” he smiled and added, “…wished there was less coal in the hills.”

Eventually, his house which stood on a coal block, ‘Gare 4/01,’ was taken away to feed the Jindal Steel and Power Plant (JSPL) in Raigarh. Today, after three decades of coal mining in Raigarh, the residents of Gare do not know how many more tribal villages will be devoured by the mega power companies in north Chhattisgarh.

But, still they are trying to turn the tide. Their immediate objective is to stop the public hearing on Wednesday, organised by the State government to hand over nearly 350 hectares of land in Tamnar block of Raigarh to the JSPL. On the basis of the public hearing in a sparsely populated village called Tiklirampur, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in Delhi’s Lodhi Road, will decide whether Kaniram and other tribals will have to dedicate more land to produce more power to boost the nation’s economy.

“I got about Rs.1.5 lakh for 12 acres of land. The money has disappeared and the land price has gone up, coal has killed us,” said Mr. Kaniram, head of a family of eight. Moreover, the water has turned black and nights have turned into nightmares once the blasting in mines started.

To ensure that Mr. Kaniram’s fate does not engulf the entire block, the villagers are routinely taking out rallies and hosting environmentalists to highlight their cause. “Our cause, is to stop coal mining in Gare 4/6 block, so that at least half a dozen villages of Tamnar can survive,” said Harihar Patel of Gare, in a public meeting in another affected village, Dongamoha. Rallies, mainly organised by women of Gond, Kanwar or Birhor communities, are making rounds of villages asking Mr. Jindal to leave immediately. Seven coal blocks are operating in Tamnar, of which three are with the JSPL.

While mining the Tamnar block religiously over the last two decades, the Jindal Group had a minor setback in 2008 after large scale violence broke out in a similar public hearing for the same block, Gare 4/6. Villagers, including women, were beaten up severely by the police, men were arrested and tortured.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) admitted the villager’s complaints and cancelled the hearing. “…hearing may be directed to be conducted by an experienced ADM, other than the present one who conducted the public hearing on January 5, 2008 and special care may be directed to be taken while recording the statements of the people participates,” the NGT said.

Setback to tribals

But on the other side, the tribals faced a severe setback. While few of their top leaders — including Dr. Patel or Rajesh Tripathi of the Jan Chetna Manch — are still active, the commander-in-chief, environmentalist and RTO activist, Ramesh Agarwal was shot through the thigh allegedly by employees of Jindals, soon after the NGT judgment. The JSPL denied any role in the incident.

While Mr. Agarwal’s case is dying slowly and the conspirators are out on bail, Mr. Agarwal is partially paralysed from waist down. He is apprehensive about ‘victory’ now.

“The outcome of the public hearing is not important anymore as the MoEF cannot stop any coal-based project. There is huge pressure on the Ministry to clear all the projects to meet the energy needs. Finally, all three blocks with coal — Dharamjaigarh, Tamnar and Garghora — will be devoured by power companies,” said the environmentalist, who led the villagers in the public hearing in 2008. Mr. Agarwal will not be attending Wednesday’s hearing.

“And yet, burning coal is still the cheapest way to produce electricity, if you don't factor in environmental externalities. For that reason, coal is tough to beat, especially in the developing world, where the costs of not having any kind of electricity seem higher than the costs of having dirty electricity,” wrote a senior editor in The Atlantic magazine recently and perhaps that is what makes Wednesday’s duel between the tribals and the well-wishers of the JSPL both complex and interesting.

Kaniram himself, however, will go to witness the battle in Tiklirampur on Wednesday afternoon.