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Church joins to oppose coal mine auction in Jharkhand

Allotting land for mining will destroy vast areas of forest and disrupt the livelihood of tribal communities

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Church joins to oppose coal mine auction in Jharkhand

Tribals protest against the Jharkhand state government’s proposed land bill in 2016. (Photo supplied)

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Church leaders and activists have joined political leaders in opposing the federal government's decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, which they say will disturb biodiversity and cause displacement.

Hearing the case on July 15, the Supreme Court asked the federal government's opinion on Jharkhand state government challenging the federal decision to go ahead with the auction of coal blocks.

"Tribals in the state dependent on farming and forestry, so allotting land for mining will destroy vast areas of the forest as well as the farmland resulting displacement and migration," said Father Vincent Ekka. He heads the department of tribal studies at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.

"I even doubt the central government's claim of job opportunities for locals. Mining goes on in several states for decades without concern about its impact. If it provides job for locals, why there is a mass migration from these states," Father Ekka said.

"There are other ways for the government to generate income and stabilize the nation's economic condition without disturbing the livelihood of tribal people, who are the protectors of the environment," the Jesuit priest added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining in the state via video conference on June 18.

In a significant policy change, the Modi government ended the government monopoly over mining and allowed private participation.

Modi said reforming the coal mining sector would also create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and it is a win-win situation for all.

The coal mine auction is an attempt to boost the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The commercial coal auction is open for domestic as well as global firms under 100 percent foreign direct investment.

The coal blocks are situated in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha where most of the tribals live. Nine of the 41 coal blocks are in Jharkhand.

Jharkhand with close to 84 billion tonnes of coal, possesses 26% of the country's coal deposits, toping all other states.

However, state chief minister Hemant Soren said the federal government's decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining shows "blatant disregard for cooperative federalism." He alleged that the Centre did not consult state government about it.

The Jharkhand government filed a petition in the Supreme Court on June 20. It asked to assess social and environmental impact of mining "on the huge tribal population and vast tracts of forestland."

"It will lead to large-scale displacement and consequential rehabilitation and settlement issues. The state is the owner of the mines and minerals situated within the territory of the plaintiff [Jharkhand]," the petition said.

It claimed that the coronavirus situation was unlikely to lead to reasonable returns proportionate to the value of the scarce natural resources. Jharkhand state alleged that the decision to auction violates environmental norms and can "cause irreparable damage" to the forests and land.

Like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh's government opposes the auction of five coal blocks in Arand Forest division, saying it will lead to the diversion of forest from Lemru Elephant Reserve.

Sunil Minj, an activist based in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, concurred with Father Ekka and chief minister Soren.

"Those areas where mining is taking place and which the government wants to auction are habitats of several tribal groups whose source of livelihood is farmland and forestland and if that is disturbed they will be affected," Minj said.

"Forestland and farmland is everything for them, and if that is taken away they will be left with nothing. It is like if you take out the taste from the salt, it will become useless. Tribals and forests are interconnected — if you disturb one, the other will be disturbed automatically," the tribal leader said.

"Tribals should be taken into confidence before going ahead with the commercial mining in the states," he added.

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