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Black days in Jharkhand

Aussie coal company digs itself into a hole in India

Black days in Jharkhand
Open cast mining in Jharkhand. Locals say it is taking away their ancestral land reporter, Jharkhand

May 10, 2011

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Last December, Thiess, a subsidiary of Australian construction and mining giant Leighton, won a 20-year, A$5.5 billion (US$5.9 billion) contract to mine coal at National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Pakri Barwadhi field, in India's resource-rich Jharkhand state. The contract to mine a total of 300 million tonnes of coal was one of the biggest ever awarded by NTPC, one of India's largest state-owned power companies. Thiess has also inked a deal with NTPC for a $2.2bn coal-mining contract for what it calls a “greenfield” project in India’s Hazaribag district in Jharkhand. Learning this recent history of land acquisition, our correspondent wonders if they will not be mining a lot more than coal (part one of a two-part series - second part tomorrow). Minister of Coal Sriprakash Jaiswal did not expect the reception, nor did the protesters expect the reaction. On a January 22 visit to the Piparwar-Ashoka mine complex, local people staged a “bandi” – a forced closure of the mine by flocking into it in large numbers. The reaction came from the paramilitary Central Security Force stationed nearby, ostensibly there to guard against militant communist groups. It left five of the protesters needing hospital attention. The incident was indicative of the protests and reactions surrounding coal mining activities in the Karanpura valley, the location of Thiess’ Pakri Barwadih coal mining project. At the yet to be constructed site at Pakri Barwadih village, the first thing to catch the eye is a cluster of megaliths, large stone slabs standing erect or lying flat on the ground. According to locals, there is significance in the compass direction and the point where the sun rises at the solstice. After this site became popular about 15 years ago, several thousand people gather at each solstice -- winter and summer -- to witness the wonder of this prehistoric observatory. In concept and age, if not in fame, it is a relative of Stonehenge. It is also plum in the middle of the Thiess coal mine area. Such archaeological interests, however, are for the urban middle-class; the interests of local peasants are their farming land. This Pakri-Barwadih “greenfield” project is to take the land of 17 villages, and it is the acquisition of this land that has been the main concern of NTPC, India’s public sector thermal-power corporation, which won the contract for this mine from Delhi’s coal ministry. For more than five years, NTPC has been working overtime to convince landowners to surrender their property and walk away with a cash payment such as they would hardly see in a lifetime. “NTPC initially offered us Rs300,000 [US$6,700]” says Sonar Mahato. “From the beginning we resisted. The money will run out in a few years, and then what do we do? We are not town people who can just go and settle in another suburb, they have not been able to show us any resettlement plan. And we have no other jobs or skills, so what will we live off? "They have no income replacement schemes, and there is no social security. They have raised the compensation to Rs1 million, which we can live on for a number of years, but it is our children, where will they live, how will they earn when our land is gone?” The project has been the target of violent opposition. In 2006 there were meetings and letters to authorities protesting the massive takeover of farmland, both by NTPC and the Abhijit Jaiswal Company (Thiess’ partners in distant Latehar). On November 7 that year, when the NTPC planned to open a local office for the Pakri Barwadih project, thousands of farmers demonstrated and blocked roads with their tractors. They eventually broke into the new office and destroyed it. Arrests were made and criminal charges were laid against 550 people. The same month, a mandatory environmental public hearing was scheduled in the town of Hazaribag. The morning of the hearing, in what has become a common tactic to put off the public, a State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) press notice said it had been suddenly canceled. Thousands who had turned up reacted angrily and marched through the town, demanding the release of those jailed during the November 7 protest. This was followed in December 2006 by a massive road block and shop closures in Barkagaon in a protest organized by Karanpura Bacaho Sangharsh Samiti -- the people’s resistance organization. This was in support of the 550 people facing charges, and the imprisonment of six others following the November 7 protest. It came after a petition submitted on November 24 to authorities had been ignored. After eight hours an agreement was reached between authorities and the protesters. On 6th January 2007 protest and counter-protest turned into something like a comic opera. A public hearing was again scheduled in Hazaribag. The day before, the NTPC brought about 100 village people to the town, and that evening, they gathered at the venue. Their purpose is not clear, it seems they were going to make a video showing people agreeing to their project, and send it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, as evidence of the public’s agreement, no matter the result of the public hearing the next day. About 500 Samiti people also arrived in town that evening, fearing police would stop buses from running on the day of the hearing (a common tactic is to pull in buses to inspect papers and test roadworthiness, a test which very few country buses would pass). At about 11 pm somebody contacted the Samiti people telling them there was a midnight hearing about to take place, so they all ran to the venue, and caught the video drama in progress. Most of the villagers at the venue then fled into the dark, the NTPC general manager R. B. Phatak locked himself in a room while two other NTPC officials were surrounded by the Samiti. An hour later the Thana police arrived to rescue them and the Samiti all dispersed after an agreement that the NTPC group would not be allowed to return. The next day, about 5,000 villagers assembled at the venue. By 1 pm, neither the NTPC nor SPCB people turned up for the hearing, so the villagers blocked the main town crossroads on the Patna Ranchi highway for over an hour, causing traffic chaos. By mid-afternoon they dispersed with police subsequently laying charges against about 400 people. Being mandatory, another hearing was arranged for April 16, 2007. By this time authorities had agreed the hearing should be held closer to the mine itself in Barkagaon. Large numbers turned up for the hearing (newspaper reports estimated 10,000), and were met with a large police presence. During the hearing the villagers literally took over the venue, and didn’t allow officials to speak, instead they made protest speeches. They got officials to sign a declaration that the project would not take place and insisted that pending criminal cases against several protesters be withdrawn. The NTPC and SPCB officials sat for 4 hours were not able to get a word in. However, police did nothing as there was no violence. “These public hearings are a farce,” said Jhumna Rana, a protester. “The main officer from Ranchi is known for his corruption, while the companies fill the hall with their own dalals [agents].  They take videos of people showing their hands and send them to Delhi as evidence of approval. All our speeches of objection and our protests are ignored. They have no intention of listening to public opinion.” (part one of a two-part series - second part tomorrow)
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