The bold headlines and animated TV debates are the closest people in the metros may have got to the Coalgate scam. But for many of those living in Chhattisgarh’s coal belt, it’s been a recurring curse—whether it’s locals struggling to stave off illegal, forced acquisition of their land by the mining firms, farmers struggling to sue companies that dump waste on their standing crops or those clamouring for permanent jobs at the mines as compensation. Unsurprisingly, the current prying gaze on the coal mining firms and their wrongdoings has given a ray of hope to locals in and around Raigarh’s coalfields that justice might come their way at last.
“We have actually seen the Coalgate scam and lived it,” says Harihar Patel, an ayurvedic physician who lives in Gare in Raigarh’s Tamnar block. “For long, they tried to hide it but now it is all out in the open.” His village is part of the Gare IV/6 coal block that finds mention in the recent CAG report. It’s been allotted to Jindal Steel & Power Ltd along with Nalwa Sponge Iron Ltd (also owned by the Jindals). Patel says the public hearing held on January 5, 2008, was organised without informing the locals and ended in a clash between villagers and those brought in by the firms to express manufactured consent. He went to the National Green Tribunal, which dismissed the clearance obtained on the basis of the hearings earlier this year and ordered another one to be held. JSPL appealed but their plea was dismissed—a small victory for a local in the still unfolding series of coal scams.
Not far away from Gare, in Sarasmal, where JSPL mines coal in the Gare IV/1 block, farmer Kanhai Patel can make little sense of the intricacies of the Coalgate scam but he is delighted to hear of the CBI raids on the mining firms. “We keep hearing they will come here too. It will be great if we can meet and tell them of all the scams here,” says Patel, whose fields unfortunately happen to abut Jindal’s open-cast mine. He’s in an ongoing legal battle with JSPL after it started discharging effluents into his field.
One of the more blatant violations by mining firms in this region, most of which is covered under the Panchayat Extension to the Schedule Areas (PESA) Act, is the faking of mandatory clearances from gram sabhas and panchayats for acquiring land. Shivpal Bhagat, another resident of Sarasmal, produces two documents that he acquired through RTI. One shows a ‘clearance’ from the local gram panchayat for JSPL granted on October 24, 2008, and the other a letter from the same panchayat that declares no meeting took place on the specified date. “I am a member of the panchayat but even I have no information of this meeting,” adds Patel. If consent cannot be faked, many are simply forced off the land, claim locals. “They dump rubble on our standing crops and bring in security personnel to threaten us,” says Indrajit Kolta, a local from Tapranga, a village adjacent to JSPL’s mine.
And left without land, locals have also found it difficult to find jobs with the mining firms. “For 15 years, I have been asking for a job. I finally got one in July, to grease machines for Rs 4,000 a month,” says a Tapranga resident. Even the employed villagers are taken in only on a contractual basis; if they ask to be made permanent, they are thrown out arbitrarily. Sanjeev Chauhan, associate V-P with JSPL, counters these allegations saying that all employed staff enjoy benefits of a ‘permanent’ employee like PF. He adds, “JSPL’s operations have helped many from the region prosper. The opposition is just among a few with a different mindset...they are the ones spreading rumours and discontent.”
Be that as it may, but there’s another facet of Coalgate which opens up here. While many in Delhi debate the “notional loss”, the real scam, and a tangible one, is being perpetuated everyday by understating the amount of coal mined and its quality to reduce royalty payments to the government. Raipur-based environmentalist and RTI activist Ramesh Agrawal, who helped expose the modus operandi of many firms here (including JSPL), says, “Chhattisgarh’s mining department responded to one of my RTI requests saying it had no independent means to ascertain how much coal is mined and how much of it is actually used. It’s a deliberate attempt to muddle figures on the exact royalty.”
Agrawal was hurt in an attack this July when two men with guns entered his cybercafe asking him to back off on JSPL. A scuffle followed and Agrawal was shot in the thigh. The police here claim that a guard with a security agency hired by JSPL was part of the plot to attack him. JSPL’s Chauhan, while refusing further comment, says he has “no idea” who may have been behind the incident.
The Coalgate reports are also being closely followed by the residents of Dharamjaigarh in Raigarh district, including a community of over a thousand families who had fled East Pakistan and come to India in the 1950s as refugees. Persecuted and displaced once across borders, they now face the threat of being displaced yet again because of “development”. “All these investigations should have begun a long time back,” says resident Haripada Ray. The land allotted to them is now part of two coal blocks, one allocated to balco of the Vedanta Group and the other to DB Power Ltd (also named in the CAG list). “It’s been very difficult, this task of rebuilding our lives. Just the thought of having to move again now takes the life out of me,” says retired postmaster M.C. Biswas.
Some temporary relief had come their way in April with the coal ministry threatening in a letter (a copy of which is with Outlook) to take back the block from DB Power Ltd for repeatedly failing to meet scheduled deadlines in exploiting the block. (It isn’t uncommon to find small firms here with allocated coal blocks who have failed to find the necessary funds to exploit them, which proves how some firms were just in it to grab natural resources and pass it on for a lucrative premium.)
While many citizens in these parts have registered their strong protests at public hearings related to both the blocks, they are now trying to have the area—which has a significant jumbo population—declared as an elephant corridor to prevent mining here. The Coalgate scam may have engendered scepticism and gloom in urban India, but in this part of the world it’s come as a second wind for locals. There now seems to be a renewed vigour to take on the mining firms and put them on the mat. From their point of view, this looks like the moment when the coal kings have finally shown some weakness.