How India’s Ancient Tribes Are Fighting to Save Their Forests From Coal Mining

India will auction 40 coal blocks next month for commercial mining.
September 22, 2020, 3:06pm
coal, block, India, Odisha, Talabira, auction, government
Extensive coal mining in ecologically sensitive zones in India has resulted in health hazards and has affected crop yield. Photo courtesy of Xavier Galiana/AFP

It is the monsoon harvest season, a happy time for farmers in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, who will sell their crop to make money for the upcoming autumn season. This year has been particularly good due to favorable weather conditions. But Hemant Kumar Rout, a 40-year-old local farmer at Khinda village is worried. Despite good rains, his annual production has swooped low.

In Rout’s village, relentless cutting of trees to make way for two upcoming opencast coal mines has wreaked havoc.

Rout’s village falls in the Talabira area, spread across Jharsuguda and Sambalpur districts of Odisha.

According to government data, 15,000 trees were cut in Talabira in December last year.

Rout and over 450 fellow villagers, who had been protesting by hugging trees in Khinda every day for at least 20 days, were pushed aside by the security forces and police as they brought down trees.

“The government numbers show less, but we know that at least 70,000 trees have been cut in Talabira without our consent. We have been managing the forest area for at least nine decades,” Rout told VICE News.

The Indian government is set to open 40 coal pits for commercial mining, next month. Out of these, nine are in Odisha, with a peak capacity of 5-10 million tonne, laying waste to at least 32,ooo hectares of forest land and displacing over 10,000 families.

Before the government decided to privatise the sector, people in Talabira were protesting against two upcoming coal mines. Post auction, there will be four coal blocks in Talabira.

In March last year, the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave clearance to cut 130,721 trees in Talabira. But locals believe that at least four times that will be cut since trees with less than 30 centimeters girth are not being considered as trees.

India agreed to commit to renewables during the Paris Agreement in 2015 and has since moved up its solar power capacity. At the same time, its usage of coal is also exponentially rising.

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Villagers in Talabira are concerned about the possible impact upcoming coal mines will have on the environment and their livelihood. Photo obtained by VICE News.

India, the second-largest producer of coal after China, is also the second-largest importer of coal.

The government plans to add 64 gigawatts of coal capacity in the next decade as a part of the “self-reliant” drive.

To achieve this, the government has  proposed changes to the legal framework of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).

Once the proposed EIA is implemented, people like Rout will have no say in projects built in ecologically sensitive zones.

As per the records maintained by locals, the Talabira forest area, which has been in existence since the 1930s, is among the oldest Indian forests being managed by a community. Native Sal trees have given livelihood to the indigenous people who make plates, brushes and incense.

With thousands of trees gone, locals are staring at an uncertain future. The COVID-19 crisis has reduced economic activities and most members of the tribe are barely surviving on free ration from the government.

To manage their resources and trees, locals in Talabira  had formed a committee which conserved the forest trees and also kept a count of trees.

On paper, however, the community does not own the forest land—an impediment in the battle to save their forests. Many villagers in Talabira have applied for documents which will make them legal guardians of the forest. In the meanwhile, the trees are being slowly cut down.

“Diversion of the entire forest area without recognising the rights of the people who are dependent on it, and without the consent of the gram sabha (self-governance system at the village level) is a direct violation of the Forest Rights Act”, Tushar Dash, a researcher with Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy, a nonprofit organisation working for the rights of forest dwellers, told  VICE News. “This is causing a conflict situation and leading to further atrocities on the members of ancient tribes.”

For locals in Talabira, this is a repeat of what they experienced in 2005, when the first mine in the area came up. It gave rise to health problems as villagers got exposed to coal dust and had to drink polluted water.

“We have seen a rise in lung carcinoma (cancer) and Hypereosinophilia, which is directly related to coal dust,” Dr. Prashant Malik, general surgeon at a government-run hospital in Odisha’s Sundergarh district, told VICE News. “We receive a lot of patients with typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and allergic disease.”

Jharsuguda district, once among the most densely forested areas in the country, is now one of the most polluted industrial clusters.

“Water pollution has a terrible impact on farm yield,” said Rout. “For every 100 quintals of rice that I used to produce earlier, now I get only 90 quintals.”

Central government-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation, which is building two opencast mines in Talabira, has announced that to compensate for the cutting of trees, large scale afforestation drive will be taken up.

Rout refuted this claim saying that young saplings cannot replace mature trees.

Odisha has more than 24 percent of India’s coal reserves and contributes to about 15 percent of India’s total coal production. 

“With the privatisation of coal, the days ahead will raise serious environmental and human rights  concerns, Sankar Prasad Pani, an environment lawyer with the National Green Tribunal, India’s green court, told VICE News. “When the entire world is shifting towards renewable energy, we are going for aggressive coal mining.”

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