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Protests cast shadow over mining of India's largest coal block

West Bengal Project Pits Locals Against State As Foreign Firms See Opportunity

A woman shoveling coal in Kamduni, West Bengal, where the government hopes to mine the country's biggest block. (Photo by Sushavan Nandy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

KOLKATA- Tensions between the state government and locals are rising in West Bengal state where mining of India's largest coal block is set to begin.

Around 21,000 people will have to relocate from the Deocha-Pachami site for the project to go ahead but protesters are refusing to budge and have been organizing demonstrations over the last few weeks, with backing from political parties, human rights bodies and environmental groups.

Following a protest on Dec. 18, police booked nine local leaders for unlawful assembly. On Dec. 23, a pro-mining rally organized by the state's ruling party, the Trinamool Congress, was disrupted by protesters. Police arrested and caned those protesters, which led to clashes on Dec. 25, as irate locals brandished bows, arrows and scythes.

"We, the Indigenous people, have for centuries protected the forests and environment. We live in harmony with nature and we will resist any effort to uproot us," said Sunil Murmu, a member of the Santal community and one of the organizers of the protests.

The mining project is at Deocha-Pachami covers an area of about 12.28 sq. km north of the state capital of Kolkata. It is estimated to hold 1.2 billion tons of coal deposits and 1.4 billion cubic meters of basalt deposits.


The local population at Deucha-Pachami, West Bengal, India, depend on farming and work at stone quarries and crusher units. (Photo by Subhrajit Sen)

The state government says that the coal found here can meet the power needs of West Bengal, India's fourth most populous state, at least for 50 years. The central government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, formally allotted the block to the state government in September 2019.

"India needs coal for at least 25-30 years and also needs to cut down on its coal imports. So, any large block that comes up will be of help," said an energy researcher Swati D'Souza. The analyst said that India's pledge at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow to cut emissions to net zero by 2070 means that the country must close small mines but still develop big blocks, calling the mining of Deocha-Pachami "very timely."

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Anil Kumar Jain, India's coal secretary, said in October that the country plans to eliminate imports of thermal coal by 2024. India imported 215 million tons in 2020-21 mostly from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia.

Partha Sarathi Bhattacharya, retired chairman of Coal India, India's flagship mining company and the world's largest coal producer, sees another benefit from the Deocha-Pachami project -- the gasification of coal, for which India plans to achieve 100 million tons by 2030.

"Even if we estimate extractable coal at this site to be [just] 750 million tons, it should produce 25 [million tons per annum] over a span of 30 years," Bhattacharya told Nikkei Asia. Gasification refers to the process of chemically transforming coal into synthetic natural gas. Bhattacharya said, "Gasifying a section of its reserve would help India reduce import of items such as methanol, ammonia and urea."


But since the block's coal seams are thick and lay below dense layers of hard basaltic rocks of volcanic origin, the mining project at Deocha-Pachami will require technologies currently unavailable in India, a reason the project has drawn the interest of foreign companies.

"In 2019, delegations from Poland, Germany and Australia had separately discussed with us the scope for collaboration. Thereafter, the pandemic disrupted the talks," a senior bureaucrat at the West Bengal government told Nikkei under the condition of anonymity. "Now, Australia has expressed its interest afresh, while Germany is trying to offer environment-friendly extraction solutions," he added.

The development of the project means not only the relocation of approximately 21,000 people living in 12 villages, but also the closure and relocation of some existing stone quarries and crusher businesses. On Nov. 11, the state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a 350 billion Indian rupee ($4.68 billion) investment plan that includes compensation and rehabilitation packages worth 100 billion rupees to help those affected.

One of the stone quarries at the Deocha-Pachami site that will need to be closed. (Photo by Subhrajit Sen)

The state of West Bengal has managed to fend off such large projects before. Tata Motor gave up constructing a plant for its compact car "Nano" in 2008 and Indonesia's Salem group pulled out from its chemical hub project planned in the state in 2007. Even a coal mining project by a public sector unit, the Damodar Valley Corp., at a place about 60 km away from Deocha-Pachami failed to take off in 2017.

Banerjee herself had led anti-displacement protests in 2006-2007 including one against Tata. Since her party, the Trinamool Congress, came into power in 2011 in West Bengal, Deocha-Pachami is the first major project that would require the relocation of a large population.

She had earlier said that her government "will create a model for India to execute large projects... with full public support by adopting best mining practices in a time bound manner." She has not commented on the recent protests against the project.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in a white dress at the front and center, leading her party's supporters at a protest against the Modi government's new citizenship law in Kolkata in December 2019.   © Reuters

To avoid further confrontation, her government had planned to start excavating a tract of uninhabited forest owned by the government within the project area. But protests still took place at the site on Nov. 25 and Dec. 18. The organizers included the Deocha-Pachami Jami Raksha Committee (land protection), Deucha Pachami Adibasi Janajati Bhumi Raksha Committee (protection of land claimed by tribes), Save Democracy, and Project Affected People's Association, among others.

Local politicians have also backed protesters. "If the police are used to evict you, we'll legally break the police's hands. You keep your sticks ready for the appropriate use," said Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, while addressing protesters on Dec. 18.

On behalf of Save Democracy, Ashok Kumar Ganguly, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, has called for a public gathering in Kolkata on Jan. 8 to express solidarity with protesters.

With little to agree on, tensions between the government and protesters are unlikely to ease. The government is inviting those who face eviction to apply for jobs, but campaigners and activists are unlikely to be pacified.