The Gare Pelma IV/ 2 & 3 coal block is a part of the Mand Raigarh coalfield in Ghargoda tehsil of Raigarh district, Chhattisgarh. The block covers 6 villages and is spread over 965 hectares with a geological reserve of 247 million tonnes of coal.
The Beginning of the Conflict
This block was first allocated in 1998 to Jindal Steel and Power Limited, to produce six million tonnes of coal per annum and have been a source of conflict ever since. According to the book This is Our Homeland: A Collection of Essays on the Betrayal of Adivasi, a brief on 6th March 2006 issued by the collector’s office to the District Planning Committee, Raigarh stated that angry protests were registered by the villagers of Tamnar, Salihabhata, Godhi, Northern Regaon, Southern Regaon, Kunjemura, Pata and so on of the Gharghoda tehsil over a public announcement on acquisition of 29.595 ha of land in these villages for the Jindal Steel and Power Limited.
"Down to Earth" reported that on 5 January 2008, a public hearing was conducted amidst strong protests as affected communities had no prior knowledge of it. However, the district authorities brought in outsiders and engineered the proceedings. Protesting locals were lathi-charged, where 7 people were grievously injured and some 200 partially injured. False cases were also booked against protesting leaders. Since then villagers had resorted to road blockades and sit-in protests, demanding that the hearing be quashed .
The land marked for acquisition includes the main pathway to the village, religious site, a pond and also nistar land such as cremation ground, the villagers have refuted the claim that the Jindal Steel and Power Company has acquired a no objection letter from the gram sabha and complained that the letter was issued by the gram panchayat and the word ‘panchayat’ was fudged with white ink and changed to ‘sabha’.
The Environmental Impact Assessment report was also a faulty one. Not only did it not take into account the cumulative impact of the various industries in the area, it also falsified data saying that there were no animals in the core zone . Yet, despite these errors, the Environmental Clearance (EC) was granted in May 2009. This led to a petition being filed by Adivasi Majdoor Kisan Ekta Sangthan (through Harihar Patel) and Jan Chetna (through Ramesh Agarwal) with the help of advocates Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary . In April 2012, the National Green Tribunal set aside this EC. This was a landmark judgement delivered by Justice C V Ramulu and Prof. R Nagendran. The judgement said- “In the case on hand, after viewing the CD of the public hearing conducted on 5.1.2008, we are surprised to note to our dismay that the same was a “farce.” It is a mockery of the public hearing and the procedure required to be followed thereof. All the norms required in conducting a smooth and fair procedure were given a go-by.This is not a case where there are a few ignorable procedural lapses in conducting the public hearing. This is a case of a mockery of public hearing, which is one of the essential parts of the decision-making process, in the grant of EC. This is a classic example of violation of the rules and the principles of natural justice to its brim. Therefore, we consider it appropriate to declare that the public hearing conducted in this case is nullity in the eye of law and, therefore, is invalid."
After the Coalgate scam
In 2014, this coal block, along with 213 others were deallocated by a Supreme Court order. According to an article by Aruna Chandrashekhar for The Wire, this judgement was seen as a reason of celebration and conviction of all the protests the locals had been conducting.“We felt that finally all the lathi charges we endured, the false cases filed against us were not in vain,” said Shivpal Bhagat, the Adivasi sarpanch of Kosampali, who is still fighting cases filed against him by Jindal, the SECL and the government when he began challenging land grab in the region.
However, in 2015 the block was again up for reauctioning and Jindal won the bid at Rs. 108 per tonne of coal, which was the lowest for the entire power sector . Since then, there has been a back and forth between Coal India, SECL and Jindal, leaving the villagers confused as to who pays the damages, and what the future holds, since none of the entities take up responsibility for employment or compensation or even liabilities for polluting the land and water sources. The local communities have done their own assessment and published a report titled Poisoned, in August 2017, which showed high levels of contamination in the air, water and soil. The adivasis have been protesting with hunger strike and on 6 September 2017, the SECL promised at least 100 contract jobs and increase in the dearness allowance. However, the fight is far from over, and uncertainty prevails. But the local defenders are ready to continue the fight till the promises are upheld .