In Odisha, funds meant for mining-affected communities are being diverted to urban areas

Scroll | Manish Kumar | May 09, 2021
Those living in mining areas have been seeking assistance for basic amenities for decades.

During the latest budget Session of Odisha’s Legislative Assembly, the Odisha government’s Cabinet in March approved several proposals but the one that raised eyebrows was to use the District Mineral Foundation funds, meant for the mining-affected community in the Sundergarh district, for construction of an international stadium in Rourkela town.

The proposed international stadium has been envisioned to host the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023. This misuse of the funds is not a one-off incident, but there have been many similar trends over the years. In 2017, in the Jharsuguda district, the district administration sanctioned works related to the power supply to the Jharsuguda airport with an investment of more than Rs 20 crore squeezed from the District Mineral Foundation funds.

In another mining district of Keonjhar, the district administration in 2019-’20 sanctioned works for a handball stadium, and invested around Rs 5,00,000 for a patient facilitation centre for Cuttack-based medical college which is around 200-km away from Keonjhar.

In January 2020, the administration of the Sundergarh district bought 25 cars with the District Mineral Foundation funds for them to be used as patrolling vans by the police in Rourkela city, a non-mining affected area. Earlier, even integrated traffic management was sponsored with the funds. In the same district, the funds were also used to construct the boundary walls of the Circuit House.

The list of instances where the funds were used for works that had nothing to do with the welfare of the mining-affected communities goes on. This, experts warn, is worrisome because this comes at a time when the state’s own people living in the mining-affected areas are crying for attention and seeking help for basic amenities in their areas after living in poor and vulnerable conditions for decades.

This is important because according to the Union Coal and Mines Minister Pralhad Joshi, Odisha has seen the highest collection of Rs 11,984 crore as District Mineral Foundation collections from the miners operating in the state since the inception of funds in 2015.

The Odisha government recently told the state Assembly that the District Mineral Foundation collections in the state are rising in the state. While it was Rs. 395.44 crore in 2015-2019, in 2019-’20 the total annual collections stood at Rs 3,079.20 crore.

Though Odisha has a significant amount of the funds what is probably lacking is the provision of transparency related to their use. For instance, Rule 16 of the Odisha DMF Rules talks about sharing the annual report of the District Mineral Foundation trust on its website but hardly any annual reports have been uploaded online for several years.

Odisha’s DMF Rules mandates the usage of 60% of the funds in priority areas while 40% of them could be used in non-priority areas. The non-priority areas included investments in physical infrastructure, irrigation, energy and watershed development, afforestation and others.

Queries sent to PK Jena, who is the Odisha government’s secretary for the planning and convergence department, regarding the diversion of DMF funds for other purposes remained unanswered.

Pranav Sachdeva, a lawyer with the Supreme Court who has handled many mining cases in the apex court emphasised that Odisha and many states have attempted to dilute the very concept of the funds by diverting it to areas other than the mining-affected areas.

“As mining firms grow, the local community impacted by mining does not get any benefit from the money collected … in fact the local environment is impacted too,” he said. “But the governments often diverts these important resources away from the vulnerable community. They try to use the funds for works where ideally budgetary allocations should have been used. These funds were planned for the upliftment of the affected community for their health, education, livelihood and others and many portions land in urban areas.”

Pollution mess
According to the 2011 Census, about 1.62 million people (50 percent) in the Sundergarh district belong to Scheduled Tribes and many live in rural areas. This area is adjacent to the Chhattisgarh border and known for coal mining and other minerals for decades. But what is consistently ignored is the plight of the communities impacted by mining.

For instance, Naresh Meher, a resident of Ratanpur village in Gopalpur panchayat in Sundergarh district, said that people in his village are living in pathetic conditions due to mining taking place about 10-km away. He said that the levels of air pollution, water pollution and sound pollution have taken a huge toll on his village.

“Around 3,000 trucks cross our village every day,” said Meher, who himself is a tuberculosis patient. “Thick levels of dust often engulf our standing crops while polluted water is discharged from the handpumps. Several of the citizens here live with skin diseases, cancer and other diseases triggered by mining activities.”

But this is not the end of their poor fate as his village is now listed to be taken away for mining.

Social activist Suru Mishra from Sundergarh said that in the Hemgiri block in the district, a stretch of 25 km of road connects the mining centres of Sundergarh with Chhattisgarh and passes through several villages but even then the roads are in extremely bad shape.

“You cannot walk on that road,” Mishra told Mongabay-India. “Only trucks and heavy vehicles run on that road. There are very big potholes and the whole stretch gets waterlogged making it very difficult for the local communities to commute or for kids to use that to go to schools.”

Both, Meher and Mishra, said that these areas and many other mining-affected areas need government attention to improve their standards of lives. They also said that the Hemgiri Community Health Centre is still deprived of a digital X-ray facility and ultrasound facility and other medical facilities but the government has spent several portions of the DMF funds in boosting the District Headquarter Hospital, which is in an urban area.

The provision of District Mineral Foundation funds – to be collected from miners – were introduced in January 2015 by the government of India through an amendment in the country’s mining laws for all districts affected by mining-related operations.

In the Talcher region of the Angul district, the villagers living in areas close to the coal mining and coal washery units are left to suffer from the discharge of untreated water directly into the farmlands of the village. Similarly, in the Bansapal and Joda blocks of the Keonjhar district, the villagers are facing the crisis of polluted groundwater, a result of mining activities. This has also forced many women to walk for miles every day to fetch drinking water.

Funds diverted
Experts working on the issue of mining in Odisha and other states claim that the funds are now easily diverted for other priority areas and urban areas despite it being illegal and mining-affected communities crying for help.

Sankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer with the National Green Tribunal said, “In districts like Keonjhar, the salaries of doctors are now being paid through the funds which should ideally be coming from the state’s budgetary allocations.”

“Collectors find the funds sometimes hard to dispense and thus divert it for numerous urban-centric works,” he said. “But they are not annual budget funds, they can be accumulated and do not lapse. They can be used when needed. The need is to make priority-based plans to aid the mining-affected people.”

Ramesh Agarwal, a leading Indian environmentalist based in Raigarh in Chhattisgarh said, “The rules of funds have been framed in such a way that the district collector gets the power to sanction the funds with the approval of the local District Mineral Foundation committee. In many states, we have seen diversion of the funds to other areas which is not going to affect the mining hit communities.”

A study conducted by the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment on the usage of the District Mineral Foundation funds in different mining districts of Odisha found that despite lower social and health indicators the allocation of the funds on the issue of livelihood and other areas had not been much, say for example in Sundergarh district.

“In Sundergarh, one of Odisha’s top mining districts, a negligible Rs 3 crore has been provided for child development out of the district’s Rs 745 crore sanctions. This is at a time when the under-five mortality rate in rural areas of the district is as high as 67, and nearly 50% of the children below this age are victims of stunted growth,” the report said.

Srestha Banerjee, Programme Head, International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, who played a key role in producing the Centre for Science and Environment report, said the constitution of the District Mineral Foundation committee in the districts is one of the main problems.

“The District Mineral Foundation Committee in the districts have been formed in such a way that the local politicians including the parliamentarians and legislators exert more power in the decision making on the spending of the funds in their areas,” Banerjee told Mongabay-India. “The mining laws permit the administration to use part of the funds for administration works, but when the mining hit communities need attention for their upliftment and diversion of these funds to urban areas and for other similar works sounds less logical.”

She said that livelihood and income generation of the rural poor population living in the mining-affected areas need to get a priority under the District Mineral Foundation fund allocations. She also demanded that the funds should be spent based on priority areas rather than in a haphazard manner as it is happening presently in many mining districts of Odisha.

Bombay HC stays post-facto CRZ clearance for projects

Hindustan Times | Prayag Arora-Desai | May 08, 2021
The Bombay high court (HC) on Friday stayed a recent office memorandum issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), allowing the ex-post facto approval of projects that have not yet obtained coastal regulatory zone (CRZ) clearance under the CRZ Notification, 2011

The Bombay high court (HC) on Friday stayed a recent office memorandum issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), allowing the ex-post facto approval of projects that have not yet obtained coastal regulatory zone (CRZ) clearance under the CRZ Notification, 2011.

The stay was in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a Mumbai-based environmental group, challenging the constitutional validity of MoEFCC’s direction. The matter has been listed for final hearing on June 30, before a two-judge bench comprising chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice GS Kulkarni.

The impugned office memorandum, dated February 19, and authored by joint secretary of MoEFCC’s CRZ division Sujit Kumar Bajpayee, was also stayed by the Madurai bench of the Madras HC on April 29, in response to a different petition.

MoEFCC’s office memo would have allowed projects – typically permitted as per CRZ, 2011, but did not seek requisite clearances prior to commencement –to become regularised subject to fulfilment of certain conditions.

“Bringing such projects and activities in compliance with the environmental laws at the earliest point of time is therefore essential, rather than leaving them unregulated and unchecked, which will be more damaging to the environment,” Bajpayee had written to the environment secretaries of all coastal states.

“As the project commenced construction and/or operations without a prior CRZ clearance, the respective coastal zone management authority shall assess the environmental damages caused by such an action and shall give specific recommendation in respect of activities, corresponding to the environmental or ecological damage assessed, to be taken up by the project proponent within a period of three years from the date of clearance, under compensatory conservation plan (CCP) and a community resource augmentation plan,” stated MoEFCC’s February 19 office memorandum, which has been reviewed by HT.

“This circular empowers coastal authorities/MoEFCC to regularise all kinds of CRZ violations on a day-to-day basis, making it easier for environmental violators to evade substantive law. It further encourages a “pollute and pay” principle rather than the ‘precautionary principle’. A public interest litigation is filed by Vanashakti on the ground that this circular is arbitrary, wholly unconstitutional and in direct contravention of recent Supreme Court judgments,” said Mumbai-based NGO Vanashakti, at the time of filing their PIL before HC on March 30.

Experts also pointed out while the amended CRZ (2019) notification has come into force, contingent coastal zone management plans (CZMP) as per the same have not yet been finalised. Until such a time, CRZ 2011 rules should remain in force, Vanashakti’s petition clarified, adding that neither notification allows for grant of ‘ex-post facto CRZ clearance’ which the MoEFCC’s office memorandum proposes to facilitate.

HC has also stated that if any permission has been granted or any application has been received for any such CRZ regularisation by a violator since February 2019, then such persons and industries are to be informed of the proceedings stemming from Vanashakti’s PIL.

“All such permissions and applications will be subjected to the outcome of the present PIL,” said Vanashakti’s advocate, Zaman Ali. A copy of the HC order is not yet available. The Madras HC, meanwhile, is set to take up the matter on August 25, in response to a PIL filed by R Fatima of Thoothukudi.

Vizag gas leak: A year on, villagers near the plant continue to live in fear

Hindustan Times | Srinivasa Rao Apparasu | May 08, 2021

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

A year on since Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh woke up to one of its worst environmental disasters – leakage of poisonous gas from a storage tank of LG Polymers Ltd, a South Korean company on the outskirts of the city, killed 12 people while nearly 500 were hospitalised – villagers settled near the plant continue to live in a state of fear.

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

On May 7 last year, poisonous Styrene gas leaked from one of the tanks at LG Polymers Ltd due to sudden rise in temperature at the bottom of the tank at around 3.30 am. The gas slowly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting five villages — Venkatapuram, Venkatadri Nagar, Nandamuri Nagar, Pydimamba Colony and BC & SC Colony.

Srinu Yadav, a transport worker from Venkatapuram, said the incident had created havoc in the lives of several villagers, particularly the poor and the middle class. “Many in these villages, particularly Venkatapuram, where the LG Polymers plant is located, continue to face health issues, like breathing problems, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders,” Yadav said.
The villagers recall how thanks to the timely alert from locals, the authorities of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation and the district administration swung into action and shifted people from the affected areas with the help of police to safer areas.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government paid ex gratia of ₹1 crore each to the families of the 12 who died in the incident, besides ₹10 lakh for persons who were kept on ventilator for a long time, ₹1 lakh each to 485 people who were hospitalised with serious complications and ₹25,000 each to 99 people who were treated as outpatients. Another 19,893 people were paid ₹25,000 each towards compensation.
“In the next one week, three others from the affected villages died but the authorities attributed their deaths to some other reasons. In the last one year, at least 15 people, including my father-in-law, died due to symptoms that surfaced after the Styrene gas leak. But no forensic studies were done to prove they were related to the gas leak tragedy,” Yadav said.

An eight-member expert committee headed by state special chief secretary (environment and forests) Neerabh Kumar Prasad, which was constituted to probe into the mishap, came up with a series of suggestions, including periodical testing of health conditions of villagers in the area so as to monitor the short-term and long-term impact of the Styrene gas on their health.
“Subsequently, a committee of health experts was appointed to regularly monitor the health of people in the affected villages, but it did not commence its work because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” K Kumara Mangalam, a local trade union leader, said.

He added that the government has washed off its hands by setting up a primary health centre in a local school, but it hardly helped. “Except for an occasional visit by a junior doctor and para-medical staff, nothing much has happened. It doesn’t have any facilities, though the authorities promised to set up a hospital in the area,” Mangalam said.

A study conducted in March this year by local environmentalists under Alluri Sitarama Raju Vignana Kendram on environment, health and safety of people in the villages surrounding LG Polymers, observed that the GVMC authorities were neither monitoring water bodies periodically nor getting an expert study on the water quality.
“Most of the households are depending on the canned water for drinking purposes and spending between ₹300- 600 per month,” said K Eswar, another resident.

An official of the GVMC, however, denied contamination of the drinking water in villages. “Scientists belonging to CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute studied the water samples in and around the area and found that styrene is insoluble in water and would drain away in case of water flow. We are supplying Godavari water to local residents through pipeline,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The LG Polymers has shut its operations since the tragedy and the Korean management, with special permission from the Ministry of Shipping, shifted 13,000 tonnes of unused Styrene in two ships back to Seoul. On April 6 this year, the company got permission from the high court to move and sell leftover raw material, finished product and packaging material from the plant as it could pose danger to the public health if left unattended.
The court directed that sale process be done in the supervision of a three-member committee appointed by the state government and the company deposit the sales proceeds in an account in the name of Vizag district collector.

The villagers in the area are apprehensive that the LG Polymers might restart their operations once the cases pending in the high court and the National Green Tribunal were settled. “Unless the plant is completely shifted from the area, the fear of recurrence of such incidents will continue to haunt us,” said S Pydi Raju, a resident of Venkatapuram.

When contacted, state industries minister Mekapati Gautam Reddy said the government has not focused on LG Polymers as of now as it was busy tackling the Covid-19 situation. “We shall take appropriate decision after discussing with the industries department authorities later,” he said.

Polavaram backwaters has no impact on Telangana, AP govt. reiterates at PPA meeting

Hans News Service | May 07, 2021

The Andhra Pradesh state government has once again made it clear to the Polavaram Project Authority (PPA) that the land in Telangana will not be flooded at all due to the backwater impact of the Polavaram project

The Andhra Pradesh state government has once again made it clear to the Polavaram Project Authority (PPA) that the land in Telangana will not be flooded at all due to the backwater impact of the Polavaram project. It said that a joint survey has been conducted with Telangana Water Resources Department officials on the impact of the project backwater on the Kinnerasani and Murredu tributaries and details will be sent to the Central Water Commission (CWC) within 12 months. The government said that according to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Declaration-2006, Gram Sabhas should be held within 45 days of the issuance of the notification, stating that the Governments of Odisha and Chhattisgarh have not yet held Gram Sabhas in flood prone areas.

A letter was written to Union Forest and Environment Secretary Rameshwar Prasad Gupta on May 15 asking him to hold gram sabhas in those states with the regulatory authority as per EIA-2006 regulations. The government clarified that the construction work of the project is being carried out in accordance with the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Polavaram Project Authority Chairman Chandrasekhar Iyer on Thursday held a wide-ranging meeting with AP, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Odisha Water Resources Department officials, CWC and Union Forest Environment Department officials on a virtual basis on issues raised by the NGT in the wake of a petition filed alleging flooding of Telangana territory due to construction of Polavaram project. AP Water Resources Secretary J Shyamala Rao, ENC C Narayanareddy, CE Sudhakarbabu, Telangana ENC Muralidhar, CWC Hydrology Department CE C Lal and Central Forest Environment Department officials were present while officials from Odisha and Chhattisgarh were absent.

Telangana ENC Muralidhar said at the meeting that the Polavaram project is being constructed with an estimated flood flow of 50 lakh cusecs, which will cause landslides in Telangana. In this backdrop, AP ENC Narayana Reddy denied that it was an apocalypse and clarified that a maximum flood of 36 lakh cusecs was recorded on August 16, 1986 in the history of Godavari river and the project was being constructed so that it could be easily released downstream even if 50 lakh cusecs was received for project safety as per CWC directives. He reminded that the CWC had conducted a backwater survey with the expectation of a flood of 36 lakh cusecs at Polavaram and was found that not a single acre in Telangana was submerged.

AP ENC further said they had conducted a survey with Telangana authorities on the impact of backwaters on the Murredu and Kinnerasani tributaries and that the details would be sent to the CWC within 12 months. The governments of Odisha and Chhattisgarh have said that the Polavaram backwaters will cause flooding in their states. AP Water Resources Secretary Shyamala Rao said that they are ready to build defensive walls to avoid that problem. Central Forest and Environment Ministry officials said they would take appropriate decision on the letter written by the AP officials to hold gram sabhas in the flood-affected areas. PPA Chairman Chandrasekhar Iyer said the project was targeted to be completed by April 2022 and rehabilitate the displaced.

Odisha Mining Industries Seek Public Hearing Through Online Mode

Republic Bharat | May 07, 2021

Bhubaneswar, May 6 (PTI) The mining sector in Odisha has urged the Centre to allow public hearings through online mode instead of cancelling the procedure due to the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federation of Indian Mineral Industries in a memorandum to the secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Changes, said that cancellation of public hearing will adversely affect mining production in the country.

The federation wrote a letter after the Odisha State Pollution Control Board cancelled public hearing of certain mining projects due to the surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. The public hearings were cancelled to avoid gathering of people at the proposed events.

“Such cancellation of public hearing will cause inordinate delays in grant of Environment Clearance (EC) process,” the federation said, adding that this will further impede mining activities besides adversely impacting the socio-economic development as well as employment opportunities in mining regions, along with revenues of the exchequer.

Therefore, the federation suggested expediting the public hearing for mining projects by conducting them through online platform/ digital more rather than cancelling them.

Such online public hearing will greatly help in saving time and resources for the public as well as all other stakeholders while being able to strictly follow the governments guidelines for COVID-19 and being safe, it said.

The federation urged the Centre to advise the Odisha State Pollution Control Board to conduct public hearing instead of cancelling them for indefinite period.

Eastern Zone Mining Association also urged the OSPCB to facilitate EC proposals for the state based projects. PTI AAM RG RG

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