Odisha: Dues ‘Not Settled’ for Years, Irate Villagers Shut Down Coal Mines in Sundergarh Dist

News Click | Ayaskant Das | 04 Feb 2023

The Supreme Court has set clear deadlines for the settlement of land compensation and rehabilitation issues.

New Delhi: Local communities in an adivasi-dominated district of western Odisha have forcibly shut down at least two coal mines, alleging that outstanding issues pertaining to land compensation and their rehabilitation have not been settled. As a result, operations have remained in complete limbo in Sundargarh district’s Jamkhani and Siarmal open cast projects for over a month, even as government authorities and mine owners have failed to arrive at a consensus with agitating locals.

The Jamkhani coal block belongs to billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal’s London-headquartered Vedanta Group, while Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of public sector utility Coal India Limited, owns the Siarmal block. In January this year, MCL’s Chairman-cum-Managing Director, Om Prakash Singh, had to beat a hasty retreat after local communities prevented him from conducting a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the greenfield Siarmal project. In the last week of December, Vedanta Group’s Jamkhani project had to be hastily shut down, barely a month after it had begun operations backed by police support when locals clashed with the mining contractor over outstanding issues.

In August last year, NewsClick reported how local communities had claimed to have been allegedly shortchanged of their rights during the acquisition of land for the Jamkhani coal mining project. Opposition MLAs had also rocked the Odisha Assembly alleging the state government violated rights envisaged upon adivasis in the Constitution of India.

“Issues pertaining to monetary compensation against land acquired and resettlement and rehabilitation of project-displaced families, including employment to eligible persons, have not been settled by MCL for decades altogether. The company was trying to begin operations despite a clear order from the Supreme Court of India that our rights be settled within a fixed time limit. If we allow the mining operations to commence right now, we will have to run around till eternity for settlement of our rights,” said Rajendra Naik, a local leader of communities opposed to the Siarmal project.

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then Chief Justice of India Uday Umesh Lalit had directed last year that compensation against land acquired by the MCL in four villages of Sundargarh – Tumulia, Jhupuranga, Ratansara, Kirpsara – be determined in accordance with provisions of the LARR Act, 2013. While hearing a case pertaining to land acquisition for different projects of MCL in Sundargarh district, the bench issued its judgement on November 3, 2022, directing that compensation should be determined and payments made for these four villages within six months.

Land from at least three of the aforementioned villages, viz., Jhupuranga, Tumulia and Ratansara, has been taken over by the MCL for the Siarmal coal mining project. It had been alleged by the petitioners that MCL had not settled compensation dues for more than 35 years after taking over land for coal mining in more than a dozen villages of Sundargarh which is classified as a Schedule V district, owing to the preponderance of adivasis in it, thereby conferring local communities with special rights over land.

“The oft-repeated aphorism, “Justice delayed is justice denied” cannot apply with more force than in these proceedings. The applicant writ petitioners [landowners] have waited for roughly half the number of years that this republic has existed. They predominantly belong to tribal communities, and their lands were first notified and acquired in 1988 for the purposes of coal mining. Yet, they have not been paid compensation,” the Supreme Court stated in the order.

The apex court issued the directions on the basis of reports furnished by a Claims Commission, under former Odisha High Court judge Justice AK Parichha, which it had appointed way back in the year 2010. The court has further directed in its November order that all landowners shall vacate their lands after the deposit of compensation and that MCL shall immediately be granted possession of those lands.

“In Jhupuranga, only a few families have so far accepted the compensation amounts in lieu of their land that has been acquired. Not a single family has taken the compensation in Tumulia village. A survey is still underway in Ratansara village to identify and determine compensation for project-affected families,” added Naik.

The lease area of the 50 million tons per annum (MTPA) Siarmal open-cast mining project is spread over a massive area of 2,290.45 hectares, including approximately 349.71 hectares of forest land. Nearly 1382.41 hectares of the mining lease area comprises agricultural land, while another 44.97 hectares is under village settlements.

The Rs 3,800-crore project involves the displacement of 2,427 affected families from across the villages of Siarmal, Jhupuranga, Tumulia, Ratansara, Gopalpur and Kulda in the Hemgir tehsil of Sundargarh. However, it has been alleged that other than the final settlement of compensation, issues pertaining to the resettlement and rehabilitation of project-displaced families have also not been finalised.

Local leaders from amongst the project-affected communities informed NewsClick that there had been written assurances regarding the selection of sites for the development of Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) colonies for project-displaced families of Tumulia and Jhupuranga villages. But these sites have not been finalised yet.

The project-displaced families of Gopalpur had demanded a site in Sarangijharia to develop their R&R colony. Though the site has been finalised in Sarangijharia, no construction of houses has taken place so far. Consequently, the process of resettlement of project-displaced families of Gopalpur has not begun.

However, the MCL has a different tale to share. “Compensation has been cleared in all villages except for Tumulia, where a process is underway at present to solve the outstanding issues. Locals resorted to violence and damaged government vehicles on the day the groundbreaking ceremony was to take place,” an MCL spokesperson told NewsClick.

Reportedly, a site has been finalised in Chhatenpali village to develop an R&R colony for project-displaced families of Siarmal village. Construction activities have barely commenced at the site in Chhatenpali. Disputes are pending with the MCL regarding the employment of eligible members from project-affected families of Siarmal in accordance with the R&R package designed for the village. Further, a certain number of houses have been completely blacklisted by the project proponent, thereby making them ineligible for compensation and jobs. This dispute is also yet to be resolved.

“A number of outsiders have settled in these villages over the course of time. They are also demanding compensation and resettlement in line with the original landowners. The state government has finalised compensation and R&R packages in accordance with recommendations of the Claims Committee appointed by the Supreme Court. In times to come, the force will be utilised to reopen the mining operations if agitating locals do not budge from their demands,” a senior official of Sundargarh district administration told the NewsClick.

On the other hand, local communities affected by the 2.6 MTPA Jamkhani coal mining project have also demanded higher compensation and a better rehabilitation package from the state government. Approximately 847 hectares of land – including 552.32 hectares of private land – had been taken over for the mining project using the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894 and handed over to another business conglomerate, Bhushan Power & Steel Limited (BSPL), much before the enactment of the LARR Act, 2013.

But mining activities never commenced within five years of the land takeover. Therefore, local communities demanded its return to legal landowners in accordance with provisions of the LARR Act, 2013. The coal block was later allocated to Vedanta Group nearly six years after the Supreme Court cancelled its earlier allocation to BSPL.

“Our land was taken over, but mining activities never commenced upon it for many years. We were left without farming, and neither was any job forthcoming as the project did not take off in a timely manner. The government should determine interest on outstanding compensation amounts from 2008 onwards. We have also demanded additional compensation per each hectare of land acquired. Besides, project-displaced families are not willing to shift to the site at present finalised for the R&R colony. We have demanded a separate site for the colony,” said Niranjan Bhoi of the Jamkhani Coal Block Bisthapit Sangha, a group of project-displaced families.

When contacted, Vedanta Group refused to issue any comment at present on the matter pertaining to its Jamkhani coal mining project.