- With India’s largest coal mining project slated to come up in West Bengal, approximately 21,000 people will need to be relocated and rehabilitated.
- The government aims to make the Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block a model project with sensitive land acquisition and appropriate compensation.
- The local people, however, are anxious and uncertain of the transition as their jobs, homes and way of life is at stake.
Shubho Ghosh was laying bricks at a construction site, humming to himself. But the very mention of “the coal project” triggered palpable anxiety in the 26-year-old. As he later revealed, his family is worried, very worried. A resident of Makdamnagar in Birbhum district of West Bengal, that sits on a corner of what is said to be India’s largest coal mine project, Ghosh fears a double blow is waiting to hit the family in the coming months, when the work for the coal mine picks up pace. Makdamnagar, where they live in Ghosh Para locality, falls within the area of the Deocha-Pachami coal block. Saldanga, about 10 kilometres from their home – where Shubho’s father, Debashis, operates a drill machine at a stone quarry and his elder brother, Subal, operates a ‘pokland’ (excavator) machine at another quarry – also falls within the proposed coal mine.
“Our family is on the verge of losing both, our jobs and our home. My father has developed anxiety,” Shubho told Mongabay-India. He operates an excavator machine in a stone quarry in winter and summer and works as a mason in the monsoon season when quarries function with limited capacities due to waterlogging in the pits.
With 438 households, as per data from the government of West Bengal, Makdamnagar is the largest of the 12 villages spread over the coal block in Mohammad Bazar community development block of Birbhum district where the Deocha-Pachami coal mine project is slated to come up.
Recently, the government said that there are 1,198 million tonnes of coal and 1,400 million cubic metre basalt deposits and that the government will invest Rs. 35,000 crore (Rs. 350 billion) in the project, apart from Rs. 10,000 crore (Rs. 100 billion) in relief and rehabilitation. A little more than 21,000 people, including 9,034 from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 3,601 from the Scheduled Caste (SC) communities live in 4,314 houses in the coal block area.
West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in a tweet last year, had said that the state “will create a model for India to execute large projects like Deocha Pachami Coal Block” and it would be done “with full public support by adopting best mining practices in a time-bound manner.”
But Shubho has not been convinced. He said that there will be resistance if the government went to evict people forcefully. “No one wants to leave their home and land for an unknown place with an uncertain future,” he said.
This conversation took place in October 2021, a couple of weeks before chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced the compensation package at the state assembly. But even five days after her announcement, the local residents were uncertain about whether it was acceptable or not.
The government’s package says those owning land with a house will be compensated in multiple ways: they will get between Rs. 10-13 lakh (Rs. 1 million) per bigha (0.33 acre), another Rs. 5.5 lakh (Rs. 550,000) for relocation-related expenses and a 600 square feet home at a rehabilitation colony. Additionally, one member from each family losing land and/or home, as well as from the families of tenant farmers engaged with those land plots, will get a job as a junior constable in the state police. A total of 4,942 persons will get this job. Additionally, about 3,000 workers at existing crusher units will get a ‘maintenance charge’ of Rs. 10,000 per month for a year, while 160 agricultural workers will get Rs. 50,000 as one-time compensation and 500 days of jobs under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme. The rehabilitation colony will include roads, drinking water connection, electricity, health centre, fair price shop, anganwadi centre, bank, playground, community centre, places of worship and a crematorium and burial ground nearby, the chief minister announced.
From what’s on offer in the compensation, the point about the size of houses in the rehabilitation colony was clearly opposed by the local indigenous population. “We wouldn’t be able to adjust in a cramped space. Who knows if there will be land to till or if water for drinking, household work and farming would be easily available, or if the land yields well?” asked Momoi Mardi, a resident of Harmadanga village.
Mardi’s son studies in college and her two daughters are in school. Her husband, Tui, farms their own land and works as an agricultural labourer on others’ land. “Besides, if a family has three young adults, who of them is going to get the job and how would that mean justice to the others?” she asks.