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Commercial Coal Auction: Spelling Doom to Forest Communities, Biodiversity and Climate Action

Archana and Sanjana talk about how the world is moving away from coal and how it has affected India.

By Archana Soreng and Sanjana Acharya

This article was originally published at Youth Ki Awaaz. Check the original here.

On June 18, 2020, PM Narendra Modi launched the auction of 41 coal mines for commercial mining, many of which are located in dense forests of central India. Majority of these sites come under Schedule V areas, whose Gram Sabhas are granted rights under Indian law to consultation before land acquisition, and approval before any mining activity- a procedure not followed before this announcement. 

State governments of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra have opposed this decision of the government, apart from numerous Gram Sabhas from the affected areas. They accuse the government of violating constitutional safeguards for tribal populations as well as biodiversity, going against the spirit of ‘Atma Nirbhar’ or self-reliance, the slogan used while launching this scheme. 

As the world is moving away from coal due to its detrimental impacts on climate change, it seems questionable that we are expanding our coal mining. In this article, Archana Soreng and I seek to explicate why this decision is so detrimental. 

1. Air Pollution kills 1 out of every 8 Indians. Coal is responsible for majority of this. 

Coal is India’s largest source of carbon emissions. It is responsible for 80% of India’s mercurial pollution, 60% particulate matter and 45% of sulphur dioxide pollution. Worst affected are those that work in the mines, and communities living around them.

2. Violates laws that provide safeguards for tribal populations.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 recognises the rights of forest dwelling communities over their traditional lands, affirming their right to use and manage these resources. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 extended panchayat rule to tribal areas, mandating that village-level gram sabhas be consulted before any developmental or commercial project. The Centre, however, has failed to respect either law. 

3. Also violates International Law.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), 2007, which India voted in favour for, enshrines the right of indigenous people to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) before any project affecting their lands, territories, resources.

The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also has provisions for the Right to Self Determination, Natural Wealth and Resources, Preservation of Culture and Adequate Standard of Living. However, reality on ground is that consent of indigenous persons have been faked.

4. Accelerates environmental destruction and destroys remaining biodiversity.

Most of these auction sites are in densely forested areas, like the Hasdeo Arand, one of largest continuous stretches of forest covering 1.7 lakh hectares. Other sites are in river catchment areas as well as elephant reserves, thus posing a serious threat to flora, fauna and river systems. 

5. Curtails traditional conservation knowledge of  Forest Dwelling Communities.

Adivasi and Forest Dwelling Communities are the real guardians of the forests in India. Through their traditional conservation practices, they play a key role in preserving our natural forests so as to check against the environmental crises.

Over 10,000 communities in Odisha, for example, have been protecting state-owned forests, often through voluntary labour. Commercial coal mining displaces Adivasis and deteriorates their forests, hindering valuable conservation knowledge from passing on from older generations to the young. 

6. Setback to our Climate Action pledges.

Under the Paris Agreement, India has pledged to reduce fossil fuel share of its electricity, to reduce its greenhouse emissions and to expand its carbon sink capacity. By creating new commercial coal mines, India is turning back on all three of its climate targets.

Besides that, existing coal plants in India are financially stressed already. Several coal-power projects were cancelled in 2019. In India, Solar is now 14% cheaper than coal-fired power. At such a time, why India is choosing the coal route to try boost its economy is under question.

7. Perpetuates systems of Discriminatory Development.

The reason put forth by the Government for commercial coal mining is to boost economic development post-Covid 19. However, the question that needs to be asked is “Development for Whom, by Whom and for What?”

Between 60 and 65 million people are estimated to have been displaced by development projects since Independence. 75% of them have not been rehabilitated. Over 40% of those displaced (till 1990) belong to tribal communities. 

Time and again, it has been witnessed that investment in the land of Adivasi and Forest Dwelling Communities have deprived them of their traditional lands, viable livelihoods and their socio-economic and cultural rights. Alienating them from their sustainable and self-sufficient way of life, it puts them in a vicious cycle of poverty. 

8. Continues to propagate false illusions of Employment.

The government argues that commercial coal will generate employment for more than 2.8 lakh people. However, tribal activists point out how such promises of employment generation are never kept and are just used as an excuse to propagate the development agenda of private players and government officials. Community members are not benefited, but are actually deprived of their sustainable source of forest based livelihood.  

Minor and non-timber forest produce accounts to an economic value of Rs. 20,000 crore every year, and should be looked as a vital source of livelihood and green economy. 

9. Negatively impacts the livelihood and safety of Adivasi women.

Coal mining adversely affects the women of Adivasi and Forest Dwelling Communities,  threatening their livelihood and safety. 

Do follow @adivasilivesmatter , @ashishbirulee and @archana.soreng to keep up to date with the coal mining issue, and use #KoylaHataoAdivasiBachao , #StopCoalAuctions , #MyLifeAndIdentityAreNotForSale to continue amplifying these conversations on social media. 

About the Authors

Sanjana Acharya is a Development Studies’ student at IIT Madras. She is an active member of #FridaysforFuture, Karnataka Chapter.

Archana Soreng, from Khadia Tribe, Research Officer, Vasundhara, Odisha. Is an Action Research and Policy Advocacy Organisation working on Natural Resource Governance, Tribal Rights and Climate Justice.

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