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Coal is the new salt: Why Chhattisgarh villagers have taken up mining

The government needs to tune in to the pulse of communities that it has once again left out of decision-making processes around their own resources.

 |  4-minute read |   16-10-2015
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The mineral at the heart of India's growth story runs like a dark vein starting from its east, and through the heart of India's last remaining forests and tribal heartlands. The states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha - with amongst the highest tribal populations in the country - account for over seventy per cent of India's coal.

On October 2nd, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, communities in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh held a unique protest for the fourth year running. More than 6000 people from 55 villages affected by public and private coal mining marched to the banks of the Kelo river and mined their own coal in symbolic protest, to commemorate Gandhi's salt march to challenge British dominion over salt.

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Community mining is one subject that makes those in the industry, as well as some civil society activists, deeply uncomfortable. And yet, it is important to question this skepticism when indigenous communities decide to manage their own mineral resources or demand equitable benefit-sharing.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), (which India ratified in 1968) both observe that indigenous peoples have the right to not just own but use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use.

The word "develop" here is key and especially loaded in the Indian context - where schemes for the "development" of adivasi and other marginalised communities are formulated or rationalised in Delhi's corridors of power, and often implemented on the ground to destructive consequences. Over 60 million people are estimated to have been displaced as a result of development projects between 1947 and 2000; experts say that millions more may have been displaced within the last decade.

It's not as if there isn't space for community ownership and use of resources in Indian law. In 1997, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement on the rights of Adivasi communities, said: "Instead of getting the minerals exploited through nontribals, by exploitation of tribals, the minerals could be exploited… by the tribals themselves, either individually or through cooperative societies… It would itself be an opportunity to the tribals to improve their social and economic status and a source of their economic endowment end empowerment and would give them dignity of person, social and economic status."

Who gets to mine India's coal and how transparent is this process? In 2014, India's Supreme Court found massive corruption in this process and declared that all coal mining leases between 1993 and 2011 were allocated arbitrarily, cancelling 214 coal mine licenses at one go. Both Congress and BJP governments, as well as companies across the board have been found complicit and an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation is ongoing.

Narendra Modi's government was left with the daunting task of cleaning up this mess in India's energy regime. Yet its new system of coal auctions does little to correct huge violations in how tribal and forest lands have been acquired for mining or in correcting legacy environmental violations.

Alongside new auctions, the government's response has also been to increase public-sector mining, which currently doesn't go through the process of auctions. This has led to a rapid expansion of public-sector mines, as well as the removal of safeguards for consulting communities before such expansions. Land acquisition for public-sector coalmines is also still exempt from conducting social impact assessments and obtaining the consent of affected indigenous communities, which is required under international human rights standards.

It is worth harking back to another Supreme Court judgment from July 2013, based on a case filed in Kerala. The court, in its judgment, challenged the notion of the government being the sole custodian of mineral resources, stating that there was nothing in the law which declares that all mineral wealth/sub-soil rights vest in the State, but that its ownership should normally follow the ownership of the land.

Meanwhile, communities in Raigarh and across the coal belt continue to live near huge mines where blasting from mine explosives leaves them with cracks in their walls and dust in their air, fields and water, and still awaiting rehabilitation. Others are faced with displacement by new mines, without their knowledge or consent. Human rights defenders here still have multiple cases lodged against them for peacefully participating in consultation processes or for questioning illegal mining, and face daily threats from state and non-state actors alike.

Is it then such a surprise that people here are asserting their rights over what international human rights standards have recognised to be their resources?

The government needs to tune in to the pulse of communities that it has once again left out of decision-making processes around their own resources. It must recognise their disenfranchisement, and open up and expand the channels of communication that it has recently shut down. The reserves of tribal communities that have been historically exploited will otherwise soon run out.

Writer

Aruna Chandrasekhar Aruna Chandrasekhar @aruna_sekhar

Researcher, journalist, stand-up, singer.

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