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A coal mine in Central India is set to become one of Asia’s largest. At the heart of this aspiration lies the largest democracy’s disregard for consent. Power grids are the umbilical cords linking urban lifestyle to indigenous displacement.


Peering into the depths of the Kusmunda coal mine in Korba, Chhattisgarh, is like staring into an abyss. From the edge, the mine extends endlessly – like a vast city that’s bigger than Central Delhi. And just like a city, the activity and the traffic never cease. Tippers, excavators, and dumpers ply for miles beneath us into the grayscale, queuing up to carry vast burdens of dark earth scooped up from the deepening void.

Kusmunda, operated by a Coal India Limited subsidiary company, is on its way to becoming one of Asia’s biggest coal mines. At peak expansion, Kusmunda, a single mine, would leave a cavity the size of Central Delhi on Chhattisgarh’s map. Twenty-six million tonnes of coal will be mined from its folds every year.

Kusmunda’s expansion is an integral part of the Indian government’s plan to increase its coal production to a whopping one billion tons a year by 2020, to meet growing energy requirements. In the balance are tens of thousands of Adivasi and Dalit families likely to be displaced by the mine, while thousands more stand to be affected.

The four of us — director, film crew, Nirupabai and I — crouch amidst the ruins of demolished homes in the village of Barkuta , in Korba, when the blasting from the mine begins, sending earth and rock from flattened fields and forests into the air. We are asked by those whose houses tremble why the story of India ramping up its coal production at their expense is not explosive enough.

India is the world’s third largest producer and consumer of coal. Last year,around 550 million tonnes were extracted to power our ravenous cities, (some) villages and our fabled economic growth. The WiFi, the smartphone, the air-conditioner, the local train, the factory floor, the stock exchange, the 100W bulb to study under – coal makes most of it possible. Around two-thirds of India’s energy is drawn from this dark mineral, and yet many of us fail to acknowledge its origins.

Unlike many other minerals extracted through mining, coal is physically invisible to us in the everyday. Its impact only presents itself markedly when there is talk of the windfall profit made by a company, or through a gargantuan corruption scandal. The impact of its extraction on native citizens’ lives, however, is obscured out of sight.

Nirupa’s home was bulldozed along with sixteen others for the expansion of the Kusmunda mine, without her consent.
Image Credits: Aruna Chandrasekhar / Amnesty International India

Nirupabai Kawar, from Barkuta, has had to learn the true cost of coal. Nirupa is what the government calls a PAP, or a project-affected-person. She is a Kawar Adivasi and the sole earner in her family of six. Barely nine days after I first met her in January 2014, Nirupa’s home was bulldozed along with sixteen others for the expansion of the Kusmunda mine, without adequate notice or consultation.

I understand that some people must make sacrifices for the nation, but why must it always be us?

The next time we met, in April 2014, there was no trace of the large house overflowing with grain I had seen. Only a squat structure rebuilt from the rubble remained, with a signboard salvaged from a school next door that had pictures of former Prime Ministers pinned on it. The grain, she showed me, was mixed with the rubble. “It rained for a week afterwards, nobody came. I understand that some people must make sacrifices for the nation, but why must it always be us?”

The Fifth Schedule

[th uh . fifth .shed-yool]
The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution lists certain districts and territories where Adivasi communities live as protected ‘Scheduled Areas’, where these communities have special customary rights over their land.

In interviews with Coal India officials, the standard state justification for the Adivasi displacement seems firmly rooted in karmic geology. “Why would God have put coal in these places if we were not meant to mine?” a senior mining official operating the Kusmunda mines once enquired.

And so to tell you a story about people, we must peel away the sediment and begin with where coal comes from. In India, coal runs as part of a rich seam of sandstone and shale called the Gondwana Supergroup, which extends across the Southern Hemisphere. The seam draws its name from the Gonds, India’s second most populous indigenous Adivasi community, who live across the central Indian plateau, including the villages around Kusmunda.

Some of India’s biggest coalfields are located in densely forested pockets of the country, protected by the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which recognizes the historic and systemic oppression that India’s indigenous Adivasi communities have faced. About 70 per cent of India’s coal is located in the central and eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, that are also the sites of a decade-long conflict between security forces and Maoist armed groups.

Whether it was settlers from the plains or the British and their demand for timber, the Forest Department or large mining companies, India’s Adivasi communities have had to grapple for centuries with outsiders who had their eye on resources. Adivasis are estimated to comprise about eight per cent of India’s population, but make up about 40 per cent of the people displaced by development projects in India since 1951. That number is around 24 million people, roughly the current population of Australia.

Korba is a case of stark contradictions. A protected Adivasi district, Korba is home to some of the country’s densest Sal forests, and some of its biggest mines that contribute to over a fourth of India’s coal. It has over a dozen thermal power plants, supplying power to the Western grid, including the city of Mumbai and its glistening skyline, and yet is home to some of India’s most disempowered communities.

“In Korba, you’ll find villages that don’t have a single light bulb. Imagine the level of development in a place that provides so much of India’s coal and power,” says Laxmi Chauhan, an environmental activist who has been working with mining-affected communities in Korba for the last decade.

A villager cycles past the radioactive fly ash pond generated by the coal power plant.
Image Credits: Aruna Chandrasekhar / Amnesty International India

Laxmi parks his car at the edge of a small hill, which we learn is a fly-ash pond. For fun, we try moonwalking on this strange, chalk-like sand that feels like it’s part of a gigantic ashtray. We take turns to count the thermal power chimneys that pulse through the haze like modern minarets. Hills of ‘overburden’ earth dominate the topography, shifting as excavators sift the earth for coal. Pipes criss-cross the landscape like industrial entrails, carrying fly-ash over miles to waste ponds that may some day rival these chimneys in height.

Laxmi laughs at our disbelief. “It’s hard to breathe here, isn’t it? Imagine, in such a critically polluted area, there have been no health impact assessments. Look for yourself,” he says, beckoning us to turn the cameras behind him. Monsoon clouds the colour of slate have gathered above the ash dike. The wind has whipped up a blizzard of ash that heads straight for the city below. He tells us of his plan to start a toxic tourism company for gawping researchers and journalists like myself who want to see how ‘development’ can manifest itself in rural India.

Standing where we are, it’s hard to believe that Korba is still home to the Korwa tribe, from which it draws its name, just as it is home to the Kawar, the Binjhwar, the Gond, the Agaria and Rathia.

“This entire place was a jungle. Deer used to walk here, amidst our gods,” said Ramadhar Shrivas, an elder from the village of Pali, as he walked through the deserted, tree-less streets one blazing summer afternoon. “You could not step out here in the evening alone, because of the fear of being trampled by elephants in mast. All of this changed after they found coal here.”

Industrial corridors have replaced elephant corridors, and Korba today is a haphazard collection of townships that have grown and coalesced around its mines, power plants and aluminium smelters. There’s even a Domino’s Pizza outlet.

But in between are vast patches of villages like Pali that lie in a state of suspended acquisition. In the villages here, yellow signposts signal that this land is now the sovereign property of the Ministry of Coal. There is no telling when people in these villages will be adequately compensated or rehabilitated, or when the villages will fall into the dark.


Overburden is the rock, soil and everything that lies over the coal deposit, including fields, streams, habitations and forests.

Say coal mining, and the imagination takes the average urbanite down a dark, underground shaft. But most Indian coal is harvested from large swathes of land. In 2014-15, over 90% of coal production was from “open cast mining” — a practice which involves literally cutting and stripping minerals from the surface of the earth, after trees, vegetation and habitations are removed and broken up by explosives.

For every million tonnes of coal mined, land equivalent to over 564 Olympic swimming pools is dug up and has to be removed. Open cast mines are very land intensive, and can spread over thousands of hectares, depending on the extent of the coal deposit and the availability of cheap land. This kind of mining is done when coal lies close to the surface and where the land that lies over it is relatively thin or easy to remove. The dug up land is referred to as “overburden” in mining parlance.

“You cannot move the deposit, but you can definitely remove the people,” remarked a Coal India official.

One half of Barkuta lay flattened, festooned with explosive wires, the ground perforated in places where dynamite would be placed.
Image Credits: Aruna Chandrasekhar / Amnesty International India

In March 2015, I went back to look for Nirupa’s house in Barkuta. A tyre mark of an excavator marked where we had first met. One half of Barkuta lay flattened, festooned with explosive wires, the ground perforated in places where dynamite would be placed.

In Barkuta today, only three families remain. Families live amidst the ruins, as they wait for Godot — in this case, jobs, compensation and rehabilitation that they haven’t yet received, decades after their lands were acquired without their consent. Nirupa has rebuilt a tiny hut on the edge of the mine, to stake her last claim on her father’s land, as the mine edge draws nearer.

Public Purpose

[puhb-lik . pur-pus es]
Land acquisition for mining under the Coal Bearing Areas Act allows for companies to acquire people’s land without their consent.

Coal India Limited (CIL) – the world’s largest coal producer (which all Indians are in a way shareholders of) produces about 82 per cent of India’s coal. This coal is supplied at discounted prices to nearly every thermal power plant in India. Coal India, and other public sector companies, such as the National Thermal Power Corporation, can acquire land in the ‘national interest’ using an archaic law that dates back to 1957 called the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act.

“We’ve gone from being masters of our land to being slaves at the mercy of Coal India,” says Abhiram Singh, whose home was bulldozed in the evictions in Barkuta. In the blazing summer of 2014, I found him working in a make-shift brick kiln, forging bricks to build a new home in the neighbouring village of Padaniya. The bricks under our feet were being fired from the coal that he had to steal from the Kusmunda mine that displaced him. Irony, in these parts, runs dark and unforgiving. Abhiram has never seen a copy of the notification under the Coal Bearing Areas Act from 1979, which said that his land had been acquired by the Ministry of Coal. He asks me how much it would cost to rent a place as big as his in Bangalore.

Abhiram Singh had to forge bricks in a make-shift brick kiln after his home was bulldozed.
Image Credits: Aruna Chandrasekhar / Amnesty International India

The fact that this would never play out in the life of the average urban India weighs down like a thousand bricks as I walked through villages around Kusmunda, trying to understand how India’s protective laws around land are failing Adivasis.

What is it that scares so many from looking at consumption in the eye, and the displacement being carried out in their names? What is it about the consent of the disenfranchised that has some people stick their fingers in their ears, and mutter ‘anti-national’ under their breaths?

Instead, in India, the most vulnerable communities are pushed to the brink. In the last two years, the Indian government has repeatedly shut down many of the legally available platforms for Deepak and Nirupa to speak their minds about decisions that could irreversibly impact their lands, lives and environment. Public hearings, required under Indian law for development projects to get a green nod, have been done away with for many kinds of coal mine expansions. The government, in response to the World Bank’s environmental and social safeguards policy, has said that it was not ‘comfortable’ with the idea of indigenous consent.

“I did an MBA in HR and worked with ICICI bank, ma’am. But when I found out that my family was losing so much land, and people were not being given jobs, I had to come back and get involved,” says Deepak Sahu as we sit in a meeting in the village of Raliya. We are surrounded by hundreds of displaced villagers, who want to learn about what legal choices they have left.

The bricks under our feet were being fired from the coal that he had to steal from the Kusmunda mine that displaced him.

26-year old Deepak led a strike in May in Korba this year, where over five thousand people at risk of being forcibly evicted by Coal India’s four expanding mines blocked the dispatch of coal from the mines to the railhead. “We spam the Coal Minister’s Twitter  everyday. But other than stopping production, there is no other way anyone will listen to us.”

International energy agencies predict that India will account for nearly half the increase in world coal consumption from 2012 to 2040, even as major economies like China and the United States move away from coal. The government alone estimates that 50,000 hectares of Adivasi land in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha will be affected by India’s coal expansion plans.

You’d think that these ambitions would be rooted in an assessment of how much coal India actually needs. And yet, at the time of writing, around 40 million tonnes of coal lie piled in Coal India’s stockyards, with no takers. In a recent development, even India’s Central Electricity Authority, stated in its draft National Electricity Plan1 that India didn’t need any new coal-based power plants till 2022 , and that there was sufficient coal from existing mines to supply them.

India’s dependency on coal cannot be denied. But as fellow shareholders in this nation’s energy security, all Indians must push for equal opportunities and rights for those who lose the most from coal mining. Their lands make our lifestyle possible. Their consent must be sought, and their right to refuse the greater common good, respected.

India is officially out of a power crisis. But it has a long way to go before the overburden has been reclaimed, and the playing field leveled for Adivasis and Dalits to truly speak truth to power and be heard.

To explore the exploding coal-mine and fly-ash pond in VR, watch ‘When land is lost, do we eat coal?’, directed by Faiza Khan.