Shantanu Guha Ray

New Delhi: Serious differences have cropped up between villagers, NGOs and companies mining iron ore and coal in Chhattisgarh, triggering closure of operations.

Reports reaching the national capital say the Congress-run state government has sent a notice to NCL—a joint venture company between the state-owned National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) and Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC)—and asked its top officials to be present in Raipur, the state capital for a hearing with state government representatives. The note to NCL said the mining lease for iron ore in Bailadila Hills in Dantewada had lapsed and fresh action needs to be taken on whether or not new leases will be issued. Worse, the decision is likely to impact NMDC, which supplies ore to a number of steel plants and was planning to develop a 10 million tonne per annum (mtpa) steel plant in a joint venture with CMDC. In the joint venture company called NCL, NMDC has 51% shareholding, with CMDC having a 49% share.

The situation, claim locals, is volatile. Barely a week ago, hundreds of villagers gathered for a gram sabha meeting at Hiroli, a village panchayat located in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh and demanded closure of the mines and alleged they were not paid adequate compensation by the state government. Besides NCL, the other company whose works will be severely impacted is the Ahmedabad-based Adani Enterprises. NMDC had appointed Adani Enterprises as a Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) for the mine in December 2018.

This is one of India’s long-standing crises of land vs man or land vs machines. The mines in Chhattisgarh are in one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest, covering about 170,000 hectares. It is rich in biodiversity, contains many threatened species and is home to elephants, leopards and sloth bears. The area also has more than a billion metric tonnes of coal and millions of metric tonnes of iron ore. It is one of the sub-continent’s richest and most diverse regions and environmentalists in India feel if mining happens in the region, it will have a devastating effect on the state’s environment. But under the new rules framed by the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, an estimated 80% of the entire forest area—and 30 villages—may be lost to mining.

Interestingly, the situation in Chhattisgarh, where the Congress swept to power in 2018, is similar to the one faced by the London-based Vedanta Group at Niyamgiri hills in Odisha where villagers are protesting the move to take up mining in the hills that are sacred since these contain their local deity.

“The situation is volatile, there could be violence if the state government does not meet the demand of the villagers,” Nanda Kashyap, an activist, told this reporter from Raipur.

Unfortunately, the protests are happening at a time when Adani is due to start work at the site. The Bailadila range is a part of the hill range, which in turn, is a part of Schedule V of the Constitution; it is governed by the provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996. “It means the consent of the gram sabha mandatory for any development activity,” says Kashyap.

Soon after assuming power in December 2018, the new Chief Minister, Bhupesh Baghel, ordered a probe into complaints received against the gram sabha, which had approved the project way back in 2014. But now, the villagers and a host of activists are claiming that they were not given adequate compensation and there was alleged huge deforestation in the region. Baghel halted the deforestation and said the complaint against illegal felling of trees and lack of compensation would be looked into by the state government. The issue was highlighted by Bastar’s Congress MP Deepak Baij and a delegation of tribal leaders.

An NMDC official told this reporter that mining has been halted in the region because of the agitation and inquiries initiated by the state government. The official declined to make any further comment on the situation at Hiroli.

Those tracking the recent developments relating to the stoppage of mining in Chhattisgarh feel the matter also had a peculiar political twist, stemming from the intense rivalry between Baghel and Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo, the current Health Minister of Chhattisgarh. Baghel, allege sources, feels Singh Deo, the current titular Maharaja of mineral-rich Surguja district, is stoking trouble by not agreeing to the recent decisions taken by Baghel and his confidants. Political cognoscenti of Chhattisgarh say Singh Deo feels that stopping all mining work could impact the state’s economy, whereas Baghel has taken a contrarian view of the situation. Many also feel Singh Deo, who was among the contenders for the CM’s post, has a hotline to the Congress high command in Delhi and often argues against decisions taken by Baghel.

The political slugfest is putting the state’s economy in crisis, it is almost like one step forward and two steps backward type situation.

Consider this one. What is intriguing is that the tribals and villagers had attended the gram sabha at Hiroli way back on 4 July 2014 and heard out representations from the state government. It was on the basis of their signatures and permissions issued by the gram sabha that permission for mining was granted in the Nandiraj mountain of Bailadila in Chhattisgarh. But now, the same tribals and villagers are saying those who put their thumb impressions in the gram sabha register of proceedings are dead and they cannot be asked if they had actually agreed to hand over their land. “This is a peculiar situation because we have no means to verify what the tribals did was true or whether the tribals were forced to sign and the gram sabha agreed for mining. Worse, the dead will not talk,” said a state government official on condition of anonymity.

Documents of the Chhattisgarh government seen by this reporter list some of those dead as Ghurwa, Motu, Lakhma, Somdu, Anda, Podiya, Bhima and others. Locals say the crisis is serious because the Bailadila mines have been going through a rough run ever since the state government showed interest in mining huge deposits of iron ore. For the record, soon after Chhattisgarh was formed, NMDC and CMDC formed NCL for exploration of iron ore in 2008. In 2011, a proposal to excavate Bailadila’s Deposit-13, which is estimated to have reserves of 350 million tonnes of iron ore, was sent to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). But the FAC flatly refused mining on grounds of biodiversity and environmental importance. Another attempt was made by the state government around 2013, but nothing worked. Eventually, in November 2014, the Central government allowed NMDC to mine 315.813 hectares in the first phase, on 9 January 2017 the second phase was also granted to NMDC. In 2018, NMDC handed over the mine to Adani Enterprises as MDO.

Now, the approval of the gram sabha of Hiroli is crucial for mining in Deposit-13. But Adani wants to play it safe. In a statement, the mining to oil conglomerate said the buck stops with NMDC and CMDC, and more importantly, NCL. Adani is very clear that the gram sabhas were organised by NMDC from 2010 to 2014, and environmental clearances obtained in 2015 and forest clearances obtained in January 2017. And then, the mining lease was transferred to NCL. In January 2018, at least seven companies expressed interest to participate in an international competitive bid for the development and operation of Bailadila mines. Adani was picked up from seven contenders.

So where is the crisis?

The villagers, tribals and activists are alleging that both NCL and Adani need to compensate them for the land taken. NCL is not responding and Adani is clear that the company did not operate the mines and only joined as a mining contractor after December 2018. That means on paper, NCL owns these mines and AEL only provides support as an experienced mining contractor. A spokesperson of Adani Enterprise told this reporter that the company was unnecessarily being dragged into a “needless controversy”. “The responsibility lies with the state government and we are only operators.”

But tensions refuse to die.

And it is because of the collector’s report, which shows that the approval of the gram sabha meeting which was taken as the basis in 2014, is actually fake. The collector, a bureaucrat, said in the report that only 109 villagers signed in the state government register, whereas 806 live in the village. That, claims the report, is just about 13%. As per the rules, the presence of one-third of the people is necessary for obtaining a clearance. Worse, the report further says that bulk of the villagers are illiterate and, in the true sense, would not know why their thumb impressions were taken by the gram sabha.

It would be important to mention here that in 2019, thousands of tribals of 35 panchayats of Bastar had formed a front to save the Nandiraj Hills—the highest peak of Bailadila—which has rich iron ore deposits. The tribals told representatives of the state government that an estimated 100,000 trees would have to be cut to get to the 350 million tonne deposit of iron ore and that it would have a devastating environmental aspect. “The tribals are annoyed that their land has been taken and the jobs have gone to someone else,” says Ashish Singh, a political observer in Raipur.

Stuck in the middle are NCL and the state government of Chhattisgarh. There are millions of tonnes of iron ore in the 14 hills of Bailadila, from where about 27 million tonnes of ore are being given to various steel industries of the country for the last several years. The state government wants to solve the crisis on an urgent basis and has even issued a notice to NCL, asking how it will resolve the crisis and why mining work is being delayed. Till then, NCL, and in turn, Adani will be without work on a huge mine spread over 315.813 hectares in Chhattisgarh.