In January 2021, a storm was brewing in the coal-rich areas of Sundergarh district in Odisha. The Mahanadi Coalfields—a state-owned coal mining company—was permitted by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change to expand a mine at Hemgiri coal block. Post the EAC’s permission, the forest-dependent communities in the region—who opposed the mine since the company began its operations in 1987—began an agitation to bring attention to their coal and dust-polluted agricultural fields and water bodies.

In 2003, the communities in Ratanpur, Sundergarh also raised an issue about being unfairly compensated by the government and Mahanadi Coalfields for the forest lands they were losing due to coal mining. Up till then, different notifications over years declared that after land was acquired, it belonged first, to the central government, and then through a different notification a few years later, to the state-owned company. These notifications came in despite the fact that these communities continued to live in and depend upon these forests. With that, the communities impacted were never paid any compensation.  

These notifications laid bare a sharp observation: the Coal Bearing Areas Act, 1957 (CBA), the regulation which allows the government to acquire land specifically for government companies to mine coal, is designed for a “heavy state.” In this worldview, the State can acquire land for mining easily, while local communities remain on the fringes struggling to receive fair  compensation. This is not empty rhetoric; in the form that it has existed in all these years, the 1957 CBA Act does allow local communities that are affected by mining to file objections. But, these objections are only heard, and do not influence the decision making process on land acquisition for mining coal in India.

In the 2021 Monsoon session of the Parliament, the CBA Act is set to be introduced with three new amendments via The Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Amendment Bill, 2021. Read together, these three amendments are set to make the process of acquiring land and allotting coal fields to mining companies or the State more simple. What are these amendments and how are local populations likely to be impacted by the CBA Act? 

The answers to these questions are better understood when viewed in a historical context of how coal extraction and the players involved in it have changed over time.

India’s Coal Journey 

In newly independent India, the CBA Act made its way into the country’s legislations in 1957 to establish a “greater public control over coal mining”. At the time, an energy-hungry India relied on its domestic coal reserves to support the nation-building process—and CBA Act allowed it to do so quickly and easily in a three-part process. A competent authority would issue a notification for land acquisition, objections by locals (if any) would be filed within 30 days, and the authority could conduct further inquiries if needed, before finally placing the acquisition proposal before the Central Government. At the time, the Centre was the final and apex authority under the Act.   

Almost 30 years later came a landmark change to this framework of coal governance—the passing of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996. Amongst other efforts towards decentralised decision-making in Scheduled Areas, PESA required that in cases of land being acquired by the government for development projects, affected Gram Sabhas must be consulted. This spark of empowering local communities continued from 2005 to 2013 with a burst of rights-based legislations. These ranged from the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Ministry of Environment and Forests 2009 notification (which mandates the Gram Sabha’s consent when forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes), and the Land Acquisition Act, 2013 (LARR) that offered a fixed range of compensations as well as public consent before initiating land acquisition. By making communities an integral part of decision making, these laws and notifications fundamentally changed the process of acquiring land in India.

public consultation in process in Lippa, Kinnaur, for a Hydro Power Project. | Photo courtesy of Sumit Mahar/ Himdhara.

In 2019, coal governance changed tracks. The government privatised coal mining, a sector that had been nationalised in 1973. With this, private companies were invited to participate in coal auctions. But, this did not attract as much investment as was expected by the State—as of July 2021, only 19 of the 67 coal mines received bids for commercial mining from private players. So, given this scenario, the first amendment to the CBA Act proposes to accelerate the scale of these investments. It vests land and coal mining rights in the hands of the state government instead of the Union’s, and also allows states to lease out mining blocks to the private sector.

 Amendment 1: Welcoming the Private Sector, Diminishing Relief and Rehabilitation

“In light of the centre-state tensions surrounding coal mining as well as the lukewarm response of private players last year [after opening up the coal blocks], this amendment seems to incentivise both state governments and the private sector to participate in coal mining,” says Kanchi Kohli, a senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Research. 

The state-centre conflict that Kohli refers to probably emerged from a legal issue. In states that accepted the LARR, 2013, land acquisition for coal could be done on grounds of the CBA Act (where the Central Government is the final authority), while the rehabilitation and social impact assessments had to be undertaken by the state government-implemented LARR, 2013. With this system, some mine-bearing states also accused the Centre of breaching their rights to approve land acquisition for private coal miners, with the tussle reaching a peak in 2020. To make this conflict more complicated, some states even overrode the Centre’s LARR provisions, as a paper co-authored by Kohli shows.

So, how does this first amendment make it easier for the private sector to enter India’s coal mines? “Only be the detailed clauses will reveal where the proposed amendments are titled. However, the available information indicates that private companies will be spared of land acquisition formalities and they will have to enter into lease agreements only with the state governments. The obligations of acquiring land will be with either the central or state governments,” adds Kohli.

Albeit making business in mining areas easier to do, the Coal Bearing Act does not seem to protect the communities who would stand to lose the most when coal is mined. 90% of India’s operational coal mines lie in the resource-rich forests and watersheds of 11 states—including Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. These forests—and the underlying mines—are also homes to some of the country’s poorest populations, including Adivasis and forest dwellers. In its existing form, the CBA Act only allowed for any objections to the land acquisition to “be heard,” without these objections shaping the decision for said  acquisition. The proposed amendment amplifies this alienation. While it opens up and eases mine leasing for private players, it does not seem to place the burden of community compensation on them. 

This can cause great economic loss to local communities who are set to lose their lands and livelihoods. The system in place for relief and rehabilitation for such communities is already murky. In coal bearing areas, relief and rehabilitation takes place based on the Rehabilitation and Resettlement policy, 2012 that Coal India, a government-owned mining corporation, put together. Under the policy, decisions of relief and rehabilitation (R&R) were to be made in consultation with the Gram Sabhas.

The catch here, however, is that R&R is not present in law, but only in policy, making it non-enforceable.

Apart from Coal India’s framework, states have their own R&R policies as well. But, as Arpitha Kodiveri’s field work in Sundergarh, Odisha shows, the extent of benefitting from relief and compensation is contingent on individual engagements with the local bureaucracy and the company. So, the benefits derived from relief and rehabilitation packages (which need to be accessed by all those individuals losing their land) are instead reduced to a bargaining process where those who are better positioned in terms of their caste, class, and gender are able to negotiate for better terms. This does not seem to change with the amendments, since it stays completely silent on whether private companies—who are now being encouraged to step into the sector—will have any role in the compensation and rehabilitation of the affected communities.

Fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal, unscientifically dumped in Chhattisgarh. The substance has grave ecological and health impacts. | Photo courtesy of Savita Rath.

“At the end of the day, whether the state or the Central government is playing a larger role in this acquisition makes no difference as long as impacted Gram Sabhas are not empowered with decision making,” shares Rajesh Tripathi, convener of Jan Chetna Manch, a Chhatisgarh-based collective working on food rights, environment, and health in the region. “Under the PESA, the Gram Sabha’s consent in scheduled areas is mandatory for any development project. But, as we have experienced, our consent is not being taken seriously. Just yesterday, a coal mine in Chhattisgarh organised a Jan Sunwaai (public hearing), where over 500 locals gathered to give their inputs regarding land acquisition for that coal mine. But, the officials wound up the meeting in barely an hour… our voices were not heard.”  

Now, after the land is acquired by the state for coal mining, what happens to it? Another proposed amendment to the CBA Act makes some alarming suggestions.  

Amendment 2: What Happens to the Land After?

The second amendment suggests that the land once acquired by the government will not only be used for coal mining operations, but also, for “allied or ancillary activities”. This is a marked step away from Coal Bearing Areas current form which allows acquired land to be used only for mining purposes.

Allied and ancillary activities involve coal washeries, coal beneficiation plants, and other processing units. The proposed amendment will not require these units to apply for a separate land permit to perform ancillary activities. “This is a different regulatory approach in comparison to non-coal mines where land for an allied or ancillary unit requires additional permissions from the state,” shares Meera Mohanty, who has been reporting on the mining sector and its political economy in Odisha for a decade.

A coal mine in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, that cuts into the forests.| Courtesy of Kjetil R (CC BY 2.0).

Further, the amendment suggests that even after the area has been “de-coaled”, or completely mined out, the land will continue to be used for “coal development related activities” and other “public purposes,” by the government. 

This again, is a huge step away from the current scenario. Presently, under the conditions listed during the land acquisition processes, the government and private company would usually both assure that at the end of the mine’s lease, the land will be returned back to the people in the same condition as it was when acquired. However, this does not always happen. “In Chhattisgarh, when we have applied pressure on the private companies to return the land in the same quality, they have begun doing some afforestation,” shares Tripathi. Yet, while Tripathi’s experience of receiving land in the same condition might not be ideal, at least the current process ensures the return of land. This amendment does not seem to have space for that crucial act.  

Another aspect that this amendment is silent on is the plan for mine closures. Put forth by the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, these guidelines require that the lessee undertakes a two-part process of mine closure consisting of a progressive mine closure plan and a final mine closure plan. The progressive plan includes listing detailed land use activities continuously during mining operations, followed by listing land restoration activities towards the end of the mine’s life. The ability of the government to retain control of the land after the coal has been mined out as per the proposed amendments does not highlight how these mine closure requirements will be met. Who would be entrusted with this responsibility, states or the Union? These remain unanswered in the amendments at this point. 

These are important questions to be answered, as Mohanty shares. “Mine closures have seldom happened and even when they do, the mine is usually left as an open water body.” Her observation begs for the need to answer questions of restoring mined-out landscapes, which the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Amendment Bill, 2021 is silent on. 

Together, these two amendments seem to ease land acquisition for coal and help the government retain the land. But, in its current form, the Coal Bearing Areas Act has a loophole— it covers coal mining, but not that of lignite, another form of coal that is found abundantly in India. The third proposed amendment to the Act seeks to change this, by expanding the definition of ‘coal’ and including lignite in it.

Amendment 3: Hello, Lignite

Coal and lignite do differ. Brown in colour and softer than hard coal, lignite is found in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Jammu and Kashmir. Lignite also has a higher sulphur and carbon content—which means it releases more smoke upon combustion. This makes lignite an inferior quality of coal, and its use is mostly restricted to the power sector, and to a lesser extent, the cement, textiles, and chemical industries.

By excluding lignite from its purview, the current CBA Act differs from other regulations around coal, like the Coal Block Allocation Rules, 2017. These Rules clearly include lignite by adding a definition of “coal” in their introduction, stating that by coal, the Rules are referring to “anthracite, bituminous, lignite, peat…” [emphasis added].

Since the CBA Act did not include this definition of coal, any permission for mining leases through auctions was more complex, as the process was regulated by the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and state land acquisition laws. For instance, Tamil Nadu—the largest holder of lignite in the country—passed the 1953 Tamil Nadu Lignite Act, specifically for this purpose. The third amendment to the CBA Act makes the leasing and acquisition of land for coal and lignite uniform and easier for companies.

Perhaps this inclusion of lignite also emerges from the unequal exploration of coal and lignite in India, and the government’s hope to change it. Where 1,55,614.41 million tonnes of coal have been “proved” (or confirmed through exploration), of the 1,40,500 million tonnes “indicated” (or estimated with confidence), only 23% of these reserves in the country have been explored. Only as late as 2013 did the government open the doors of lignite mining to private players, and this amendment to define coal to include lignite seems to accelerate the same vision. 

However, the potential impacts of lignite extraction cannot be dismissed. Land Conflict Watch has documented 21 ongoing conflicts between local communities and government bodies involved in coal mining, which have impacted almost 3 lakh people. That this trend could repeat with lignite mining is not far-fetched. Further, the Ministry of Coal’s 2006 Working Plan for Coal and Lignite (to be enacted between 2007 to2012) highlights the inherent challenge with India’s lignite reserves—the high sulphur content, and the need for India to adopt “eco-friendly” technologies to limit the pollution.   

These three proposed amendments tell a story of deregulation in land acquisition for coal mining. If passed, the new CBA Act will reinforce and further a legal architecture designed to marginalize the already marginalized forest dependent communities of India, all in a bid to ease mining coal, a fossil fuel that many other countries are now stepping away from. Then, why is India easing coal mining through these amendments, while also pushing for renewable energy on the other?

In Part 2 of this series, we attempt to dive deeper into this contradiction, while also looking at the larger picture: how do we locate these amendments amidst the broader changes underway in India’s coal mining sector?

Featured image: a coal mine in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, that cuts into the forests; courtesy of Kjetil R (CC BY 2.0).


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