Thursday, February 22, 2024

As Bengal moves on mega coal block, tribals trying to get best deal possible

As Bengal moves on mega coal block, tribals trying to get best deal possible
Deucha has been hosting various people with aroused interests in the mining project, since its announcement by the West Bengal government, villagers informed.

Deucha is a small village close to the Bengal-Jharkhand border, in the Birbhum district. Not very extraordinary or frantic but rather a very serene and isolated place. It has been hosting various people with aroused interests in the mining project, since its announcement by the West Bengal government, villagers informed.

Such increased attention is not without reason, estimates suggest this area holds around 2.2 million tons of coal. In spite of a 10000-crore rehabilitation package, this project was met with stiff resistance initially from the tribal groups in the region but since then after a series of government officials’ visits, progress has been made in convincing some of them.

Recently, tribal villagers of Harinsingha village had held a meeting where they unanimously decided that they will not part with their lands. It was in this meeting that the young Majhi Hadam or leader Joseph Marandi had raised his voice against the coal mine. However, for reasons he was not ready to reveal on record, he had changed his stand overnight. Claiming, he was not against the industry per se but there are some contentious portions in the rehabilitation package which he wanted to discuss with the government and come to a mutually amicable decision.

Considering the respect and wide acceptance as a leader among the villagers, Joseph is astonishingly young. His young age is not reflective of his wise personality.

Upon being asked why he changed his stand overnight, his answer was evasive. He claimed that his changed stand on the issue was not due to any external pressure and that when the villagers held that anti mine meeting they made a mistake. He now, believes that the proposed coal mine can do some good to the area.

What were the concerns of people about the negative effects of the coal mine project, when they opposed it?

Joseph Marandi explained in detail how the mention of Uchched (eviction) evokes fear in the mind of the tribal villagers here. The people here, like their forefathers, were born here. Their culture, lineage, and history are embedded in this land.

He claims that although they have problems, they are happy with their independence. According to him, the villagers were worried about whether they will be able to live in harmony in Mohammed Bazar block where they will be provided new accommodation. Besides, there were obvious doubts about if they will actually get what is being promised.

When asked about the ten thousand crore rehabilitation package which includes a 600 sq. ft. accommodation at another location and a government job to one member of the affected families, he expressed apprehension.

“Government has announced a package but there are some issues we have with it. Like the 600 sq. ft. of accommodation, tell me can anyone live there with a family? If we keep all our household stuff it will take all the space. Where will we live? We are not satisfied with this small area of accommodation,” Joseph elaborated.

Of course, the huts here are not without any troubles but the sheer ingenuity that goes into making these homes is beyond the understanding of urban people. No kind of government accommodation could ever replace the beauty of these homes that people built here over generations. Besides, the government does not seem to be too concerned about solving the issues at hand here. They just want to get the project off the ground.

It takes around a whole day to reach Deucha Pachami and the nearest town connected by rail, Sainthia, is around 35 KMs away. The isolation of this place alone kills half the opportunities the people could avail if there were proper roads here.

“People have to sell their crops for extremely low prices here in the village. When the same can get a higher price in the nearby towns but we cannot afford transportation costs,” Tells an elderly man who is unwilling to reveal his name. In fact, many people here are hesitant to go on record about the problems they face.

“When school was closed during covid, my school did not shift to the online class,” says a class two kid. And his elder brother who works in the local stone crusher plant has got him into a private school which is in some distance. The facilities of that school are questionable but now this kid can at least continue education.

Citing infrastructural limitations, the public schools in Duecha village did not shift to online education. And students had to shift either to a private school nearby or leave education midway.

There are no hospitals anywhere nearby. There are plenty of public infrastructure concerns for the government and development-friendly people but the lack of interest in these issues is baffling.

It is being alleged, after a meeting between Gautam Adani and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, that he might be offered mining rights in the regions. Adani’s company has prior experience in mining in various countries including Australia where his mines raised many environmental concerns from common citizens there and have been a source of much controversy.

Other than Joseph, we spoke to many other people in the region.

Talking to them we could understand that the tribal families in this region are very clear about their stand on the coal mine, which is that they do not want it. The Bengali families of Deucha seem to be very open to the project but they were also very sympathetic to the concerns of their tribal neighbors. Its not clear how much their sympathy can help but sympathetic they are nevertheless. Maybe the answer that Joseph cannot give is very profound in the conversations with the rest of the villagers. They do not need the huge coal mine and they do not want it. They need communication, education and health infrastructure and they want it.

Yet they realize that they are dealing with powers that are beyond their comprehension and so this is essentially what they are demanding now- a good deal!

Nikhil Singh is an independent journalist.

Nikhil Singh
Nikhil Singh
Nikhil Singh is an independent journalist.

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