The ambitious project has now faced hurdles over land acquisition and environmental issues
Protests over a coal mining project in West Bengal threaten to upend the Trinamool Congress government’s third-term bid to shed its anti-industry image.
So far, only 1,600 people, out of about 5,000 families who will be displaced by the project in Deucha Panchami, Birbhum district, have given their consent to part with their lands even after the state government has increased the compensation package.
Among the ‘volunteer’ land donors, around 260 have received compensation amid mixed responses from locals over the coal block mining project, said to be the largest in India and the second largest in the world.
It has an estimated reserve of about 1,198 million tons of coal and 1,400 million cubic meters of basalt spread over an area of about 9.7 kilometers. The block has 12 villages with a population of over 20,000, comprising mainly Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and minorities.
For the TMC government of Mamata Banerjee, which came to power in 2011 following anti-land acquisition movements against a Tata car factory in Singur and a chemical center in Nandigram, the mining project is important for presenting the state in lack of jobs as a viable investment destination. .
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During its previous two terms, the TMC government prioritized the implementation of social security schemes. After being re-elected last year, Banerjee announced that her government’s third term would focus on industry.
Accordingly, Banerjee set up an industry group chaired by her to facilitate the rapid approval of investment proposals.
Lack of industries in West Bengal leads to large scale migration of young people to other states in search of jobs and also stagnates state revenue collection which in turn puts a strain on the treasury public in the implementation of social security schemes.
While pushing for the ₹35,000 crore coal mining project, Banerjee said it would create at least one lakh jobs and boost the state’s economy immensely.
The compensation program announced for those who would give up their land was considered generous. Its success would make it a model for securing land for any future projects in the state, where land acquisition is always a tricky proposition.
The initial package was recently revised by the state cabinet to make it more lucrative. In line with the revised package, the built-up area for homes to be offered has been increased to 700 square feet from 600 square feet.
Those who will not take accommodations will receive ₹7 lakh under the revised package instead of ₹5 lakh. In addition, the state government also announced that the backers would be paid three times the prevailing market value of their land.
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“We have prepared a land-to-land and house-to-house compensation program and have decided to give 100% solatium on the land price, which has never been seen before,” Banerjee said after reviewing the program. last month.
In the new package, the subsistence allowance has been increased to ₹1.5 lakh from ₹1 lakh. He promised employment at the rank of junior constable to one member of each of the families involved. Now he has promised jobs at the rank of constables to those who are more qualified.
Despite all this, the ambitious project now faces obstacles.
A section of villagers, under the banner of “Birbhum Jibon, Jibika O Prakriti Bachao Maha Sabha” (Birbhum Association for Saving Lives, Livelihoods and Environment), organized demonstrations and rallies against the project.
“First of all, we disagree with the government’s land acquisition process as it circumvented the holding of gram sabhas as provided for in the Right to Fair Compensation and Justice Act 2013. transparency in land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement. Secondly, we are against any coal mining in the region as it will destroy the forests, which are an integral part of tribal life,” said Lakshmi Ram Baske, the organizer of the sabha.
Last month, the sabha organized a gigantic rally against the project. Nine people, including economist and social activist Prasenjit Bose and Indian Secular Front leader Abdul Malik Mollah, were arrested by Birbhum police for organizing the protest.
Their arrest sparked outrage even outside the state, prompting Samyukt Kisan Morcha and the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union to demand the activists’ release. The nine were released on bail on Tuesday March 2.
The Chief Minister, while reiterating that her government will not acquire land by force, claimed that some interest groups were trying to create misunderstanding among the locals about the project.
Some sabha members, however, claimed that local TMC cadres were intimidating those who opposed the project to silence dissenting voices.
“They regularly organize bike rallies in the area with the aim of intimidating those who oppose the project,” said a member of the sabha.
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Local TMC chief Sunil Soren denied the allegation and said the majority of people in the area were in favor of the project.
“Some people from Kolkata are trying to stir up trouble here. But the villagers overall see the project as a positive development,” Soren said.
A local resident, Khokon Mardi, does not share Soren’s optimism. “Yes, the compensation package has been too tempting. But people are well aware of how destructive the coal mining project will be to the environment throughout the region. So many are against the project,” he said, adding that villagers are preparing for democratic unrest.