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Odisha's Kulda mines 'heavily polluted', yet Centre allowed expansion: Protest letter

Counterview Desk 

India’s civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), along with more than 400 civil society groups, movements, activists, academics and concerned citizens have come together to write to the Union Environment Minister, the Union Tribal Affairs Minister and the Chief Minister, Odisha, calling upon them to immediately intervene and halt all mining activities in the already heavily polluted Kulda mines area, in the Sundargarh district.
Appealing to put a stop to the clearance process for further expansion until all environmental compliances are in place and withdrawal of pending charges against the villagers protesting the mining expansion, the letter follows the arrest of 16 Adivasi activists and leaders for protesting, along with 5,000 villagers, the recent recommendation of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for a further expansion of the Kulda mines.
The letter alleges, the committee made the recommendation despite severe opposition from the affected local Adivasi communities living in 45 villages, many of them belonging to the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). Although those arrested were bailed out after a few days, fellow activists have conveyed concerns about physical assaults by police, death threats and even false charges of ‘attempt to murder’ under Sec 307 IPC, it adds.

Text:

National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), along with the other undersigned civil society groups, movements, activists, academics and concerned citizens, strongly condemn the recent arrests of 16 Adivasi activists and leaders who were part of the peaceful protests organized by numerous villagers against the expansion of coal mining activities at Kulda Mines in Sundargarh district of Odisha on February 14.
We urge you to immediately halt all mining activities in the already heavily polluted Kulda Mines area and stop to the clearance process for further expansion until all environmental compliances are in place and withdraw pending charges against the villagers protesting the mining expansion.
While it is learnt that they are now out on bail, fellow activists also convey concerns about physical assaults by police, death threats and even false charges of ‘attempt to murder’ under Sec 307 IPC. Adivasi communities and others, from 45 villages (9 panchayats) in the Hemagir block of Sundargarh district, home to Khadiya, Oram, Gond and other communities, have been staging continuous protests since the news of recent expansion recommendation made by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of MoEFCC on January 19, 2021.
Women and men, many of whom have come together as Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad, have been gathering day and night to prevent the coal trucks from passing through the villages, on their way to a thermal power plant in Chhattisgarh. The peaceful protests involved more than 5,000 people over more than 3 weeks, starting in January.
In a bid to clamp down on people’s right to peaceful protest, the administration imposed Sec. 144 in the entire area and soon began arresting people as well. As in many other cases, the arrests are also a way to silence concerns which have been raised since 2007, regarding the impact of the mine on the local people, many of whom belong to particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). Records show that 3000 trucks traverse the 45 villages everyday, with the resulting pollution affecting schools, hostels and anganwadis.
Illegal and unregulated coal transportation through the 45 villages of the region has already had an adverse impact on agriculture and food security, livestock, public health, drinking water, and children’s growth and development. However, the villagers complain that these ground realities are not acknowledged by the MoEFCC and its agencies. The multiple deaths of mine workers in the past years also reflect the poor working conditions and the occupational risks the workers are exposed to.
The mines’ output limits were expanded this January by the EAC, despite repeated community-led appeals to the Expert Committee about lack of regulation of coal transportation and non-compliance with stipulated norms. The transportation violations that Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, which owns the Kulda mines, has been responsible for since the beginning of operations in 2002, have been documented by the local community. Additionally, environmental compliance requirements from previous expansion orders have not been met, and while the majority of the company’s reporting contradicts the stark realities on the ground and the testaments of the local people, even the reports are compelled to admit shortcomings to mitigation efforts.
Villagers protest against expansion of Kulda mines
As per news reports, based on a complaint from the affected villagers detailing the impact of pollution from the coal dust, the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) also recently recommended that coal transporting vehicles should not be allowed to ply until the district administration reports on the action it has taken in the matter.
In spite of this, a striking rate of expansion of mining operations is recommended. With the proposed expansion, further pollution of air, water, and land due to fly ash and coal transportation is anticipated, which will only exacerbate the ongoing, long-term impacts of the mines on the lives and livelihoods of the people as well as the ecology.
The recommendation for expansion has been made possible due to an ineffective and complicit EAC, relaxations to the Environmental Impact Assessment process over the years, and the trend in environmental clearances for coal mining in general over the past decade. The exemption from mandatory public hearings for expansions of this scale has resulted in exclusion from discussions and decision-making processes of the most severely impacted communities, which are already socio-economically and socio-culturally marginalized.
In light of the grave violations over the years and increasingly over the past few months, we strongly urge and demand:
  1. Withdraw all pending cases against activists and leaders arrested at the Kulda Mine protests, and end the state repression against villagers protesting peacefully.
  2. Stop all expansion plans for Kulda Mines and do not undertake any activity in violation of environmental and social-impact norms and without due consent of the people of the region.
  3. Halt all existing mining activities at Kulda until compliance with environmental and safety regulations is ensured; mitigation (of pollution) requirements have been satisfied and fair compensation has been disbursed to affected people for all previous losses.
  4. Halt all coal and truck movement through the villages and community roads in the vicinity of the mine, for the remaining mining contract. Develop and make use of coal corridors for transportation of coal, and ensure that these do not impact communities and ecologically sensitive and valuable landscapes.
  5. Include local communities as equal partners and stakeholders in decision making about mining projects that affect their lives and livelihoods, in Sundargarh, and the rest of Odisha.
We call upon the Government of India and the Govt. of Odisha to immediately address all the aforesaid demands and uphold people’s rights and environmental laws and regulations in the context of Kulda Mines as well as similar regions in Odisha.
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