Villagers in the area, long opposed to the mining project here, now been swept up in to ‘Coalgate’ scandal, say it isn’t enough that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has begun a probe against AMR Iron & Steel, arm of the now much reported-on, Nagpur based, Abhijeet Group.
The probe is for alleged misrepresentation of facts while seeking allocation of the Bander coal block, about 125 km from Maharashtra’s second capital, Nagpur. However, the locals are happy at getting another opportunity to raise their concerns against the project, which they say would irreparably damage their livelihood and environment.
The coal ministry’s 36th screening committee had recommended AMR for a portion of the entire block of 126 million tonnes on July 3, 2008. The coal ministry allocated the Bander portion, with reserves of 31.5 mt to AMR on May 29, 2009. There are no sign boards or display hoardings by AMR or its special purpose vehicle, Bander Coal Company Pvt Ltd, on the site, situated in dense forest adjacent to the Tadoba tiger sanctuary. The project has not moved an inch forward on the site from allocation till date, barring a few visits by the AMR’s team, led by A K Shrivastava, authorised signatory for Bander Coal Co, assigned to negotiate with the villagers and the district and state government authorities. A CBI team visited the site after the investigations were launched and its First Information Report was lodged against the current and former directors.
AMR succeeded in getting the block, allegedly by using political influence, but has has not been able to expedite project development largely due to its inability to get the necessary approvals from village panchayats in the area, such as Bander, Shedgaon, Amarpuri, Shivapuri, Majara Begade and Pitchua. Banduji Tarale, deputy sarpanch of Bander gram panchayat, reveals the latter’s clearance, crucial to start any mining, has not been given to AMR. “At successive meetings of the gram sabha, the issue was discussed threadbare but no approval was granted. The company management seems to be reluctant to hold regular interactions with the villagers. Bander villagers and their counterparts from adjoining villages are unanimous that the project be scrapped forthwith,” he said.
Bander Coal Co had listed the land under different categories. Of the total 1,604 hectares, 396 ha is private, 1,170 ha is under forest and 39 ha owned by the government and others. Villagers are demanding at least Rs 10 lakh per hectare, though no formal procedure for the acquisition of land is underway.
Azhar Sheikh, deputy sarpanch, Khadsinghi gram panchayat, recalls how Nippon Denro had moved a proposal with the state government for development of a power project using coal from this block. However, the project failed to take off. “We understand that the state government has not yet given its consent. The project may die its own death in view of the present controversy.” he says.
Green laws hurdle
The Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) in its letter of August 3, 2009, to the Maharashtra government, directed that diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes be done only after ensuring compliance with the Forest Act, 1980 and Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Further, MoEF underlines that letters from each of the gram sabhas concerned, indicating all formalities and procedures, especially under the Forest Act, 1980, were carried out and they’d given their consent to the proposed diversion.
A senior state government official, who has been personally keeping regular track on fulfilment of procedures, says the gram sabhas have not granted their clearances and nor have the approvals from various state government departments been put in place. The official says the government was closely following the CBI probe and its outcome. Officials of the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, though aware of the Bander block, declined to comment on its present status. Similarly, AMR officials declined to comment on an email sent to the company.
Villagers expect cancellation of the block allotment and, thereby, scrapping of the mining project after the CBI probe is over. However, they add, they’re not simply relying on the probe but are preparing for an agitation against the project.
Chandraman Kamdi, member of the Bander gram panchayat, says the project, if cleared, will be a huge setback for the human population of 7,000 and the animal population of around 15,000 from Bander and adjoining villages. It would ruin the farming, dairy and small agriculture and forest-based activities, he said, and “we will not allow this to happen”.