Hasdeo Arand illustrates all that is wrong with the coal mining industry today. This ancient and dense forest in Chattisgarh, inhabited by several tribes, was once famous for being an elephant corridor. Since 2013, the area has worn a different face.
That year, mining began in the Parsa East-Kete Besan coal block operated jointly by Adani (74 percent) and Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (26 percent). Thousands of trucks would ferry coal, blowing coal dust into the atmosphere. This was compounded by the numerous fires that started where the coal had been dumped. The villagers noted that this rise of coal in the air coincided with chest complaints and breathing troubles in the village.
The one chance
This state of affairs is sadly the norm in most cases where a project has received environmental clearance. Once a project is in operation, it is impossible to get the operators to adhere to environmental management practices.
In the process of obtaining permissions and starting a project, people’s participation is limited to public hearing with no formal space for community voices once a company receives environmental clearance. Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research, says, “Despite the shortcomings of public hearings, people have enthusiastically participated and striven to make the most of this one opportunity they have to participate in the process. All too often, communities cannot stop the project from getting clearance. However, they can ensure that their concerns are recognised and noted in the minutes of the public hearing.”
Manju Menon, senior fellow at CPR, says, “In many areas where companies are established, they have created their own fiefdoms of which the local administration is a part. This not only intimidates the local communities but also makes them vulnerable to harassment if they protest. Finally, compliance is considered to be a highly technical affair by both communities and the administration.”
The CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program was set up to change this situation by helping communities access the tools they need to ensure environmental compliance.
What made this possible?
The villagers of Hasdeo Arand formed the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti to get the mining companies to comply with the environmental guidelines. Led by Janabhivyakti, an organisation working in the area, they began by scrutinising the environmental clearance letter, a publicly-available document.
Manju says, “It is extremely important to read the environmental clearance letter. All the objections communities present during a public hearing are entered into the clearance conditions. Once entered there, it is mandatory for the company to follow the guidelines.”
The Parsa East-Kete Besan coal block clearance letter showed the Samiti that the coal mine was flouting at least two clauses--one was related to the transport of coal by truck and the other was on regulating the storage of coal on the premise.
The people of Hasdeo Arand collected evidence in the form of photographs, maintained logs of truck traffic, and collected media reports. They drafted a complaint against the violation of these clauses (2A IV and XV in the clearance letter) and submitted it to the district administration. This complaint was backed by the evidence they had collected, the laws that were being broken, and a precise statement of the solutions that could be implemented.
The result? Within 15 days, the dumped coal was out of the yards, and the trucks stopped coming in. As of today, the coal-handling guidelines are being met by the company. The people of Hasdeo Arand can attest to this with confidence because they continue to monitor the mines.
What's special about it?
The larger impact of this is best summed up by Alok Shukla of Janabhivyakti who says, “Earlier when people would come to us with problems, all we could advise them is chakka jam karo (block the roads). Now we have so many options; we feel strong.”
People do voice their complaints about irregularities in the operation of mines and factories, especially when these affect their health and livelihoods. In most cases, the efforts do not bear fruit because they are not directed towards the authorities with the power to act. Hasdeo Arand is an example that giving basic legal knowledge to people facing environmental problems can produce results.
In areas with significant environmental damage, people feel overwhelmed with the idea of restoring the area to its previous state. Kanchi explains, “Our letters to politicians and bureaucrats end with the plea 'please take appropriate action'. This approach never gains anything because neither do the supplicants know what they want, nor do the authorities know what is 'appropriate action'.”
The first step is to clearly articulate the problem and the expectations. The people working on ensuring environmental compliance have come up with a formula for this. A problem statement requires a definition, attribution, violation (with citation) and a clearly-stated demand.
Very often, defining the problem seems simple. But it is important to select the problem that can be supported by evidence. For instance, Neem ka Thana in Rajasthan is extensively mined for stone. It is evident to the residents that their respiratory problems and eye irritation can be attributed to stone crushing in the area. Since each of these stone crushers operate individually, proving that a particular stone crusher, or even a group of them, is responsible for the residents' illnesses is impossible. This is further complicated by the fact that health problems could be triggered by various factors such as malnutrition, lifestyle and the history of the patient. It is to sidestep such ambiguities that the villagers of Hasdeo Arand took on two specific violations of the laws by the coal block--coal transport by open truck and long-term storage of coal in the yards.
This ties in with Kanchi's advice to all people who wish to get companies to clean up their act. She says, “Don't focus on the name of the Act, focus on what it does.” This is also reflected in Mundra, where coal is imported resulting in considerable pollution in the area. Logically, the Air Act is the one that would seem to apply, but people utilised the Coal Handling Guidelines to get the coal block to clean up their act.
“The most emotionally-taxing part of the problem statement is the definition of expectations,” says Bharat Patel of the Mundra Hit Rakshak Manch that is fighting for community rights in the vicinity of the Mundra Water Front Development Project. “In some cases, people have been protesting for so long that they are too tired to ask for clean up or anything of that nature. All they want is financial compensation. Or as happened in Mundra, they refuse to consider any solution other than the complete shutdown of the project which the government finds unacceptable.” Here Manju says, “If people have been suffering for 20-30 years, they have earned the right to accept money and end the trauma.”
The impact of the approach
In terms of the number of success stories, this approach--of people ensuring environmental compliance by collecting evidence and studying the laws--has borne significant results. Of the 141 cases over the last two years, 41 have been resolved with full remedies and 51 cases with partial remedies.
It has also helped the youth who have been trained as paralegals. Most of these young people want work which does not need them to migrate. This work not only needs to be done in their villages, but it also gives them a chance to help their community.
This raises the question of whether the communities are making themselves vulnerable to threats and assault. Bharat is convinced that the reverse is true. He explained that unlike carrying out demonstrations as the communities used to do, they are not breaking the law or actively attacking anyone now. All they are doing is asking for information that is available to the public.
Earlier, people had only one opportunity, the public hearing, to voice their demands which polarised the issue, reducing the debate to 'yes’ or ‘no'. Working on ensuring compliance means even when clearance is given, communities can work on mitigating impacts.
In the process, communities develop the skill of analysing the problems, defining their goals, gathering evidence, and identifying legal solutions. These skills can be used to address problems in other areas such as health and sanitation, thus giving communities both control over their lives and also more space to negotiate.