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Power, poverty and the desperate battle for India’s coal

In the main street of Pakri Barwadih, the mud-brick homes are daubed with neat graffiti: ‘‘NTPC Go Back.’’ NTPC is the government-owned company that wants to mine the rich seam of coal beneath this dusty village in India’s second poorest state. The three mines slated for this valley will consume this and 16 other villages, forcing more than 8000 families from their homes.

In the main street of Pakri Barwadih, the mud-brick homes are daubed with neat graffiti: ‘‘NTPC Go Back.’’ NTPC is the government-owned company that wants to mine the rich seam of coal beneath this dusty village in India’s second poorest state. The three mines slated for this valley will consume this and 16 other villages, forcing more than 8000 families from their homes.

The Pakri Barwadih mine is to be built and run by Thiess, a subsidiary of Leighton Holdings, in a controversial joint venture with a company owned by the family of India’s former coal minister.

In the chai stalls and the village markets, discussion rarely strays from the ore under their feet: who has been charged for resisting the miners; the spectre of armed militants threatening those who protest; and the death of one demonstrator, shot by police, for trying to stop a site office being built in his village.

People debate what will become of their land, their livelihoods, and of them.

The battle over mining in the Karanpura Valley, for so long an unhappy undercurrent, has now become a roiling rage. In July, as Dr Mithilesh Dangi addressed a community protest in the nearby village of Kushumbha, three men carrying AK-47s violently broke up the meeting. They were members of an ultra-left militant gang, the JPC, the kind of group that is common throughout India’s lawless eastern ‘‘red corridor’’. Founded decades ago as communist insurgencies, the groups, known as Naxals, are politically impotent now, reduced to little more than criminal guns for hire.

‘‘They forced my wife and I, and my colleague Arun into the forest,’’ Dangi said. ‘‘They pointed their guns in my face and told me not to interfere with the work of the mining companies. They said they would harm us if we continued to halt the work of Thiess and Deco [a Thiess subcontractor] in the area.’’

It is not known at whose, if anybody’s, instruction, the gunmen were acting. But villagers, who ultimately freed Dangi, confirmed the story to Fairfax. The same gunmen had threatened previous protests. Thiess maintains it is uninvolved: ‘‘All land access issues are the responsibility of the mine owner.’’

Dev Prasad has known for 10 years that the government wants his land for mining. Thiess’ mine will displace 200 families from his village of Kerigada.

Prasad will appear in court soon on what he claims is a trumped up charge of damaging government property, levelled at him for leading protests against the acquisition of his land.

He faces fines he can’t pay, or jail, but for now he says he can only concern himself with the rice harvest he will bring in in a month. Prasad’s land, like others in the lush Karanpura Valley, is unusual in this state.

Jharkhand in India’s east is prone to severe, long-running droughts. Some 40 per cent of the state’s population lives below the poverty line. Half the children under three are malnourished.

But in the Karanpura Valley rains are regular. The river that flows past Prasad’s fields never runs dry, so he plants three crops a year of rice, wheat and vegetables.

His family has worked this land, ‘‘my entire ancestry, 15 or 20 generations, I don’t know how long’’, and he says he will refuse all offers of compensation for it.

The fact the compensation offered for his acre has been raised by 50 per cent to $25,000 is evidence, he says, that those offering don’t understand. ‘‘If it was only me, I could take the money and live for the few years at the end of my life. But I have to hand this land on to my children and grandchildren. If I lose this land they will have nothing.

‘‘Our lives are in this land. Without it, who are we? It is not just a house to live in, it is our way of life, our history. I am a farmer. My father passed this land to me, and I must pass it to my son. I cannot fail where my ancestors succeeded.’’

The standoff in Pakri Barwadih is one being played out across India. The country craves power. Already, demand often outstrips supply by 10 per cent, and more than 400 million Indians live without any electricity at all. The government wants to electrify 5 million villages a year. Nuclear is slow, costly and controversial. India needs coal.

But there is also a growing awareness of the rights of the rural poor over the land on which they live, and an increasing resistance to the forcible, often uncompensated land grabs by governments and corporations that historically have been common.

India’s massive coal reserves are hugely underdeveloped, at enormous cost to its economy, because in a country of 1.2 billion people, the land on top of any potential mine is almost always someone’s home.

Government-run companies such as NTPC, and the private contractors they hire, such as Thiess, are caught in the middle of the struggle between progress and protection. They face intense, often contradictory, pressures.

NTPC was awarded the contract to mine Pakri Barwadih in 2004 but not one tonne of coal has been mined, and the government has written to the company, threatening to take the licence back, alleging NTPC has ‘‘repeatedly failed to keep its promises’’.

But the same government’s development minister Jairam Ramesh last month warned mining companies against forcing people from their land, saying it fuelled outlaw groups.

‘‘This is a sad truth ... that more displacement has been caused by government and public sector projects ... particularly in Naxal areas. And this is why Naxalism has grown. Companies must learn to be sensitive, changing aspirations,’’ the minister said.

‘‘NTPC will face a challenge. If there is firing in an NTPC project and people get killed in that firing, they cannot acquire the land. Indian companies still believe that they can use government to forcibly acquire land. That era is gone.’’

He was referring to 55-year-old Tarkesh Mahato, who was shot dead in July as he protested against an NTPC mine site office being built in his village of Pagar. Six other men were injured by gunfire.

Mahato’s protest related to the planned Keredari mine, neighbouring Pakri Barwadih and also run by NTPC. There is no evidence Thiess is contracted to work on that mine.

At a village meeting in Pagar attended by Fairfax this week, Tarkesh’s widow, Mano Mosuma, said her family faced destitution. ‘‘We are facing a hard time, everything is a problem now,’’ she said, weeping.

‘‘We want justice,’’ her eldest son Tilak said. ‘‘Take away the coal block. I will definitely not let them take my land.’’

Fairfax visited Thiess Minecs (Minecs is its Indian partner) offices in Barkagaon and Hazaribagh, but was directed to Thiess Australia’s Brisbane headquarters. ‘‘All issues regarding land access are the responsibility of the mine owner,’’ the company said in a statement.

‘‘Thiess Minecs has not yet commenced mining work at the site and while land negotiations continue, Thiess Minecs has been working to ensure the welfare of the community.’’

Thiess said it had established a health-care centre and a training centre for local youth ‘‘to help them gain employment at the mine’’.

‘‘Once established, the Pakri Barwadih project will provide direct and or indirect employment to thousands of people in one of India’s poorest regions. It will have flow on benefits to the entire community including local schools, training institutes, hospitals and other public infrastructure.’’

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