An ongoing movement against coal transportation and fly ash pollution has been ongoing since January this year in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. Led by the Khadiya and Gond Adivasi communities, it has been met with repression and a clampdown by the state government. Protests were triggered after the latest clearance was granted for an expansion of the Kulda coal mines run by the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), over a month ago.
The mine’s production capacity is set to increase from the current 14 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to 19.60 MTPA. However, Adivasi communities on the ground allege that the transportation of coal and fly ash pollution has led to the degradation of water bodies and caused severe air pollution in the region.
In the latest bid to scuttle the movement and the ongoing strikes, approximately 100 people, including young women and children, were taken into custody by the Sundargarh police on Tuesday for participating in the strike and protesting to restrict the movement of coal-carrying trucks.
“There is an ongoing tussle between the administration and the people; 15 school-going children were arrested. The police are protecting the coal transporters while the case is still in court,” Amitabh Patra, a local journalist and activist, claimed.
Another activist, Uttam Dharaua, alleged: “The administration and our collector are not offering any support. This is an entirely people-led movement and the situation is becoming volatile for us. Each time we hold a strike people are taken into custody and false cases are being slapped on the general population; time after time people from our community are taken into custody. This week women and children were taken into custody; they were not even given food and were released after a day. However, 50 more people were arrested again today and taken into preventative custody. The police keeps telling us to let the trucks move. Anyone who is opposing it is being taken in.”
In February this year Newsclick had reported on the arrests of 16 activists following strikes in the district. They were later released.
The area is home to particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) who have been resisting the expansion of the mines by staging protests and have been doing so from January 19, the day the news of the clearance poured in. As protests gained momentum across 18 villages in the region the state government imposed Section 144 of the CrPC in a bid to crackdown on the protests. The expansion was reportedly agreed upon the condition that the company planted 1,00,000 native trees with broad leaves along the villages and 50,000 trees along the transportation route in two years to prevent air pollution, according to the minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee published on the Parivesh website of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Residents of the area have reiterated that the coal transported to Chhattisgarh from this mine and the fly ash generated from it has polluted their agricultural fields and their water bodies, even impacting drinking water in their homes and Anganwadi centres.
Questions have also been raised on the stay of the movement of the trucks, which was earlier imposed given the opposition on the ground. Prafulla Samanta, president of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, said: “The Odisha government removed the stay on the movement of coal transportation, even the human rights commission had recommended a stay on movement. However this was not binding. The bigger question is that if it is not binding then what is the need to remove it? There is enormous repression being unleashed on the people currently on the ground and we will be taking the matter further.”