India’s mineral wealth seems to be haunted by a paradox. Some of the richest mineral reserves have the poorest of the people living on them. Coal and thermal power production in India makes this divide between resources and people depending on them even more stark. Till 1991, India’s coal mining and thermal power production remained with the state. While various struggles have been waged by people to resist the state from acquiring the land for coal mining or power plants, liberalization and entry of private operators in the coal and thermal power production took these struggles to a newer paradigm. In an ideal scenario, people living on these lands should have been given fair compensation and rehabilitation for the acquisition. There are legislations to protect people impacted by various kinds of land acquisition. However, these legislations remain as paper tigers. In connivance with the local authorities, private mining companies actively deny these rights to the people displaced by such mines or power plants. Singrauli, a region in Central India after 1991, became a magnet for the private mine operators with large reserves of coal and sparsely populated forest lands. In this process, several vulnerable indigenous communities dependent on forests and other natural resources were moved out from their lands. With promises of rehabilitation and resettlement, these communities were moved to semi-urban areas without any access to their lifestyle and often pauperized to become daily wage laborers in their own lands. This article traces the story of a forest dwelling tribe in Central India, the Baigas, who were displaced by one such mine in Singrauli. The Baigas have now begun to reclaim their lands from mining areas, rejecting the compensatory housing provided by the mining company in the light of failed promises of substantive rehabilitation.
Singrauli: Historical backdrop
Singrauli is a 2,200 square kilometre region shared between the states of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP) in Central India. Flanked by the rich Sal forests on Maikal ranges of the Vindhyas, a plateau, the region is home to several indigenous tribes of India. Some of these tribes are nomadic and rely completely on the forests to meet their needs.
The first open cast coal mine in Singrauli came up under the British colonial government in 1857. However, due to the geographical terrain much of the coal deposits remained unexplored till the late 1960s.Drained by the Son River, a tributary of Ganga, the first government owned project to come up in the region was a concrete gravity dam in 1966 that submerged about 466 square kilometer of arable land for the Rihand reservoir.
In 1977, the World Bank provided a $150 million loan to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), a government-owned company, for the first coal-fired super thermal power plant in the region. Now the region consists twelve open cast coal mines, and seven coal-fired power plants, with proposals to expand this to another seventeen, all in an area of 1,800 square kilometers. It has been hailed as the energy capital of India with a capacity to achieve 30 GW solely from coal-based thermal power. With thermal power generation taking precedence over all the other developmental activities in the region, Singrauli is also one of the most polluted areas in the country.
Reliance Power and the displaced, uncompensated Baigas
Beginning with the Rihand Dam in 1962, Singrauli has become a site for continuing displacement and deprivation of the indigenous communities in the region. By 1987, approximately 200,000–300,000 people had been displaced “three to five times in 25 years,” in Singrauli (Dokuzovic 2012). This article is about one such nomadic community displaced from forests, the Baiga, who are trying to reclaim their land acquired by the private multinational energy production company, Reliance Power Limited. This land was acquired by the company after leasing in two coal reserved coal mining leases *, Amlohri and Amlohri Extension, in 2006 that were reallocated to Reliance Power Ltd. by the Ministry of Coal towards captive coal mines for the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Plant (Sasan UMPP), the world’s largest integrated power generation and coal mining project, and one of four such UMPPs planned by the state. It is operated by a subsidiary of Reliance Power Ltd.
Following the acquisition of land for the mines, the Baigas were relocated to Krishna Vihar Colony, a rehabilitation colony set up by Reliance Power Ltd. 10 kilometers from the mines. When I visited the region in September 2016, several Baiga families displaced by the mines were moving back to their original place of stay, citing irregularities in compensation and lack of facilities at the rehabilitation site. According to official figures with the Singrauli district administration, 3,088 people from five villages—Sidhikhurg, Tiyyara, Jhanjhi, Sidhikala and Harrhawa—were displaced by the project. Of these, 419 opted to take residence in Krishna Vihar Basti, while the rest left after accepting the monetary compensation. Since August last year, around 70 people have returned to the forests from the Krishna Vihar Basti.
According to a report published by environmental researcher, Saumya Datta (2013), when Reliance Power owned the bid to construct the Sasan UMPP in 2007, it also agreed to the standard conditions of compensation, stakeholder consultations and rehabilitation. Dutta and several local residents also allege that the district administration of Singrauli did not pay heed to the specific laws related to the diversion of land of indigenous communities to any private or state-owned entity.
Further, Reliance Power, seeking benefits of carbon credits market, also wanted the project to be counted as following Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) adopted by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Stakeholder consultation with affected population, communication about the ‘benefits’ of CDM, sustainable development of the people, were some of the conditions that Reliance Power was required to comply with in order gain CDM benefits. After several visits by Dutta as well as other local activists, it became clear that even the mandatory public consultation held in April 2008 was conducted with a large police presence along with local land contractors as well as people from other parts.
Locals such as Shivam Kumar, a young land rights activist, allege that Reliance Power bought huge portions of land for a pittance, with the help of private contractors and touts in several areas. In areas that came under the forest department, alcohol and cash prizes were distributed by the Reliance Power officials. Reliance Power, however, denies the charges claiming that it got full consent from the locals to acquire their land for the mine, and the district administration oversaw the implementation.
During my visit to the Krishna Vihar Basti and the surrounding areas in September 2016, the situation recorded by Dutta and other members of different fact-finding teams in 2011 remained the same. It was agreed that at least one member of the displaced families would be given a reasonable job at Reliance Power with proper training. Out of the 419 who lived in the rehabilitation and resettlement colony, only 15 persons found a job. Most were employed as daily wage laborers, who after the initial days of employment during the construction of the plant, did not find any work. Local Reliance Power officials and residents at Krishna Vihar Basti narrate that the condition of the Baiga people who lost their land was worse. “They are accustomed to collecting forest produce and tilling the soil. There was nothing for them inside the power plant nor they bothered to train these people,” says Mahendra Singh, a local job contractor.
Singh, who initially helped Reliance Power in convincing the Baigas to sell their land, says the process of providing compensation was fraught with irregularities. He is himself locked in a legal battle with Reliance Power and says the company encroached upon a part of his one-hectare plot to build the Krishna Vihar Basti. “I am just helping the Baiga families to fight for their rights. I know how they have been wronged to give up their land,” says Singh.
The Baigas allege that the compensation has been inequitable and random. “Families belonging to the general category were paid a compensation of up to Rs 80 lakh per acre (1 acre equals 0.4 ha) while the Baigas received only Rs10 lakh  per acre,” says Ramavtar Baiga, who shifted to the rehabilitation site. Moreover, he says, only those Baigas who had land ownership documents (patta) were compensated.
As I met more people from the rehabilitation and resettlement colony, I found that people were angry over broken promises. “Our hamlet, which is a part of Tiyyara, used to have a middle school which has closed now. When Reliance Power came here, we were promised jobs, healthcare and education at the rehabilitation colonies. But this did not happen,” recalls Nandlal Baiga. Nandlal was allotted a plot along with a house in Krishna Vihar Basti and lived in the rehabilitation colony for two years. But he returned to his original place of stay near the mine in February last year. “I am primarily a farmer and also depend on forest produce,” he says, pointing at the paddy grown on a plot near his house. His neighbor, Sanatram Baiga, who was not given a house in the rehabilitation colony because he did not have patta, says he worked as daily wage laborer after being evicted but returned to the forests last year.
Ramavtar, who owned about 1.2 hectares in Tiyyara, and shifted to Krishna Vihar Basti, says he feels restricted in the rehabilitation colony because he has never lived in tiny concrete houses. A two-room concrete tenement in the colony is built on just a 485 sq m plot. “Every morning people gather at a provision store and talk about going back to the forest. Here we pay for electricity but in the forest we had lesser needs and mostly forest fulfilled those,” says Ramavtar.
Reliance Power: Breaking all limits of legality in Singrauli
In August 2016, Reliance mortgaged the mines to its financiers, which included SBI Capital Markets Ltd and Export-Import Bank of the United States, to raise more loans. This was the first time a private player was allowed by the government to mortgage mines and it is unclear what the repercussions of the decision could be. Several experts believe that it could have an impact on the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR). Mahendra Singh who has been taking up the issue of the displaced Baigas and others, shows a government order in which Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (now called Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) imposed a condition on the company.
“A provision of at least Rs 2.5 crores  per annum shall be made towards CSR-related activities till end of mine life [sic]. The amount may require to be increased with time based on actual situation. The proponent shall conduct a pre-mining socio-economic survey based on key indices given in the UNDP Human Development Report and monitor the status once every three years till end of project on the socio-economic status of the displaced communities and of the local villages,” states the ministry’s order. “Will these conditions be fulfilled by the mine owners now that they have mortgaged the mine?” asks Singh. His concerns are valid because even the Union Ministry of Coal officials claimed they were unclear about the status of tribal lands which were acquired by Reliance and have been mortgaged.
The mining continues in Sasan and other mines even as newer areas in Singrauli are being mapped for diversion to other private players. The status of the privately-operated Ultra Mega Power Plants such as Sasan remains unchanged in the eyes of the government policy makers. In areas within Singrauli, where the communities displaced by the mines are scattered, they have been turned into daily wage laborers to work on the same land that these communities owned. Despite several attempts by the local activists, representatives of the Baiga families to apprise the Collector of Singrauli district about the condition of the Krishna Vihar Basti and the mass exodus of the forest dwellers to the mining area, Madhya Pradesh government is yet to take note of it.
Dutta, Soumya. (n.d.). Reliance Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project: A Case Study. Retrieved from: <http://www.bankinformationcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Reliance-Sasan-UMPP_-A-saga-of-Deceit-Displacement-and-ruthless-exploitation.pdf>
Dokuzović, Lina. (2012, September, 30). Bhikharipore Singrauli: A Just Case for Development. Sanhati. Retrieved from: <http://sanhati.com/excerpted/5621/>