West Bengal’s much publicised Biswa Bangla Business Summit held on 20-21 April in Kolkata had a curious omission. The state has the Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block, reportedly the second-largest coal block in the world and the largest in India. Yet the Business Summit did not deliberate on the rich coal deposit and the economic potential of initiating mining activity there. Among the 137 memoranda of understanding that the Chief Minister claimed to have entered into during the two busy days, none pertained to the rich coal block. There was no mention of the same in eloquent speeches by Mamata Banerjee, who invited investors to West Bengal and enjoy the Himalayas, the Bay of Bengal as also the Royal Bengal Tiger. Strangely, the second largest coal block of the world escaped the discussion.
It was reported by the Chief Minister that the 137 MOUs and other business talks, which included a Rs 10,000 crore commitment over ten years by none other than Gautam Adani, one of India’s richest industrialists had a cumulative value of Rs 342,375 crore. It indeed is a stupendous achievement, a massive amount generated in just two days. Had the state government placed the Deocha-Pachami coal block for investors probably the amount would have seen an even bigger jump. But it was not on the table.
It is curious given the fact that state has initiated land acquisition process in Deocha-Pachami and as expected a section of residents, mostly belonging to the Adivasi (Scheduled Tribe), Scheduled Caste, minorities and other communities are protesting against the land acquisition process. It is said that in the block spread over 13.7 square km, at least 43% are Adivasis. Around 9,034 Adivasis from the Santhal community will have to be displaced to implement this project. A total of 21,000 people will be displaced.
Aware of the worries of the land oustees, Mamata Banerjee has offered generous compensation and attractive rehabilitation package for the affected people. Rs 10-13 lakh per bigha, which is a third of an acre, will be provided to each household for their land. A 600 square feet home will be provided to each of the dislocated households in a rehabilitation colony. An additional Rs 5.5 lakh will be given for relocation-related expenses. In addition, the state government has announced that one family member from each displaced household will get a job as a junior constable in the state police. At least 160 agricultural labourers will get one-time compensation of Rs 50,000 and 500 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. Yet the villagers are protesting. Perhaps they are concerned of the proverbial gap between government promise and fulfilment of the same.
There are good reasons for such suspicion. The West Bengal government has promised reportedly a Rs 10,000 crore worth compensation package for the displaced villagers. In addition, it is stated that an investment worth Rs 25,000 cr will help setting up the mining project. The question unanswered is how will a state exchequer which is defaulting in pension, salary and even DA increase of staff, delaying recruitment of school teachers and other staff, has a huge debt burden, will raise the reported Rs 35,000 crore fund. There seems to be some big riddle behind Mamata Banerjee’s silence of Deocha-Pachami.
Whatever be the reason for the state’s silence over such a lucrative coal asset to be mined, the Chief Minister has been working towards mining the coal. Even in the midst of the Covid pandemic in July 2020, the project was announced. Mamata Banerjee had tweeted on that day that the residents of Mohammad Bazar Block in Deocha were consulted and the entire coal mining project was explained to them.
More than a year later, on 8 November 2021, Mamata Banerjee assured the legislators in the state Assembly that there would be no forcible acquisition of land, as had happened in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-2007 during the rule of the Left Front. She knows well enough the political cost of forcible land acquisition. Efforts to persuade the villagers perhaps paid off, since on 31 January 2022, quoting a state bureaucrat, the Telegraph had reported that “1,312 out of 4,838 landowners have given consent to part with their plots”. Yet not all are ready to get displaced and the “Birbhum Jibon, Jibika O Prakriti Bachao Maha Sabha” (Birbhum Association for Saving Life, Livelihood and Environment), an association of the indigenous people of Birbhum, organised a protest action at Dewanganj football ground against the Deocha Pachami coal mining project in February. Even on 18 April it was seen how the agitated tribal community chased out officials and busload of the ruling party supporters when the local officials went there to spread positive messages over the potential coal mine. Even Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari visited villagers at Deocha and supported their agitation against the land acquisition. This politics might help the BJP, but it is anti-development.
But more than such posturing and counter-posturing, the basic fact that remains unaddressed is who will fund the quantum of investment required to mine coal from this rich coal deposit, availability of technology and time to be taken for initiating mining activity. In short, there is no cost-benefit analysis, both technological and socio-economic, available in the public domain, nor is it reported that the same was undertaken. It is a standard step forward for any investment project, yet the state has not done it.
For Deocha-Pachami coal block it is critical since here the coal deposit is trapped under a thick layer of rock, mostly basalt. It was reported in December 2021 that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) had traced 29600 million tonnes of coal under the thick Rajmahal basalt in Rajmahal-Birbhum region. Coal was seen at a depth of 100 meter or more. The question is how would the thick rock be removed, if there is available technology for the same and what would be the estimated cost for mining the coal after importing such technology. Point to note is that Coal India in the past did not feel that mining coal from Deocha-Pachami would be commercially viable hence did not attempt any mining activity. In 2013 the then central government had offered Deocha-Pachami coal block to six different state power PSUs. But the allottees did not evince much interest in forming an SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) to initiate mining. Finally in 2018 the block went to WBPDCL (West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd) and in 2019 necessary allotment process was completed.
Evidently, the coal at Deocha Pachami remains untapped for the difficulty in mining the same. Even if the land is acquired and investment comes for mining under the thick basalt formation, the question that is never addressed is what will be the cost of such coal. As per GSI report the coal quality will be good enough for power generation only. If the cost of coal extraction is steep what will be the price of electricity generated from out of the Deocha-Pachami coal? Instead of addressing these pertinent business issues, the West Bengal government has rushed out to acquire land. This defies logic. The other curious omission, mentioned here at the outset, is if the state government is so confident of mining coal at Deocha-Pachami why did it not place it for the potential gathering of investors in Kolkata Business Summit?
There is something amiss here. Even the Opposition has failed to seek clarity from a government that has never bothered to do business as business should be done.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.