Adivasi communities’ legal battle against the Singareni Coal Mine reveals violation of environmental laws and threat to human-animal life
A view of the Singareni opencast coal mine from Khairiguda village, Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, Telangana. Photo: Gunjeet Bhansingh
In the summer of 2016, over fifteen cattle died after drinking poisonous water from the Vattivagu Irrigation project in Ullipetta, Jendaguda and Gaurgguda villages of Komaram Bheem Asifabad district in Telangana. Since then, over hundred cattle of Adivasi villagers have died in the areas surrounding open-cast coal mine of Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL)—located in Khairiguda region of the district.
That summer, Vivekanand Sidam—a lawyer from the Gond community of Adilabad—was working on a case near the mines and was told about these deaths by the villagers. Five years later, in June 2021, when he visited the place again, the entire region was flooded after heavy monsoon rains. Sidam saw the mines’ dump, located close to several villages, flowing into the fields, crops and into the water bodies, including Vattivagu project. He was introduced to Gedam Dilip Kumar, 30-year-old deputy sarpanch of Ullipetta, by the villagers. Gedam has been a leading voice of resistance against the pollution caused by SCCL and the violation of environmental norms by the company.
In August 2021, Deccan Chronicle reported that SCCL’s coal dust were posing health risks and threat to locals, crops, flora and fauna. It noted that since it’s inception, over 19 Adivasi gudems—villages—had been displaced due to SCCL mines. “The situation is so grim that not only human beings, even forest animals are facing a threat to their life because of the ‘poison’ that flows into water bodies,” the report noted. “The piled up coal dust has become big heaps and appears like small hills. After disintegrating, the coal dust heaps flow into the water bodies and seep into groundwater and open wells in opencast mine areas following heavy rains. By flowing into the Vattivagu irrigation project, it is killing fish and cattle.”
The same month, the villagers of Ullipetta, Dorli, Khairiguda among others, gave representation to Telangana State Pollution Control Board and asked for taking action against pollution due to SCCL. They also requested TSPCB to visit the villages, who visited in October and collected samples from the area. Their lab reports found violation of environmental norms and issued a notice to SCCL—vide Letter No. 2087/TSPCB/RO/ NZB/W&A/20121-725. The notice stated that emissions by SCCL exceeded the “board standard of 100 mg/m3.” The TSPCB directed SCCL to take necessary actions to control dust emissions to meet the prescribed standards of the board and asked them to submit a report within ten days. The Singareni company, however, never filed the report. The 2021 TSPCB findings became a starting point for the ongoing legal battle of the Adivasi communities against the Singareni mines in Khairiguda.
After TSPCB’s report, Dilip Gedam and Lekuri Nagesh, a lawyer at the district court, decided to approach the National Green Tribunal, Southern bench at Chennai. They were represented by Adv Sidam, with the support of Environmental Defender Law Center, and Adv Sravan Kumar. The petition, filed under Section 14, 15 of NGT Act, raises questions of pollution at Ullipitta, Khairagura, Dhampur , Chanduguda, Saleguda, Sopdi, Areguda, Toyaguda, Devaiguda, Jendaguda in Bellampalli Area of Komram Bheem Asifabad District. The district is also part of Fifth Schedule of the Indian constitution, which provides several safeguards to the Adivasi communities.
[A copy of the NGT petition filed in March 2022]
The NGT petition argued that the provisions of Air Act, Water (Prevention and control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and conditions mandated in the Environment clearance, CFO among others were being violated. “The villagers also suffer a lot, as a big coal ash hillock has come up close to the village. There is practically no barrier or green belt exists between the Villages and the Coal Ash Hillock,” the petition noted. “That the Respondent No.1 [SCCL] and 9 [General Manager, SCCL] have been altering and diverting Vattivagu water body. This has resulting inundation of houses, agriculture lands in Dhampur and Chanduguda villages. That the villagers have been facing flooding during rainy seasons and undergoing severe financial loss and threat to their life.” The petition also highlighted that SCCL produced excess coal on demands of Telangana State government, which has been in violation of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and specific condition of Environment Clearance.
The Singareni Collieries Company Limited, now a jointly owned government company of Telengana State and Union of India, was started in 1920 by the British colonial government to extract coal from the Singareni coal fields in Telangana, India. The company’s operations expanded over the years, and it is now one of the largest coal mining companies in India, producing around 64.4 million tonnes of coal in 2020-21. SCCL is also responsible for around nine percent of the country’s total coal production. The coal mines operated by SCCL are primarily located in the Godavari Valley Coalfield of Telangana and the company operates 48 underground and open-cast mines in this coalfield, which covers an area of about 5,772 square kilometers.
SCCL primarily produces non-cooking coal, which is used in thermal power plants to generate electricity. The company supplies coal to several power utilities in India, including the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Andhra Pradesh Power Generation Corporation Limited (APGENCO), and Telangana State Power Generation Corporation Limited (TSGENCO). Therefore, SCCL plays an important role in India’s mining sector, particularly in the production of coal for power generation.
The Singareni open cast coal mine has been the center of controversy for several years. The mining has been ongoing since 2006, causing massive destruction of vegetation, wildlife, and human habitation in the Adivasi villages of the area. The project violates various constitutional rules, which are meant to protect the environment and the interests of local communities. The mining has caused economic loss, hunger, and health problems, and people have not been properly rehabilitated. The region also falls under the jurisdiction of Kawal Tiger Zone, a project established in 2015 and has displaced over 25 villages of Kolam tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. In December 2015, Sidam wrote about the violation of laws in its establishment and how it would affect Kolam people.
The coal mining has exceeded the open cast period permits, and as excavations continued, the project has gradually expanded to the outskirts of nearby villages. Villagers are suffering from noise pollution caused by blasts in the mines, and cracks are forming in the walls, causing hearing problems. The dumping of graded coal, coal wastes, and other waste materials in piles on river banks and in dumping yards is causing pollution and health problems including respiratory, skin, heart and other diseases. Moreover, it has led to death of cattle belonging to the villagers.
The Vattivagu project, also located in the Khairiguda region, which could provide irrigation water to at least 10,000 acres of land, is being affected by the pollution caused by the coal mining. The dumping of waste materials contaminates the ground water, drinking water, and crops, causing diseases and toxic fevers. The smoke emitted from the coal mines contains microscopic dust particles, which are causing respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and other health problems. Coal production requires large amount of water supply and it has been reported that SCCL has also been diverting Vattivagu canals for coal production.
The officials in charge of the project, including the District Health Department and Telangana State Pollution Control Board, have shown negligence, and the coal mining is continuing despite the harm it is causing to the environment and the local communities. “The tribal people, who rely on the forests for their livelihood, are being affected by the destruction of the forests and hills,” Sidam told Adivasi Resurgence. “The officials are turning a blind eye to the violation of Schedule Area Laws, and the Adivasi laws are limited to the exchange of papers in the hands of officials.”
In March 2022, in response to the petition filed by Gedam and Nagesh, the National Green Tribunal appointed a joint committee headed by Justice K Ramakrishnan to submit a report by April 29, 2022. The committee comprised of TSPCB, irrigation department officials and district collector was to inspect the Vattivagu Irrigation Project apart from the villages of Ullipitta, Zendaguda, Dhampur, among others.
[A copy of the NGT’s Joint Committee Report]
“The joint committee however visited the villages only in May,” Sidam said. The committee collected samples and sent them to the TSPCB lab, and submitted its report three months later in August. “The report does not represent the ground reality,” Sidam added. “The joint committee did not even visit many affected villages mentioned in the original petition and blindly submitted the report.”
The petitioners filed a response to the report, pointing out errors. “Water logging/part of submergence of Vullipetta village happened in 22/7/21 due to Singreni company’s mistake and not by heavy rains,” their response noted. It also pointed that report’s claim of only two houses being damaged was not true and that the company had not constructed any houses in the village. “The Singareni company had not followed the PESA rules from the beginning of the Khairagura opencast project,” it further added. PESA or Panchayat Raj Extension of Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 mandates consent of gram sabhas for any mining activities in the Fifth Schedule areas. For expansion of Khairgura opencast the Singareni company took environment clearances between 2007 and 2015. “However, MOEF and TSPCB does not have right on scheduled areas lands without take permission from local PESA gram sabhas,” Sidam said.
The response revealed grave errors and concerns. “Some of the district level departments, such as Ground Water Department and District Agriculture Department, submitted false report to the NGT expert committee,” Sidam argued. “The Medical and Health department never conducted any medical camps.” Despite several cases of health concerns reported by the media and documented by Sidam and others, the report submitted by the Medical and Health Officer of Komaram Bheem Asifabad District to the NGT in June 2022 noted that “there is no occupational Health issues in above said villages…there is no evidence/record of severe health issues.” The collected samples, Sidam argued, were manipulated at the Zonal Laboratory RC Puram, Sangareddy District, which is under the control of TSPCB. On 13 October, SCCL filed their objection to NGT stating they are not violating any laws and had complied with the required provisions.
The 2021 TSPCB report, however, was still hiding SCCL’s violations. On 11 January, 2023 NGT’s order stated that while the Joint Committee had pointed out the violations of the Environmental Clearance conditions, the same was not addressed by the TSPCB report. “The Telangana State Pollution Control Board seems to be satisfied that the project proponent is carrying the same in Tarpaulin covered trucks which itself is a violation,” the NGT order stated. The Tribunal also argued that since there was a violation of EC conditions, environmental compensation should have been calculated by the TSPCB. It asked, why TSPCB had not “computed the environmental compensation.”
TSPCB filed its response on 8 February, 2023 and argued that “the Ambient Air Quality, water sample reports are conforming to the stipulated standards prescribed by the SPCB/MoEF&CC.” On 17 March, NGT asked both SCCL and applicants to file their reply and it will give final hearing on 11 April. The Khairiguda Open Cast Coal Mine Project is a clear example of the destruction that can be caused by the violation of environmental and community protection laws. It is important to take action to stop the project and to find alternative ways to meet the energy needs of the country without causing harm to the environment and local communities.
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