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Coal Mining and Indigenous Communities in India: Conflict or Co-optation?

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Coal Mining and Indigenous Communities in India: Conflict or Co-optation?

The story of Karampot illustrates how local politics around mining can ultimately result not in resistance but, rather, participation in the economy of resource extraction.

Coal Mining and Indigenous Communities in India: Conflict or Co-optation?
Credit: Depositphotos

Anti-mining protests by Adivasis, India’s indigenous communities, have in recent years drawn considerable attention. In many places across India’s mining tracts, Adivasis have been battling to protect their homes and local environments from the country’s expanding mining industry, which is intent on harvesting the coal that lies under their land. This, however, is only part of the picture. While stories about encounters between mining and indigenous communities – not only in India but also in other parts of the world – tend to focus on tribal opposition movements, the reality is often more complex and messy, and does not conform to the widespread but ultimately specious binary of “Adivasis versus mining corporations.”

I discovered this firsthand between 2015 and 2017 when I spent 18 months living and doing fieldwork in Karampot (a pseudonym), a coal mining-affected Adivasi village in the state of Jharkhand, eastern India. Once receding into a stretch of fields and sal woodland, the village is now abutted by a state-run, opencast coal mine, which has been encroaching on the land and forest surrounding it. Rather than an ongoing struggle by villagers against mining and land expropriation, however, I witnessed in Karampot a different dynamic – much less often documented but perhaps not less common. It involves not resistance but co-optation and fragmentation within the community, which effectively locks it into a dependent relationship with an environmentally detrimental extractive industry.

When, several years ago, it was announced that the mining project would be taking over agricultural land, this was initially met with protest. The pushback was organized by a local Adivasi political worker by the name of Budhram, affiliated with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) party, whom I got to know well during my stay in the village. Local opposition efforts, however, were short-lived: Instead of fighting an uphill battle against the expansion of the mine, Budhram soon shifted his focus to trying to deliver mining jobs to the community, as part of an existing but poorly implemented compensation policy for land loss operated by public sector mining companies in India.

Budhram’s approach was in fact not inconsonant with villagers’ – especially from the younger generation – own aspirations. Faced with declining subsistence agriculture and a lack of cash and work opportunities, for many villagers the expansion of the coal mine heralded not the destruction of a cherished rural way of life but, instead, an opportunity to fulfill hopes of economic security through the possibility of a coveted, regular job. Indeed, when thinking about dispossession, we cannot simply assume that people want to continue working the land. Often, they don’t: In much of rural India, agricultural plots lack any irrigation and are subject to demographic pressure, making farming difficult and unproductive.

The mining project, for its part, was also more inclined to discuss jobs with Budhram, as a representative of the community, than face potentially disruptive protests by villagers. Gaining employment through Coal India Ltd.’s compensation policy, however, was by no means a simple task, for it required eligible, land-losing villagers to produce a myriad of land ownership and identity documents from local government offices. This, it is commonly believed by villagers, requires not only the assistance of a local broker or patron, but often also payments to grease the palms of the different officers involved. The task was therefore undertaken, on behalf of villagers, by Budhram, who collected money from those who could afford it – through either loans from relatives or savings from years of casual, informal labor. After a lengthy process, jobs were indeed meted out to those villagers – including to Budhram’s own household – as assistants in the coalmine’s machinery workshop.

To some degree, this can appear as a relative success. While in many other reported cases, compensation for dispossession for mining has been meager or nonexistent, in Karampot at least some of the dispossessed were eventually able to obtain compensatory, permanent jobs – a rare commodity in India’s precarious labor landscape. These jobs allowed those Adivasis who managed to gain them to significantly improve their living conditions. They replaced their mud houses with concrete structures, their bicycles with motorcycles, and started sending their children to better, private schools.

But at the same time, compensatory employment, brokered through Budhram, gave rise to new, pronounced disparities in the community. Those who were not able to obtain it – either because their plot was not within the area that had been acquired for mining, or because they lacked the funds to produce the necessary documents – have been left behind. Unlike their newly employed counterparts, they still reside in earthen huts, with walls that tend to crack when blasting from the mine echoes through the village, and live a highly precarious existence. To make a living, they have taken to peddling coal, which they gather illicitly from the mine’s depot yard. They feel disgruntled, having received no economic opportunities or any other “development” benefits through the coal mine.

The ground for any kind of collective action, however, has become even shakier. Employed Adivasis now have other concerns, and have no wish to put at risk their jobs and economic security through partaking in political agitation against CIL. New divergences between employed and non-employed Adivasis have undercut the commonality of interests and, consequently, the types of solidarities required for collective mobilization. In parallel, Budhram’s mediating role in the distribution of jobs has established his position as the local conduit to mine-related benefits. A new form of patronage has developed, headed by Budhram, centered around the ability to interact and negotiate employment opportunities with the project. Having gained this patronage position largely through his engagement with the coal company, Budhram is now arguably ill-inclined to over-agitate against it on behalf of poorer, jobless villagers.

The story of Karampot illustrates how local politics around mining can ultimately result not in resistance but, rather, participation in the economy of resource extraction. Indeed, since the arrival of mining, livelihoods in Karampot have become bound up with, and almost exclusively dependent on, coal – whether through employment at the mine, for those who were fortunate enough to get it, or illicit coal peddling, for all the others – with no way back. Differently from more clear-cut cases of sweeping dispossession and displacement, which in recent years have triggered various Adivasi anti-mining struggles, this kind of undermining of indigenous livelihoods – through just as common – is more insidious and harder to challenge. Perhaps challenging such activities is even not always what “indigenous communities” – often wrongly seen as homogenous entities – necessarily want. While coal mining around Karampot has contributed to the erosion of traditional land- and forest-based Adivasi livelihoods, it has also provided access to new forms of work and income – some, like regular mining jobs, highly sought after. At the same time, however, mining and the reliance on coal-based livelihoods have implicated the community in a highly polluting, unsustainable extractive industry.

This also has longer-term, wider implications for debates on the environment and carbon emissions. While a shift away from fossil fuels is surely an urgent ecological goal, we must consider and address its ramifications for marginalized communities like in Karampot, where daily life and economic survival have come to depend, irreversibly, on access to coal, with no other livelihood options in sight. As livelihoods in such communities become entangled with coal extraction – and unless adequate social protection measures are put in place – proposed transitions to non-carbon energy, while environmentally critical, also risk dispossessing these communities of their very means of making a living.