Fr Swamy silenced over India’s coal and Adivasi
by Giorgio Bernardelli

The Jesuit clergyman, who died in Mumbai after nine months in detention, wrote a scathing article against the Indian government’s policy of auctioning off 41 coal mines to private interests. India’s coal is front-page news in the wake of COP26 in Glasgow.

Ranchi (AsiaNews) – Fr Stan Swamy was a prophetic voice when he spoke about coal mines in India, an issue that is front-page news around the world.

That voice was first silenced with prison, then extinguished at the age of 83 when he died last July from the consequences of his detention.

One of the issues that led to Fr Swamy’s judicial persecution was his criticism of the central government’s decision to auction off coal mines violating the rights of tribal communities to whom the Indian Jesuit had dedicated his life.

The issue is timely. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, better known as COP26, wrapped up on Saturday with a compromise among the countries that signed the Paris Agreement.

India’s demand to keep using coal was one of the main issues on the table. The new agreement is worded in such a way that it refers to phasing down coal rather than phasing it out.

In India, coal has both environmental as well as social consequences. It is found in a very specific areas, namely the states of Jharkhand (where Fr Swami lived), Odisha, and Chhattisgarh, home to important tribal communities.

For this reason, in June 2020, a few months before his arrest, the Jesuit priest, a leading defender of the most downtrodden Indians, wrote one of his last articles for Gaon Connection, an online platform dedicated to rural issues.

In it, he took a hard-line against the Indian government for auctioning off 41 coal mines to private interests, and investing more in this energy source through a public company, Coal India Ltd.

“We are told 10 crore (100 million) tonnes of coal will be made into gas,” he wrote. Thus, “India will become the biggest coal-exporting country in the world and this will be a giant step towards making our country self-reliant.”

However, “most of these mines in all the above states are located in the predominantly Adivasi-inhabited areas, that is in the Adivasi land and forests. No need to remind anyone that as it is Adivasis are among the most-marginalised communities.”

While the latter “make up about eight per cent of India’s population of 1.3 billion, [. . .] about 40 per cent of the 60 million people displaced by development projects in the past decades are Adivasis. Only 25 per cent of them have been resettled”, and none have been “rehabilitated.” Instead, “They were given minimal compensation and then neatly forgotten.”

“Only two parties (the central government and the private companies) are at the negotiating table. Where are the people whose land will be excavated, [who] will be displaced, [. . .] reduced from being land-owners to landless casual labourers?”

“[P]ast experience shows that private companies are not going to abide by the laws protective of the Adivasi community and their rights over natural resources.” Indeed, “The government will acquire Adivasi land, forcibly if need be, and hand it over to the companies. The land is given to them on a platter.

“If affected people will protest, they will be handled by the law-and-order forces willingly supplied by the local government administration. Multiple [legal] cases will be foisted on those who lead peoples’ protests” with many will be “thrown behind bars.” Which is exactly what happened to Fr Swamy himself a few weeks later.

For the Jesuit priest, coal mining was not an issue per se. in his view, “It is not to say that there should be no mining of minerals at all. Only it must be [done] to meet the needs of the community and not for making profits.

“We can combine the two significant Supreme Court judgments; namely, the 2013 verdict, which entitles the owner of the land to be also the owner of sub-soil minerals, and the 1997 verdict which declares that cooperatives of local Adivasis alone can do the mining work.

“It then becomes the paramount duty of the state to help in the formation and registration of coops and to provide the wherewithal such as the initial capital, the needed technical expertise, managerial skills, marketing avenues etc. so they can function flawlessly and to the benefit of the whole community. The state can do it if it really wants the development and welfare of all. Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Those words were published on 23 June 2020; a few weeks later, on 8 October, he was arrested by India’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on terrorism charges.

Since then, the government went ahead with auctioning off the mines; however, out 41 possible bids, only 19 concessions were granted, partly because of investors' doubts about the government’s coal policies and coal’s long-term viability. 

In fact, the authorities went ahead with new tenders. The last took place last month. Some 88 coal mines are currently available in India to private investors.