PhD candidate Vijayeta Singh received the Junior Research Fellowship by the American Institute of Indian Studies last year to conduct field research for her dissertation on understanding local oppositions to land acquisition and displacement due to large scale coal mining in India. Here, she writes about her visit to the field site of Keredari.
By Vijayeta Singh
My visit to the field site of Kerdeari is worth many stories. Here, I am going to tell the story which is most compelling in terms of progress in my dissertation. After a very long flight, 15 hours in the air to be precise, and 15 hours in the train over a period of four days and three nights, I reached the town of Jhumri Telaiya in the state of Jharkhand, India, the site of the Telaiya Ultra Mega Power Project or the Telaiya UMPP. About 100 Km (approximately 60 miles) south of this location lies the Keredari block of Hazaribagh district which is inhabited by the 20 villages that would get displaced due to a captive coal mining project to provide fuel to the Telaiya UMPP.
I had arrived in Keredari with a concrete research proposal and a prestigious grant that would support it. I was confident that with my significant working experience in the region in the past and prior contacts with key persons, I would be able to make considerable progress toward my research goals. And I did, indeed. However, in ways different from what I had envisioned. The field visit led to new insights on some of the preliminary hypotheses and presented the possibilities of additional data collection at the household level. But the most critical outcome of the visit was that I could renew my older bonds with the community I am intending to study and brief them about my research plans.
Before I delve into the field experience, it is important to set the context of the region this study focuses on. The state of Jharkhand has one of the richest mineral reserves in India and one of the largest coal reserves of the world. The state has large reserves of coal, iron ore, mica, bauxite, and limestone and considerable reserves of copper, chromite, asbestos, manganese, dolomite, tungsten, gold, etc. The main coalfields of the area are in Raniganj, Jharia, Bokaro, Ramgarh and the Karnpura coalfields spread largely over the district of Hazaribagh. This region produces nearly half of India’s total coal and coal mining is the biggest industry of Jharkhand. Apart from being the site of a major coalfield, the Karnpura valley has one of the best paddy fields and the richest forest covers of the state. The large-scale mining activities, particularly coal, have caused severe damage to the land resources. Vast tracts of rich forest and cultivated land have been rendered waste and barren due to poorly planned and implemented mining activities.
For those dependent on agriculture, both landowners and those with customary rights to land (share-croppers, agricultural laborers and artisans), the rapid growth of coal mining has led to widespread destruction of livelihoods and displacement of large populations.
Turning to the field work, the purpose of the visit was to gauge the public mood on the Telaiya UMPP two years after it was officially abandoned by the project developer. Throughout my field visit, I was trying to understand what had transpired with the affected communities threatened by dispossession due to coal mining since the inception of the Telaiya UMPP, through the attempted implementation, and up until its abandonment, spanning over a period of five years. My field investigation rested largely on informal meetings and discussions with the available village persons.
Being a native of the region, it was not very difficult for me to strike a conversation with the village persons who went about their daily lives as I moved from village to village in my rented vehicle. In a typical discussion, after exchanging greetings, I followed up with a summary of the purpose of my visit. I then shifted my discussion to inquiring about the Telaiya UMPP. My opening questions were deliberately loose and open ended to prevent myself from sounding assumptive and asking leading questions. I attempted to derive my questions from the information that was provided to me during the discussion.
My goal was to understand what the person thought of the Telaiya UMPP and its status, their opinion on the project (whether they supported or opposed the project), how it had affected them, and what their opinion was going forward.
I also recorded the names of the local groups that came up during the discussion and were thought to be active at different stages of the project. I would interview these groups later to understand their role in the shaping of the outcome of the project. Additionally, I spoke to the heads of the Panchayats or Mukhiyas who are the elected leaders of the local-self-governments at the village level in India. The goal of this exercise was to get a sense of the public opinion on the Telaiya UMPP and whether it would be appropriate to talk to individuals about their perception toward the project. In one of the affected villages, I could talk to multiple village persons who apart from providing valuable information were also willing to support my upcoming data collection in the villages. Apart from the visit to the affected villages, I also met with and spoke to the ex-officials of the Telaiya UMPP (employed with the project at the time) to understand the factors that led to the slowing down and eventually the withdrawal of the project. Based on this field investigation, I am now developing an interview checklist and a questionnaire survey that will help me collect the data I require to complete my dissertation research.
Vijayeta Singh is a PhD candidate in the Law and Public Policy Program at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. She is currently a junior research fellow with the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Her dissertation research focuses on understanding local oppositions to land acquisition and displacement due to large scale coal mining in India. Previously, she consulted with U.S. based institutions providing expertise on developmental work in India. Additionally, she has worked as a researcher with the World Wide Fund (WWF) and The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI). An innovative and self-driven problem solver, Singh has worked across all parts of India studying diverse social issues. In the North she has worked on sustainable tourism, in the West on rural development and poverty alleviation, in the East on rural electrification and resettlement and rehabilitation, and in the South with victims of the 2004 tsunami. She holds a Master of Arts in Social Entrepreneurship from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.