Featured image: A view of the Kenapara eco-tourism site. Photo: Vivek Gupta.
- The repurposing of abandoned quarry in the erstwhile mining town of Chhattisgarh’s Bishrampur as an eco-tourism site may provide a template for inclusive and sustainable transition to clean energy through alternative job creation.
- But barring boating and fish breeding, other key tourism infrastructure remains unutilised. The skill development centre that was closed for the pandemic has not reopened yet.
- Local administration is planning to hand over the site to the state tourism department to run it professionally and create more job opportunities for residents.
Bishrampur (Chhattisgarh): As a ride with 10 tourists comes to an end, the boatwoman leaves for another ride with new passengers. On the way back, she halts at a floating restaurant for snacks and tea.
Not too far from the floating restaurant, fish are held in underwater cages for breeding. From the floating restaurant, one can spot small huts atop a mound, for those who want to stay overnight.
What looks like a serene water body used to be the Bishrampur open cast coal mine (OCM) in Chhattisgarh’s Surajpur district.
Bishrampur OCM, which started in 1961 by the Union coal ministry subsidiary South East Coalfields Limited (SECL), produced over 38 million tonnes of coal through 10 quarries before it was officially shut down in 2020, government documents have revealed.
The above described tourist spot was OCM’s quarry Number 6 near Kenapara village, an active coal mine till 1985. Then it was abandoned, and the pit – with a diameter of nearly 2 km – was gradually filled with water to a depth of 150-200 feet (46-61 metres).
Residents say drowning accidents were common here. On May 16, 2023, two girls drowned in another abandoned quarry nearby, behind the city’s railway station, assistant sub inspector Ranjeet Sonwani at Bishrampur police station confirmed.
”Prevention of drowning accidents as well as making best use of its ecological strength were among prime reasons why we asked SECL to rehabilitate the site from its mine closure funds,” said former deputy commissioner K.C. Devsenapati, during whose tenure the ecotourism project was initiated in 2018 in partnership between SECL and the district administration.
“The site was then mutually planned for eco-tourism, bringing the necessary infrastructure in place in due course for benefit of all stakeholders,” Devsenapati added.
In the first phase of development in 2018-19, SECL provided nearly Rs 20 million to start a boat facility, floating restaurant and 32 fish-breeding cages, informed Gyanendra Singh, district coordinator for National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), which is monitoring the site along with other wings of the local administration.
Later in 2022, multiple agencies of the state government as well as corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of SECL provided nearly Rs 40 million to provide more facilities like cottages for overnight stay, a children’s play area, restaurants and a shopping mart, as well as landscaping, Singh added.
As per mining rules, it is obligatory on the part of mining companies to carry out protective, reclamation and rehabilitation work on quarries no longer in use in accordance with a mine closure plan.
Afforestation, development of eco-parks, ash filling measures and irrigation from quarries no longer in use are among different rehabilitation and reclamation practices of public sector coal companies in recent past. The old mines are also becoming renewable energy sources.
Two empty quarries of Bishrampur OCM are already under consideration for an irrigation scheme and are to be filled with ash from an NTPC-run thermal power plant. Besides, a solar plant is being set up in empty SECL land here.
But the eco-tourism experiment in Kenapara’s quarry is different.
Apart from preserving the water body and preventing untoward incidents there, it created employment for local people through boating and fish farming while creating scope for more jobs in future.
Thirty mined-out areas including the Kenapara site have been developed as ecotourism destinations in recent years, according to a recent press statement by coal ministry body Coal India Limited.
The creation of new jobs in mining towns is something that is being widely discussed among academics and environmental activists in light of India’s commitment to phase down coal and other fossil fuel production in order to be a carbon neutral country by 2070.
This typically means loss of traditional jobs as result of the transition away from heavy carbon-intensive sectors like coal which is the source of jobs for millions in countries like India.
Even though the Indian government recently clarified that the transition away from coal is not happening anytime in the foreseeable future as India is prioritising renewables to offset carbon emission, the job loss is already a reality in mining areas.
Although these job losses are not due to climate change policies but rather due to the expiry of the natural life of a coal mine, these closures still have a large impact on the fossil fuel industry and its workers.
A recent research paper by IIT Kanpur revealed that 5,000 to 10,000 people directly dependent on mines were rendered unemployed and without alternate source of livelihood after closure of 10 coal mines Anuppur district in Madhya Pradesh in the past decade.
Srestha Banerjee, director of the Just Transition Centre at the New Delhi-based Independent Environment and Public Policy Research Institute, iFOREST, said that the repurposing of abandoned mines for diversified economic activities and job creation is the most important aspect of just transition, which is basically about rehabilitating communities rendered jobless.
Banerjee said that when it comes to the repurposing of closed mines, current mine closure guidelines are restricted to technical and biological reclamation and restoration work. But beyond biological reclamation, abandoned mines can be used for economic activities like the promotion of MSME sector.
“Last year in April, the India government allowed the use of abandoned mines for energy infrastructure. But more can be done, given that land bank in abandoned mines is substantial and many of them have prime locations too,” she adds.
In past eight years, as per data from the coal ministry, which was tabled in parliament last December, nearly 16 mines were shut every year in nine coal producing states.
Bishrampur’s local economy too hit by mine closure
The economy of Bishrampur has been struggling since the mine closed. Satish Singhal, who runs an auto spare parts shop, says that many people running small businesses have already left town. “I am also thinking of moving to another city since earnings from my business is no longer able to sustain a livelihood,” he added.
Irfan Ali, former security guard at Bishrampur mine and now an auto rickshaw driver, said that he was among 200 security guards who lost their jobs, which had been contractual. Since then, life has been tough.
Ajay Kumar, a transporter, sold his three trucks and now runs a grocery store. He said his driver, labourer and helper all lost jobs after he had to close his small transport business after loss of work following the mine closure.
In empty coal quarries near villages, it is common to “steal” leftover coal. Men and women walk down the quarry slopes early in the morning to extract some coal and later sell it to nearby brick kilns, local eateries and middlemen. A SECL official says the problem is huge. But K.D. Banerjee, sub-inspector at Bishrampur police station, said that the problem is rooted in unemployment and abject poverty in these areas.
Incidents of scrap metal theft are also common in abandoned mining sites. “Last year we filed eight or nine such cases,” he said.
The ecotourism project is too small to employ even a fraction of those who have lost their livelihoods in the wake of Bishrampur mine closure.
But it shows a way forward, and has local support.
“SECL has a huge chunk of land here. This can be used to set up new industries or other avenues of employment generation to revive the local economy,” said Singhal.
As per SECL data, total land used for mining coal in Bishrampur was 1,472 hectares, almost 15 square km. Of this, the Kenapara ecotourism site covers 10.57 hectares.
The boat ride activity, which is the main attraction of the Kenapara eco-tourism site, is currently helping 12 members of Shiv Shakti Mahila Gram Sangathan, a self-help group (SHG) formed by the women of Kenapara and nearby areas.
Sangathan head Puja Sahu explains that they earn nearly Rs 80,000-90,000 a month from sale of boat ride tickets, at Rs 50 per passenger.
“From this amount, we not only pay for diesel and other maintenance expenses of boats but also spare Rs 3,000 per month for each of the 12 members working here,” she adds.
Puja says most of the women come from poor families. “They all feel financially independent.”
All members working at the ecotourism site know how to swim and were given basic lifeguard and boat ride training before being employed, said Gyanendra Singh of NRLM.
Ampi Rajwade, another SHG member, said that there are few job opportunities in and around the village. When Bishrampur mine was functional, people from her village would be able to find some work.
After the mine closure, people have been forced to do odd jobs in shops or as daily wagers. Some migrated to other mine areas in search of work.
“We are happy that the conversion of the old mine area has opened job opportunities for people around the area. But more jobs can be created here if footfall of the people increases,” Ampi added.
Cooperative society runs fish breeding
Like boating, fish breeding was initiated here with an objective of utilising Kenapara’s large water body to create additional employment opportunities.
Cage culture, according to local fisheries department, is an aquaculture production system where fish are held in floating net pens.
It encloses the fish in a cage or basket which allows water to pass freely between the fish and the water body permitting water exchange and waste removal into the surrounding water, adds the manual.
Mohar Sai Sonwani, assistant director of the local fisheries department, informed that the site has 32 cages, which can produce 90 to 100 tonnes of fish per year, at three tonnes per cage.
The operations are run by a cooperative society called Mahamaya Machua Sehkari Samiti with a lease from the fisheries department. Earlier a self-help group comprising of 41 members was engaged to run it but they could not manage it properly.
K.K. Gupta, Kenapara resident and president of the Samiti, said that their society currently has 11 members, men and women both It was through this society that all expenses including fish feed, medicines and labour cost were paid for while technical support came from the fisheries department. “We expect our first production later this year,” he added.
Not fully tapped
The ecotourism site gets most of its visitors from the nearby cities of Surajpur and Ambikapur. It is also easily accessible from a National Highway. The location was one reason for the choice of this site, say local officials.
But the infrastructure needs to be maintained and utilised if the site is to reach its full potential. The children’s play area is locked. The cottages built for overnight stay have not been opened to the public yet. The floating restaurant is the only eating place open. There are five empty structures meant to be restaurants. The place where you buy a ticket for the boat ride does not even have a proper counter.
Members of the SHG say the daily footfall is not more than 100-120. On weekends, it touches 200. But there is a possibility to increase it much more if all the infrastructure created here is maintained, promoted and utilised.
While there was no official response from SECL, Sanjay Aggarwal, who recently took charge as deputy commissioner of Surajpur district, said that the place has a huge potential to be developed as an attractive tourist hub as well as create more jobs for local people.
But right now, there is no nodal agency which can run it properly. Different wings of the local administration are looking after the site. “We are sure that the tourism department as a nodal agency has the expertise to run a place like this. We are currently in talks with them and open for further changes at the site,” Aggarwal said.
Riti Chatterjee, a research scholar at IIT Kanpur’s Just Transition Research Centre is also of the view that eco-tourism can be a viable option for livelihood generation after coal mine closure.
However, it is important to note that the success of eco-tourism as a livelihood option depends on several factors, including infrastructure development, marketing strategies, community involvement, the implementation of sustainable practices and the correct use of the natural and cultural attractions of the area, she added.
Additionally, careful planning and management are crucial to ensure that eco-tourism activities do not harm the very resources they rely upon, she then said.
Skill development centre not revived after pandemic
Initially, another highlight of this site was a skill development centre. In the first year of its operation in 2019, nearly 200 women were trained in making bamboo furniture, tailoring and other commercial activities. The bamboo furniture they made is still kept at the spot.
The hall which housed the skill development centre was turned into a COVID-19 health centre during the pandemic. Then in 2022, the district administration opened a C-mart in this place. C-marts are Chhattisgarh government-run showrooms for marketing products made by women self-help groups, craftsmen, weavers, artisans and potters.
Puja Sahu of the SHG said the centre was very good for local women. But it was closed eventually.
Officials are reportedly planning to shift the C-mart to Surajpur city, where they think the sale potential is higher. “Once this is done, the skill development centre here will be revived,” said an official.
This story was produced with the support of the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.