Photo courtesy: Vijay Ramamurthy

Pushed to the brink, adivasis march against coal mine expansion in Hasdeo Arand, Chhattisgarh

Mining activities lead to widespread environmental degradation and destruction. It also affects communities dependent on the forest areas for their survival. In this report, MEENA MENON documents the protest of Adivasi communities against coal mine expansion in Hasdeo Arand in Chattisgarh.

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AFTER protesting against the expansion of coal mining in the region for over a decade, the adivasis of the Hasdeo Arand forest in Chhattisgarh have embarked on a 300-km march to Raipur to protest the government’s plans to expand coal mining in the region.

The march will end in a public meeting on October 14, 2021 in the state capital with representations to the Chief Minister and Governor.

The protest coincides with a heated debate on the purported coal shortage in the country and the fact that the coal mine sector is facing increased privatisation. In a way, the march highlights several issues – that while India has ambitious solar energy targets, it is still hugely reliant on coal and fossil fuels for power generation, large forest areas are being cleared for coal mining at a time when climate change is no longer a distant threat, and changes in land use are totally unwarranted, among other things.

In addition, there is an intention to introduce, consider and pass the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Amendment Bill, 2021. As reported in Down to Earth, the bill has not been made public and there has been little discussion on its ramifications as a result. The bill seeks to lease land and coal mining rights to any company, including those from the private sector, and vest the land and coal mining rights to the state governments. Mining cum developer operations (MDO) are already allotted to private companies. Adani Enterprises alone holds four such contracts for mines in Chattisgarh and Odisha, as will be explained later.

The adivasis from the Gond, Oraon, Lohar and Kunwar tribes inhabit the Hasdeo Arand forest in Sarguja and Surajpur districts, classified as a no-go area for coal mining in 2009 by the Union environment and coal ministries. This area is spread over 170,000 acres and is among the largest forest areas in the country. It is among the country’s richest and most biodiverse regions.

The protest

The march was to begin on October 2 at Fatehpur, but a convention of gram sabhas was disrupted by some goons who tried to scuttle the programme. However, the programme was resumed and the march began on October 4 from Madanpur- a place Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had visited in 2015 and promised gram sabhas that the forest would be protected by not permitting any coal mine expansion.

There are 30 coal blocks in the Hasdeo Arand coalfield of which two – Chotia, and Parsa East and Kenta Basan (PEKB) – are operational. Of the 2700 hectares in the PEKB block, 760 hectares have already been approved for mining.

Photo courtesy: Vijay Ramamurthy

The current protest is centred on the five million tonne per annum capacity Parsa open cast mine which received environment clearance on July 12, 2019 and Stage one forest clearance on February 13, 2019. About 841.53 hectares will be affected by the mine.

While the total capital cost of the project is Rs 1,960 crore, the cost of the rehabilitation is yet to be estimated.  It is the villages affected by this mine that are leading the protest. About 995 families will be affected by this project; of which 554 lose their lands and 411 lose their homestead land and their farm land from six villages: Salhi, Ghatbarra, Hariharpur and Fatehpur of Udaypur tehsil of Sarguja district and Janardanpur and Tara from Premnagar tehsil, Surajpur district, according to the environmental clearance given to the Parsa open cast mine.

Adivasi men look over the apocalyptic coal mine that now replaces their ancestral forest. (PEKB Mine, Hasdeo Aranya, Chhattisgarh)
Photo courtesy: Vijay Ramamurthy

Also read: Dilution of Mining Norms: Linear Projects to be Considered Standalone

Demands of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti

The local communities formed the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti to protect and conserve the ecosystem of Hasdeo Arand, and oppose the expansion of mining.

Local activists, who chose to remain anonymous, stated that the people of Fatehpur and Hariharpur held a 79-day protest in 2019 against the opening up of mining in the region. The Samiti has also complained against work on some bridges and a weigh bridge to weigh coal trucks being started without all clearances being obtained.  Local communities are in ferment over the violation of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) and the alleged forging of gram sabha resolutions approving the mining in 2018.

The Samiti has submitted complaints and filed first information reports (FIR) with the police that gram sabha meeting approvals were forged, but no action has been taken. It also contended that the stage one forest clearance was based on forged gram sabha documents.

The former sarpanch of Salhi gram panchayat, Raniyabai, has submitted a letter saying that the gram sabha meetings approving the Parsa coal block mining were forged, and no meetings were held on January 24, 2018 in Hariharpur and January 27, 2018 in Salhi villages, as there was no such gram sabha conducted on those dates. The Samiti further alleges that the land acquisition notices were issued under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957 without the consent of the gram sabha, as is mandated under PESA, and this is a Fifth schedule area.

The Samiti has demanded that all plans for coal mining in the Hasdeo forest region must be cancelled, land acquisition conducted under the Coal Bearing Areas Act, 1957 without the consent of gram sabhas in the Hasdeo forest region must be cancelled, and the land returned. They have also demanded that the constitutional requirement that land acquisition in Fifth Schedule areas under any act must be done with the consent of the gram sabhas must be implemented, the fraudulent process by which forest clearance was granted to the Parsa coal block must be investigated, and an FIR filed against the company and the government authorities involved in the process.

The protestors further demanded that the cancelled community forest resource rights recognition granted to the gram sabha of Ghatbarra village be restored, community forest resource rights and individual forest resource rights of all the villages in the Hasdeo forest region be recognised, and the stipulations of the PESA must be respected.

Photo courtesy: Vijay Ramamurthy

The Adani connection

Of the five coal blocks in question which are contiguous, two are in dense forest areas. The coal from the Parsa and PEKB mines have been allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd. (RVUN) by the Union Ministry of Coal for its power plants, and are owned by the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam.

While the coal block is allotted to the Rajasthan utility, the developer is Adani Enterprises, which in April 2013 began its integrated coal MDO operations by starting coal production in the PEKB mine. A statement on the Adani website said that this was among the four MDO contracts bagged by Adani enterprises and it has outlined a phased capital outlay of Rs 3000 crore for the entire block.

The contract to develop the Parsa open cast mine is now being executed by Adani Mining, a 100 percent subsidiary of Adani Enterprises. The block holds reserves of over 450 million tonnes of coal and will produce 2 million tonnes a year initially, to be ramped to 15 million tonnes a year from 2017 onwards. Under the contract, Adani Mining will set up a coal washery, a coal handling plant and railway siding infrastructure to transport the coal to power plants in Rajasthan.

Also read: Mining Act: Will the Centre Usurp the Powers of Mineral-rich States?

A statement from Adani said the MDO is a concept which is new to India and the coal owner, which in this case is the Rajasthan power utility, contracts the entire operations to a third party which takes the responsibility of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation, mining, developing and operating the mine. It also supplies the coal at a tender determined price to the power plants of the state electricity boards who own the mines. Adani is also the MDO for Parsa block in Chattisgarh, owned by the Chhattisgarh State Power Generation Co. Ltd., which has a capacity of 150 million tonnes, and two other companies in Odisha.

The government has faced criticism for allocating coal blocks in the Hasdeo Arand region, and human rights organization Survival International, in a statement, said that the forest and its peoples would be destroyed if the mines go ahead. There are plans to open 55 new coal mines and expand 193 existing ones, to increase coal production to 1 billion tonnes a year.

The Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti in a public statement said, “The federal and the state government, instead of protecting the rights of us tribal and other traditional forest dwellers have joined hands with mining companies and have been working towards devastating our forest and land. We are bound to resist and conduct a satyagrah to safeguard our water, forest, land and our livelihoods and culture that are dependent on them. We appeal to all citizens who love the Constitution and Democracy, all who are committed to safeguard the waters, forests, land and environment and all sentient citizens to join us in this gathering and the march.”

Adivasi people of Hasdeo Rally during Gandhi Jayanti to uphold their Constitutional their rights. (Fateppur village, Hasdeo Aranya, Chhattisgarh, 2nd October 2021) Photo courtesy: Vijay Ramamurthy

While India has a poor track record of resettlement and rehabilitation in projects, a new United Nations Development Programme report points out that “In India, five out of six multidimensionally poor people are from lower tribes or castes. The Scheduled Tribe group accounts for 9.4 percent of the population and is the poorest, with 65 million of the 129 million people living in multidimensional poverty”. The inhabitants of Hasdeo Arand are scheduled tribes who are now confronted with displacement and loss of access to the forests.

The government unhesitatingly diverts forest land for coal mining, while at the same time not ensuring that the people who are affected are consulted or even given a choice of discussing and even opposing mining, despite stringent legal provisions under PESA and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act. In fact, as the affected communities have pointed out, their gram sabha resolutions have been forged. Their claims under the Forest Rights Act have not been settled, and community forest rights granted to Ghatbarra village were cancelled.

Also read: PM Invoked Gandhi, Centre Sought Dilution of Forest Act on Oct

This is not the first time gram sabhas and villages opposing projects are bypassed in illegal ways. Why haven’t the complaints of forgery of gram sabha resolutions been investigated? Privatising mining will also push tribal communities living in the forests to the edge, as accountability will be a further casualty.  While announcing exemplary renewable targets, the government needs to take into account the lives and the livelihoods of the adivasis, and their right to life which is constitutionally guaranteed.

(Meena Menon is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds, and an independent journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.)

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