New Delhi: On 2 October 2011, Ghatbarra village in the Hasdeo Arand forests of north Chhattisgarh passed a gram sabha (village assembly) resolution opposing mining the forests for coal.
Ten years later, on the afternoon of 2 October 2021, hundreds of villagers in the area came together to reiterate that demand: to protect one of India’s key forest tracts from being stripped for open-cast coal mining.
The Hasdeo forests spanning north Chhattisgarh’s Korba, Sarguja and Surajpur districts comprise some of central India’s largest contiguous tracts of forests—home to forest and agriculture-dependent communities, such as the Gond Adivasis, perennial water sources, biodiversity and myriad animals, including elephants and leopards. The Hasdeo landscape reflects a worldwide phenomenon of environmental stewardship by indigenous communities: as per the Food & Agricultural Organization, traditional indigenous territories encompass 22 percent of the world’s land surface, but 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.
But this rich ecosystem is also coveted by mining corporations for the vast coal reserves it holds: the Hasdeo Arand Coalfield, as mapped by the ministry of coal has over a billion metric tonnes of proven coal reserves, across 1,878 sq km, 1,502 sq km of which comprise forest lands.
Villages and forestlands across Hasdeo have been carved up into 18 coal mines or blocks to be awarded to companies. So far, four blocks have been allotted to 3 state-owned corporations. All of them have in turn awarded “mine developer and operator” contracts to one of India’s most powerful corporations, Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL), headed by Gautam Adani, Asia’s second wealthiest tycoon, according to a recent report.
AEL now holds contracts to mine an estimated 964 million tonnes of coal in Hasdeo. To get to it, nearly 7,500 hectares of land and forests (an area equivalent to 1/8th the size of Mumbai) that local communities currently depend on, will be taken over and stripped for open-cast mining. This includes the largest operational mine in Hasdeo, the Parsa East Kete Basan Coal Block controversially given a forest clearance in 2011. Allotted to Rajasthan’s state power utility, the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, the block is currently being mined by AEL as the MDO.
Over the years since AEL began mining operations in Hasdeo, communities across the region have witnessed the impacts of deforestation, and mobilised against new mining projects. The decade-long struggle underway in the Hasdeo Arand forests has become a poster child for environmental justice movements in India, with village communities asserting their legal rights, using laws such as the Forest Rights Act, moving courts, undertaking padyatras (marches on foot) and organising months-long sit-ins.
At a recent protest on 2 October in Fatehpur village, villagers invoked Gandhi, launched a ‘forest satyagraha’ and two days later, on 4 October, they set off on a 300-km march to the state capital of Raipur. Alok Shukla, a Chhattisgarh-based environmental activist who has been working alongside the communities of Hasdeo since 2011 spoke to Article 14 on how the decade-long protests in Hasdeo have evolved, the battle Adivasi communities wage to assert legal rights and dignity against powerful mining corporations, backed by both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, depending on who has been in power.
Why did people choose 2 October to launch their latest forest protection protest against coal mining in Hasdeo?
We chose this day because it is Gandhi Jayanti. Gandhi argued that India resides in its villages. In the India of his dreams, villages were to be self-reliant. Politicians pay homage to Gandhi every 2 October, but they dishonour his principles. We are witnessing the decimation of villages in order to hand over their natural resources to corporations.
During the pandemic we saw that when so many migrant workers had nowhere to go, they returned to their villages. So the government should be looking to economically strengthen the villages.
But the development model that it is ramming through is destroying the very survival base of the villages. Coal will be extracted, and the villages of Hasdeo will not get anything from this development model; it will signal their destruction.
Gandhi also said that nature can fulfil our needs but not our greed. The plan to destroy Hasdeo for its coal is a prime example of such greed. Since the last 10 days, people were being threatened and intimidated and sarpanches like Jainandan Porte were told that if yesterday’s meeting happens, you will be dismissed. (See a 2019 interview with Jainandan Porte, the Gond environmental defender and sarpanch of Salhi village on why villages are opposed to mining Hasdeo for coal here). The police were acting as if they were an extension of the mining company, and treating us like enemies of the state. But the Constitution gives us the right to wage these struggles.
From 4 to 13 October we are marching to Raipur in protest. We will meet the Governor who has a special responsibility under the Constitution to protect the rights of Adivasi communities in Schedule V Areas like Hasdeo. We will also meet the Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. If you recall, Rahul Gandhi had visited Hasdeo in June 2015 when gram sabhas had spoken up against coal mining. He had told the people that the Congress party stands with them, and their struggle to protect their jal, jangal, jameen (water, forests and land). The Congress is in power in the state since 2019 and Hasdeo’s residents expect them to honour these promises, instead of reneging on them.
For readers who might have never visited Hasdeo Arand, what would you tell them? What is at stake here, and why have local communities been agitating against forest destruction for the past decade?
First of all, the local Adivasi communities are of course agitating to save their jal, jangal, jameen. That is the basis of their livelihood, culture and survival. But they are also waging a much larger battle that goes beyond self-interest. They are trying to protect this entire forested landscape. They are speaking up about the Hasdeo River catchment area which is nurtured by the forests, the existence of elephants and wildlife, the environmental harm caused by coal mining— emphasizing the interconnectedness of all these issues.
The challenge of climate change and our role in it poses fundamental questions about the survival of the planet. In such a scenario, dense forests like Hasdeo need to be saved from destruction. So this is not just Hasdeo’s struggle, this is a matter of societal good which concerns all of us, whether we reside in the cities or the villages.
Secondly, if the fight to save Hasdeo gets crushed, it will also constitute a defeat for our democracy. There is no door of law or government that the people here have not knocked on in the past 10 years.
Since 2014, when the auction of coal-rich lands in areas like Hasdeo was announced, gram sabhas vociferously opposed this plan. In January 2015, the villagers met (the then Minister for Environment, Forests & Climate Change) Prakash Javdekar and said we do not want our villages to be auctioned for coal.
They have written various times to the Prime Minister and successive Chief Ministers in these years, submitted written opposition to the ministry of environment & forests, to the Coal Ministry, moved the High Court, the National Green Tribunal, and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. At every step of government processes for new coal mines, from the Terms of Reference of a proposed mine to its final environmental and forest clearances, the people of Hasdeo, through the institutions of the gram sabha, have voiced their concerns and opposition. They have tried to make their voice heard through padyatras, fasts and months-long sit-ins.
Despite all this, land acquisition processes are being pushed through without the consent of the gram sabhas. Forest clearances such as in the case of the Parsa Coal Block have been awarded based on fake gram sabha proceedings. Environmental clearances have been awarded illegally. But neither the central government nor the state government has taken any action to enquire into these complaints and stop these illegalities. Despite such blatant violations of the law, the people persist with democratic methods, and wage peaceful and legal protests. The country’s citizens should stand by such an important struggle because it is a question of democracy and upholding the rule of law.
Much of Hasdeo Arand is a Schedule Five area, where constitutional and legal protections are in place to prevent Adivasi communities from being dispossessed, and to protect their autonomy. Additionally we have laws like the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act, which devolve power to village assemblies and uphold their land and forest rights. How have these provisions shaped the environmental struggle in Hasdeo, and the government’s approach towards the people?
A key feature is that the movement has founded itself on the gram sabha, which is a constitutional body—whether it is directly writing to the Prime Minister to not auction their land and forests for coal, or to directly oppose the plan of commercial mining. An alternative voice has always come forth from the gram sabhas of Hasdeo.
But all these protective laws which you mention, which are so vital for democracy in Adivasi areas are being progressively weakened. When the Forest Rights Act was enacted with great fanfare, it was explicitly stated that the law is meant to redress a historical wrong against Adivasis and forest dwellers (of prior laws criminalising their ties to the forest). People are waging their struggles invoking such (new) laws. But governments, whether it is the BJP or the Congress, dislike this principle of taking the consent of the gram sabha, of honoring the laws that give communities the power to decide how the resources in their area must be used. They think, who are the people that we should ask them? The whole thinking continues to be like the colonial thinking, that the government is the ruler, the janta (public) is the ruled.
Let me give you an example: in 12 villages of Korba, which fall in the Hasdeo region, communities submitted their forest rights claims in 2014. Their resource rights claims under the law are yet to be recognised. Officials categorically told them that coal blocks are proposed in this area so we cannot give you your rights.
So, as far as the government is concerned, corporate interest trumps everything. That was the attitude of the (former) Raman Singh government and that is the attitude of the Congress.
A jan sunwaai for environmental clearance for the coal mine was called this July—in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, and at the very time when people are caught up in sowing operations. It was only after people protested that officials called it off. What was the emergency to push through hearings like this?
In Salhi and Hariharpur villages for example, the government had called for gram sabhas to be held on the issue of land being acquired for coal mining, and people expressed their opposition. The government called for it a second time, and the gram sabha again expressed opposition. The third time the government called a gram sabha, the villages gave it to the Collector in writing, saying why are you calling gram sabhas on the issue repeatedly when we have expressed our opposition to land diversion. The Collector retorted that how does it matter, you keep expressing your opposition. Our fear is that a gram sabha will be intimidated by summoning the sarpanches and a fake gram sabha proceeding will be pushed through in order to secure forest clearances. This has been our experience in the past and people have written to authorities on numerous occasions complaining against such fake gram sabha documents. Villagers have written to the Chief Minister this year in January too protesting against such fake gram sabhas.
So, in an area like Hasdeo, where gram sabhas are so active and informed, the government’s strategy is, ‘Let us bypass them altogether.’ And this is being done by invoking the 1957 Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition (CBA) Act, when by law, the 2013 Land Acquisition Act which lays down the provision of consent of landowners to acquisition, should be invoked. And to make matters worse, the government says that where the CBA applies, PESA will not apply. So this is how they are bypassing the institution of the gram sabha, and the provision of consent.
The government argues that coal is needed for the country’s development.
In 2010 the government itself declared that a vital forest landscape like Hasdeo should be treated as a No-Go zone where coal mining should not take place because of its ecological value and site for biodiversity. As far as the need for coal goes, we have to meet our requirements, but while minimising environmental damage. Coal is seen as the least expensive source of power, but that is only because we do not account for the destruction of the forests, the wildlife, the biodiversity, and the costs imposed on local communities in terms of their displacement, the erosion of local forest- and land- based livelihoods, the polluted air and water sources that communities have to live with.
In its Vision 2030 document, Coal India (India’s public sector coal mining corporation and one of the world’s largest coal mining corporations) says that existing coal block allotments are sufficient to meet existing demand. Coal blocks with reserves of 480 million tonnes have been allotted where mining is yet to begin. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has said that thermal power based electricity will decline in the coming decades and renewable energy sources will expand. So why must the government destroy vital forestlands like Hasdeo for new mines?
Securing profits for Adani which has been awarded ‘Mine Developer Operator’ contracts by various state-owned utilities for four coal blocks in Hasdeo seems to be the driving force behind the government’s decisions, not the needs of the community. For example, Madanpur—the very village of Hasdeo which Rahul Gandhi visited in June 2015 to voice support for Hasdeo’s gram sabhas—falls in the proposed Paturia-Gidmudi Coal Block. It was allotted to the Chhattisgarh Power Generation Company, which in March 2019 signed an MDO agreement with Adani company for that coal block. That signalled to the villagers that the Congress party had made empty promises, and reversed its stand when it came to power.
Also note that the community forest rights title that had been awarded to Ghatbarra village under the Forest Rights Act was illegally revoked in 2015 (so that the land could be taken over for the PEKB mine). Bhupesh Baghel who was then in the opposition strongly opposed this in the state assembly. Why has that cancellation not been revoked now that he is the Chief Minister? Are we to believe that where the interests of Adani company starts, all the rights of local communities get extinguished?
How did your association with Hasdeo Arand begin?
I have been working on issues of the environment, Adivasi communities and farmers in Chhattisgarh since 2004. In 2010, we formed an alliance of various grassroots groups called the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, which I anchored as the Convenor. In 2011, Heera Singh Markam (a former Adivasi legislator and leader of the central Indian Gondwana Ganatantra Party) asked me to accompany him to Hasdeo to look at how gram sabhas can be strengthened in the face of deforestation and displacement due to coal mining.
This was the time when the first mine, Parsa East Kete Basan had just begun, and gram sabhas were being intimidated into going along with the whole process. At that time, people were not given proper information either about the project and its impacts. People also had very little knowledge of green clearance and land acquisition procedures, new laws such as the Forest Rights Act and their powers under it to take decisions over their forest resources. It was only after the PEKB mine began operations that people realised how the Hasdeo landscape will be destroyed if the forests are turned over for coal mining.
20 more coal blocks had been awarded at that time in the Hasdeo area, and people wanted to know how to respond legally to this challenge. Over the subsequent years, I began working in this area, and villages mobilised themselves by forming the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS). A key factor which has strengthened the movement to protect the Hasdeo forests in the past decade is that the villagers who were active in the HABSS have now been elected to sarpanch posts. So the sangathan has the powers available to elected representatives. If mining corporations had installed their people in these elected positions in the village, the fight to protect Hasdeo would have been greatly weakened.
I think a key role that activists like us have played is making information available to village communities. Important developments and decisions around resources take place in powerful quarters, but people on the ground whom it affects the most are never given proper information about it. So we track proceedings of the environmental clearance processes, the Forest Advisory Committee and forest clearance procedures, and decisions of the various ministries at the centre and in the state government. We share information with the village communities, talk to them, discuss how to frame replies, and what are the concerns and illegalities to raise. The battle to save Hasdeo takes place on the ground, and in documents and courts.
You have been targeted by the Pegasus spyware. A lawyer like Sudha Bharadwaj, who represented Ghatbarra village in the High Court when its community forest rights title was revoked to enable that forestland to be handed over to the PEKB mine, is in prison since 2018. Do you feel intimidated?
Everything that I say on the issue of Hasdeo forests, mining and corporate misconduct is in the public domain. So why am I being spied upon? Someone like Sudha Bharadwaj, who has worked for the labourers and Adivasis of Chhattisgarh for over four decades and argued their cases in court, is in prison without trial. The government is painting such sensitive and committed individuals who speak of rights and the law as enemies of the people. Debate and dissent, the very basis of democracy, is being severely crushed by the Modi government.
Obviously, there is pressure and I feel it too. But I ask myself, what is the option? One either stands with the people in their struggles, or one steps aside. If I do the latter, how do I answer my conscience?
So keeping silent is not an option…what follows as a consequence of this, how the state and powerful corporates target me is not in my hands.
What has this decade of struggle meant for the people of Hasdeo?
People have become far more empowered and confident of voicing their perspective. They also feel solidarity from people around the country who express support for their struggle, and feel that they are not alone. It is true that we do feel very disheartened many times, and wonder what avenues are available for communities to raise their voice when the government steadfastly ignores all grassroots opposition and tries to push through mining projects. The situation is progressively worsening when it comes to democratic spaces. In 2011, 2012, 2013, we could still have our voice heard when we wrote to central ministries; but now it feels like everything falls on deaf ears.
However, it is also true that in these 10 years, people have become even more determined to protect the forests. This is what has ensured that companies like Adani have not been able to take over more area beyond the 700-odd hectares of the PEKB mine.
Despite so many efforts, and official backing, after this first mine, another project has not taken off on the ground. There are many forested areas of the country which have got ravaged by mining in the past decade. In Hasdeo, communities have ensured that this has not happened so far. 10 saal mein Hasdeo ke jangal ko ujaadne se logon ne bachaaya hai.(In these 10 years, people have prevented the Hasdeo forests from being destroyed)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an award-winning journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board. She works on issues related to the environment, indigenous and rural communities)