Raipur: For over a decade, the vast, lush Hasdeo Arand forests in north Chhattisgarh have seen a clash of mining interests, environmental concerns, and a decade-long resistance by its Adivasi communities.
Often referred to as the “lungs of Chhattisgarh”, Hasdeo Arand is one of central India’s largest contiguous tracts of forests with rich biodiversity, an elephant habitat, catchment for the Mahanadi’s largest tributary and home to Adivasi communities that live off the forest and agriculture.
Various environmental experts and activists have warned of “destruction of rich biodiversity” owing to impacts of mining—underway in the region since 2006 at one coal mine and expanded to other coal blocks after the arrival of the Adani group of companies after 2010. Hasdeo’s forests have been carved up into 23 coal blocks, or mining leases, and five new mines allotted since 2015 are in the process of seeking clearances to expand mining.
On 21 October, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a fresh clearance to the Parsa coal block in Hasdeo Arand, days after local communities had marched 300 km on foot to demand a stop to new mining.
While issuing the fresh clearance on 21st October 2021, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) referred to a Biodiversity Assessment Report submitted by the state government. Prepared by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), the report documented adverse impacts of mining in the region, yet went on to recommend that four contiguous blocks, including Parsa, “can be considered for mining with strict environmental safeguards”.
While accepting the ICFRE recommendations, the Chhattisgarh government and the MoEFCC ignored another report submitted in September 2021 by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Contrary to the ICFRE’s recommendation, the WII recommended that the entire Hasdeo area except for the operational mines be declared as “no-go” and no fresh mines be permitted.
WII and ICFRE are autonomous institutions of the MoEFCC, with the former focused on wildlife research and management and the latter looking at forestry issues.
The WII and ICFRE studies were commissioned by the government in compliance with a 2014 order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which ordered the government to conduct a biodiversity mapping and assessment study before clearing coal mining in Hasdeo. In its order, the the NGT suggested that “advice/ opinion/ specialised knowledge” be sought from “authoritative sources”, such as ICFRE and WII.
The MoEFCC’s cherry-picking of the ICFRE’s recommendations while ignoring the WII study indicates the approach of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi towards culling natural forests, even as it makes ambitious global climate-change commitments, as Article 14 reported in October 2021.
The Congress-run Chhattisgarh state government of chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, too, backs coal over conservation and local livelihoods: it recommended the MoEFCC clear the Parsa mine just days after Hasdeo residents had been on a 300-km long protest march and met Baghel to oppose fresh mining.
What The National Green Tribunal Said
The entire Hasdeo Arand forests were notified as ‘No-Go’ areas in 2010 after a joint study by the environment ministry and the ministry of coal.
The no-go policy was meant to preserve India’s old-growth forests and biodiversity-rich areas, which then comprised less than 10% of India’s coal-bearing areas. In 2011, the environment ministry cleared two coal blocks or mining leases in Hasdeo Arand—Tara & Parsa East Kete Basen—against a recommendation from the ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), an expert body that appraises applications to cut forests for mining and other uses.
The clearance awarded to the Parsa East Kete Basen (PEKB) coal block was challenged and set aside by the NGT in 2014. The block has been allocated to Rajasthan’s state power utility, the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, and operated by Adani Enterprises Limited or AEL, which now holds contracts for the adjacent Parsa and Kete Extension coal blocks as well.
The NGT ordered the FAC to revisit the forest clearance after ascertaining facts on flora and fauna, wildlife habitat and corridors and answering whether the region had “significant conservation/protection value, so much so that the area cannot be compromised for coal mining with appropriate conservation/management strategies”.
In December 2017, the MoEFCC asked for a biodiversity assessment of the Hasdeo Arand coalfield (HACF) by the state government of Chhattisgarh through the ICFRE, in consultation with the WII, before any new clearances in Hasdeo.
The joint ICFRE-WII study was commissioned in January 2019 and the data for the study was collected over a two years period between October 2019-2021. While the WII team focused on the faunal aspects, such as wildlife, and birds, the ICFRE team focused on the flora. This led to two reports in September 2021.
Don’t Allow Mining: Wildlife Institute
In its 277-page report, the WII detailed the rich biodiversity and analysed the adverse impacts of further mining in the region. It recommended conservation of the entire Hasdeo Arand area, except for the operational PEKB mine, stating that “no mining should be carried out considering the irreplaceable, rich biodiversity and socio-cultural values”.
The WII study, based on camera traps and “sign surveys” or mapping of wildlife footprints, recorded over 25 species of mammals, including nine Schedule-1 species (endangered animals accorded highest protection in the Wildlife Protect Act 1972), such as elephant, leopard, sloth bear, grey wolf and striped hyena. These endangered species were also recorded in the Tara, Parsa, and Kete Extension coal block areas, where the ICFRE recommended coal mining.
The WII reported a conservative estimate of 40-50 elephants in the Hasdeo-Arand region. It noted that “the human-elephant conflict in the state is already acute and has been escalating with huge social and economic costs on the marginal, indigenous local communities”.
Based on this assessment, the WII concluded that “any further threat to elephants’ intact habitats in this landscape could potentially deflect human-elephant conflict into other newer areas in the state, where conflict mitigation would be impossible for the state to manage”.
The WII report also concluded that given the habitat connectivity between Hasdeo Arand and the neighbouring Achanakmar and Kanha Tiger Reserves and the Bhoramdeo Wildlife Sanctuary, the region could support tigers that wandered in.
In addition to endangered mammals, the WII recorded at least 92 species of birds, including six schedule-1 species, such as white-eyed buzzard and black-shouldered kite. Several endangered species of butterflies and reptiles were recorded, and the region supported rich flora of over 167 plant species, including 18 “threatened” species.
The WII found local communities greatly depended (up to 60-70% of their annual income) on these forests and said that “the local communities do not favour mining and perceive mining as a direct threat to their livelihood due to high forest dependency as well as social and cultural factors”.
The WII report dedicated a chapter to the impacts of the PEKB mine, saying that the existing conservation plan of the block prepared by the mining company was “basic and generic in nature” and would require “substantial revision” to mitigate mining impacts.
Two other chapters detail how the mining company could address the “adverse impacts” of the PEKB mine. If no other mines were opened, the WII report said, “even the effects of the operational mines of PEKB and Chotia need to be tactfully mitigated too, wherever possible”.
Draft ICFRE Report Agrees With WII But Recommends Mining
The ICFRE report also largely agreed with the WII argument that the Hasdeo-Arand forests should be conserved and that mining had adverse impacts.
The ICFRE recommendation to open four new mines went against its own findings: of rich biodiversity in Hasdeo and harmful social and environmental impacts of the current mine.
The ICFRE noted that the Hasdeo-Arand area was important in terms of its floral diversity—in particular, 33 rare, endangered and threatened plant species. In line with the WII’s findings, the ICFRE concluded that “mining related land use changes will have a negative impact on forest cover/density, forest type, forest fragmentation”. Additionally, forest fragmentation would lead to “decreased patch / corridor connectivity”.
The ICFRE report also noted that the direct and indirect impacts of mining were “significantly evident from the observable changes in the forest cover and natural drainages”. Deterioration in the quality and quantity of surface water, it said, was of “great concern”.
The ICFRE noted several lacunae that exacerbated the impacts of the Adani PEKB mine: for instance, lower plant variety, which it said “could be due to the selective removal and impacts of open cast mining and allied activities being carried out in PEKB”.
Trees were transplanted by the mining company in a “random process” and “only few precautions were followed during transplanting and post-case”. The ICFRE report noted that a lack of records of such translocated trees made it hard to judge the success of transplantation. Previous independent reports on PEKB mine also recorded an inadequate compliance of conditions for its environmental clearance.
On the rising human-elephant conflict in Chhattisgarh, the ICFRE pointed out that “development and mining will have negative impact on quality habitat available and mitigation will be a huge challenge.” It added that “displacement due to mining operations will have serious impact on community (sic) in form of loss of livelihood, identity and culture.”
Yet, contradicting the WII recommendations and its own internal findings on adverse environmental impacts, the “draft” ICFRE report recommended that four contiguous blocks—Tara, Parsa, Parsa East and Kete Basen—“can be considered for mining with strict environmental safeguards including appropriate conservation measures for management of surface water and biodiversity”.
The only rationale given in the draft ICFRE report for recommending mining in 4 contiguous coal blocks was “the demand for coal and thereby, socio-economic and industrial development of the area under consideration for mining”.
But estimation of demand for coal and other economic dimensions was beyond the scope of the ICFRE; the NGT direction was to assess the conservation value of Hasdeo. Further, several other reports, including Coal India Limited’s report Coal Vision-2030, have already argued against the need for new coal mines to meet India’s medium-term energy requirements.
The ICFRE only submitted a ‘draft’ report to the state government indicating further room for discussions and consultations. However, as the FAC’s minutes of 28 October 2018 confirm, the ICFRE’s recommendations were taken as the final view of the state government.
Based on these recommendations, the MoEFCC granted the final (stage-II) forest clearance for the Parsa coal block and discussed expansion of mining in the PEKB coal block.
The Role Of Union And State Governments
The conflicting recommendations by the two expert bodies raises several questions about India’s environmental decision-making process
– Why do two expert bodies differ in their recommendations while agreeing with the basic facts of the case?
– In the event of such conflicting recommendations, can governments claim to have merely been led by experts, downplaying their own role and responsibility, as appears to be in this case?
In agreeing with ICFRE’s recommendations, the union and state governments also fail to explain whether they trust the same project proponent, the Adani group in this case, to follow “strict environmental safeguards including appropriate conservation measures for management of surface water and biodiversity”, as the ICFRE recommended even when the two reports had found this was not being done for the PEKB mine operations.
The current case also suggests that governments pay lip-service to protecting the interests of Adivasis, while ignoring their constitutional rights under laws like the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (popularly referred as FRA) in matters of cutting forests.
Both the WII and the ICFRE reports talk about the adverse effect of mining on “livelihood, identity and culture” of local Adivasis. The WII report, as we said, also recorded the opposition of local communities to mining.
The union and state governments formed their view without placing these reports in the public domain for consultations, and the political question about ignoring biodiversity conservation considerations for the sake of mining was turned into a technical matter.
The saga of Hasdeo Arand raises questions on environmental jurisprudence where “fait accompli” arguments have come to dominate decision-making about clearances.
In 2014, the NGT set aside the forest clearance for the PEKB coal block pending the biodiversity assessment report, currently under consideration. Its order was stayed by the Supreme Court, so mining continues. Now, the fact that the PEKB mine is in operation is being used to not only accept its existence but to remove more of Hasdeo’s forests for new mines.
(Priyanshu Gupta is a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow; views expressed in this article are solely in the author’s personal capacity.)