Protesting against the coal mining projects in the Hasdeo Aranya region of Chhattisgarh, tribals from 30 villages of Surguja and Korba districts have been marching to cover at least 300 kilometres on foot to Raipur.
The farmers started their march – ‘Hasdeo Bachao Padyatra’ – from Fatehpur in Ambikapur of Surguja district on October 3, in anticipation of meeting Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Governor Anusuiya Uike on their arrival. However, the appointment with CM Baghel is yet to be confirmed.
The Hasdeo Aranya region spans over 170,000 hectares, and is one of the largest intact forests in India. It is considered the ancestral home of approximately 10,000 indigenous people from the Gond, Oraon, Lohar, Kunwar, and other communities. It is also one of the richest and most biodiverse regions of the country. Some tribal elders have alleged that Hasdeo Aranya’s land acquisition was conducted without the consent or consultation of the indigenous people. Their livelihood may be affected by mining activities in the forest, which they say will ruin the region’s ecosystem. Approximately 5.18 billion tonnes of coal are estimated to be beneath the forested surface.
Their main requests are that all coal mining operations in the region be halted, that “illegal” land purchases be reversed, and that the forest clearance granted to the Parsa coal mine be revoked “on the basis of a fake gramme sabha motion and FIRs be registered against (relevant) officials”. Hasdeo Aranya is part of a 1,500 kms forest corridor that runs through central India and supplies water and irrigation to Janjgir-Champa, Korba and Bilaspur areas through the Minimata Bango dam. The area is also an important habitat for wildlife, particularly elephants.
Survival International reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is aggressively promoting a plan to open new coal mines in the area. The central government reportedly plans to open 55 new coal mines and expand 193 existing ones to increase the coal production to 1 billion tonnes annually. The coalfields are being auctioned to some of India’s largest mining corporations such as Adani and Vedanta.
In 2020, the Centre acquired around 700 hectares of land in the Korba district of Chhattisgarh under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957. Apparently, it has also identified 348.126 hectares of land in Ghatbarra village in Udaipur tehsil of Surguja district. The villagers have alleged that although the Ministry of Environmental, Forest and Climate Change restricted mining activities for the entire stretch of forest in 2010, it has now caved in to industrialists’ pressure to allow mining in the lush forests. According to Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a forum of tribals from the two districts, seven coal mines in the region have already been allocated to state government companies.
Commenting on this development, the organisation said in a press release, “We have constitutional rights to protect our water, forest, land, livelihoods and culture which are granted to us via the Schedule V. These rights are granted to us through the Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Areas (PESA) 1996 and under Article 5 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) 2006 states that we are capable of this responsibility. Despite this, the corporate prostrating Modi government has illegally allotted seven coal mines in our region to state government companies.”
“The state governments have in turn appointed Adani to develop and mine these blocks as Mine Developer and Operator (MDO). Along with that, the state governments have put the betterment of their citizens on hold as they have agreed to buy coal from Adani at prices that are higher than the market rate. This is yet another coal scam in the country,” said the release.
Noteworthy, the Adani Group mines the Parsa East and Kanta Basin (PEKB) block in its capacity as MDO with the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL), while the Vedanta group’s Bharat Aluminium Company Limited mines the Chotia block. According to the Fress Press Journal, the association has alleged that the government obtained forest clearance for the Parsa coal block by securing gram sabha resolutions by “pressuring authorities”. Tribals claim that land has been acquired in three blocks of Kete Extension, Madanpur South, and Gidhmudi Paturiya without the consent of the gram sabhas.
“Governments – both at the Centre and in the state – have been going against people. For environment clearance in Parsa, forged documents and wrong information have been submitted to the ministry,” Umeshwar Singh Armo, a member of the Samiti told the Indian Express.
In December last year, the central government announced that tribals in Surguja and Korba had 30 days to submit written objections over land rights under Section 7 of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957. According to reports, the union Coal Ministry had received over 470 objection letters. Pralhad Joshi, the Coal Minister, informed about this on February 8, saying there was “no provision regarding Gram Sabha consent”.
“Valid compensation under regulations of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 and Chhattisgarh Ideal Resettlement policy 2007 will be paid,” he had assured. However, the villagers deny receiving any compensation for the land they own, claiming that money and land have not been equitably divided. Sources within the Adani Group have informed that they have been experiencing problems with the march.
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One government official who was tasked with mining activities in the Hasdeo Aranya area on the promise of anonymity has said that without manipulation of facts and figures, the allotment of leases and other clearances were difficult. However, Adani is only the MDO operator, and the major liability rests with RRVUNL.
There was overwhelming support for the march conducted by the thousands of tribals, who braved incessant rain and scorching sun. It was supported by activists, community leaders, journalists, and political leaders of all parties. On the international stage, the foot-march against Adani’s alleged illegal mining was well-received in the context of saving the jungle and tribal land. International activists like Survival International and Greta Thunberg supported and showed solidarity with the foot-march by tweeting about it.