If we give the Hasdeo forest, where will we go?: Jainandan Porte on mining protests in Chhattisgarh

Chitrangada Choudhury
25 February, 2019

In January 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change awarded Stage-I clearance, or in principle approval, for mining at the Parsa coal block, located in northern Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests. Over 2000 acres of forest land will be stripped for the open-cast mining operations, which involves digging the coal out after removing the soil and forest cover above it.

The Parsa mine is one of 30 mapped mines in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand region, one of the largest intact forest areas in central India. It is home to forest-dwelling Adivasi communities, such as the Gonds, who are deeply dependent on forest produce, and agriculture. The region is also highly biodiverse and ecologically fragile with dense sal forests, rare plants, perennial water sources, and wildlife species. But the vast coal reserves in the region threaten its rich ecosystem—the Hasdeo Arand Coalfield, as mapped by the ministry of coal, has more than a billion metric tonnes of proven coal reserves, spread over an area of 1,878 square kilometres. Of this area, 1,502 square kilometres comprise forest land.

The Parsa coal block is one of three mines in the Hasdeo forests that have been awarded to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, a power corporation of the Rajasthan government. RRVUNL has, in turn, appointed Adani Enterprises Limited as the Mine Developer and Operator for these mines. As The Caravan earlier reported, the concept of an MDO is not recognised in any law governing the Indian coal industry, and does not appear in the Coal Mines Act. Agreements between PSUs and MDOs are not subject to any oversight from the centre or coal ministry. This lack of transparency is in contravention of the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment on the allocation of coal blocks.

Since March 2013, the AEL has been mining another coal block awarded to the RRVUNL, the Parsa East and Kanta Basan, or PEKB mine, also located in the Hasdeo region. Mining operations at PEKB have continued despite a 2014 ruling by the National Green Tribunal asking the MoEFCC to re-evaluate its green clearance for the mine. An investigation by The Caravan reported that the agreements between RRVUNL and AEL are opaque, and highly profitable to the latter.

The PEKB mine operations and the government’s plans to open up more coal mines in the Hasdeo forests have sparked grassroots protests in Chhattisgarh over the past five years. One organisation leading the protests is the Hasdeo Arand Bachaao Sangharsh Samiti, or HABSS, a group spanning 40 villages across the Hasdeo region, which have been, or will be, adversely impacted by coal mining. On 24 February, 150 gram sabhas came together in Hasdeo’s Morga village to protest the FAC clearance, according to a press release from the HABSS. In an interview with Chitrangada Choudhury, an independent journalist, Jainandan Singh Porte, a member of the HABSS, spoke about their protest and the impact of mining on the villages. Porte is a resident of Ghatbarra village, which borders the current PEKB mine. “Today, villagers believe that if we fight, we can protect the forests from mining,” he said. “We are much more aware about the laws, and our power as gram sabhas.”

Chitrangada Choudhury: How does the HABSS view the Forest Advisory Committee’s decision to grant in principle forest clearance for mining in the Hasdeo forests?
Jainandan Singh Porte: Let the environment ministry do what it wants. We believe that if our movement is strong here in Hasdeo, then we will be able to stop our forests from being destroyed for mining. If our gram sabhas collectively oppose mining, what the ministry does will be inconsequential.

Our sangathan [organisation] has held discussions, and we have decided to protest collectively. Fifteen–sixteen gram sabhas have already met and decided that this clearance should be cancelled. On 24 February, people from 150 gram sabhas came together for a meeting at Morga, [a village in the Hasdeo region]. We reiterated our demand that there should be no fresh mining in Hasdeo. And that the state government implement the Forest Rights Act and PESA [Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act], including recognising our forest rights, and respecting the provisions of taking the consent of our gram sabhas for projects. We also expressed our opposition to the Supreme Court judgement [of 13 February], by which lakhs of Adivasi and forest dwellers face eviction.

We also plan to undertake a padyatra [a march on foot] in the coming weeks from Madanpur to Raipur [a distance of approximately 350 kilometres], under the slogan “Vaada Nibhaao” [“keep your promises”], to hold the Congress party leaders accountable for their campaign promise to protect Hasdeo from fresh mining. We met the chief minister [Bhupesh Baghel] on 26 January and have told him our concerns. He had assured us that he will conduct an enquiry into the matter.

CC: Why are Hasdeo’s villages opposed to coal mining?
JSP: In 2010–11, the Congress government began this whole process by clearing the PEKB mine. That time, they said the rest of Hasdeo should be a no-go [zone]. Residents of the villages destroyed by the PEKB mine have still not been rehabilitated properly in five years. They are regretting giving their land. Looking at their miserable state, and how dalaals [middlemen] cheated them, the rest of the villages here became alert to how badly mining can impact us.

After that in [September] 2014, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government auctioned several coal blocks located in Hasdeo. If all these mines start operations, then our region will be destroyed. We realised that one or two villages will not be able to stop this juggernaut. All villages have to come together and unitedly fight this. That is why multiple villages passed gram sabha resolutions [in December 2014] against the auctioning of coal blocks in our forests. Our samiti now has members across 40 villages now—we meet every month and discuss how to protect our forests, and deal with the issue of mining.

Some people say that coal mining is necessary for generating electricity, for development. Our question is how much coal does the country need? Why don’t you first assess that clearly? For mining, is it okay to destroy such a dense forest like Hasdeo? Are there not other alternatives? Do you really need to open 10–12 mines in Hasdeo, or is this to enrich some people and some corporates?

And what about the local Adivasi people? Forests are our sanskruti [culture] and our livelihood. Hasdeo gives us so many products and food—mahua, sal, tendu patta, chironji, khunkdi, and lakdi [forest produce such as leaves, seeds, mushrooms and firewood]. Tendu leaves can give Adivasi households an income of Rs 60-70,000 per household each year. Why do authorities not see all this when they decide to give clearance to mining?

Hasdeo is our only home. If we give this forest, where will we go? We can never get it back. Before the PEKB mine was cleared, villagers used to think, “Yeh to sarkaar ka hai. Sarkaar toh ek din isko le hi lega.” [The forest belongs to the government, and they will take it away one day.] But today, villagers believe that if we fight, we can protect the forests from mining. We are much more aware about the laws and our power as gram sabhas. People feel more empowered.

CC: How has coal mining impacted the villagers over the past five years?
JSP: The impacts on us are terrible. Many of those who lost their lands and forests to the PEKB mine are regretting it. All have not got jobs. Many are reduced to doing menial work like sweeping, cooking and washing utensils. The mines are being managed by outsiders. Some Adivasi villagers are struggling to survive. I know of instances where to buy rice, Adivasi villagers were reduced to the distress sale of the vehicles they had purchased with the compensation money.

Beyond those who lost their land, mining has also affected the wider area. The sound of the blasting and the destruction of forests have disturbed the wild animals, and they are coming towards the villages, or wandering disoriented. Villages here have faced so many incidents of elephant and bear attacks, and crop and house damage. The PEKB mine has in fact come up on the very forestlands through which elephants would come and go. Just last year in Ghatbarra village, three residents lost their lives to elephant attacks. Our sangathan has written several letters to local authorities and forest officials about these problems. But they have not responded to our concerns. We will be filing RTIs [right to information requests] to find out whether they have taken any action on our representations, or if they are simply neglecting them. We cannot walk or bicycle on our roads when coal laden trucks go up and down. The dust falls in our eyes. There have been numerous fatal accidents too. The streams, which used to have water around the year and are important to villagers for bathing and for drinking water, have become polluted due to discharge from the mines. We have made many complaints about this too to the Pollution Control Board officer in Ambikapur [a city in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh].

CC: In September 2013, your village, Ghatbarra, had received a community forest rights, or CFR, title covering 820 hectares of the 2,300 hectares of forestland for which it had filed a CFR claim. [A CFR title deed gives a community ownership rights over its forest land.] In January 2016, the state government “cancelled” this title. Their letter said, “When the administration tries to get diversion of forests done for the Parsa East and Kanta Basan coal block, the villagers, using the pretext of the land rights given to them by the [district] collector, create barriers and protest to stop the work.” How have villagers been impacted by the cancellation?
JSP: We were very disappointed when the government took away our CFR title. It did not give us any prior notice about this, nor did it hear us before it took this totally illegal decision. There is no provision in the FRA [Forest Rights Act] to cancel the rights given to us. Our village’s forest rights committee moved the [Chhattisgarh] high court in 2016, saying that we have got rights to our community’s forest under the FRA, but the government has cancelled it in order to give the land away for mining. The court is still to hear the matter. We have also written letters to the collector and the forest officials telling them that they should not allow any expansion of the mine, until the court gives a decision. On the ground, our protests are on. The company has tried to cut trees by stealth late at night, or early in the morning, or when some festivals are on in the village, and villagers are caught up with that. We have been trying to stop this.

But in May 2017, the company and authorities filed cases against a few villagers including me, and we had to take bail. One of the samiti’s members, Bal Sai Korram from Hariharpur village has another case against him, and was in jail for a month. They say we are obstructing public work, and that this is government property. But the forests are not of the government—villages have filed community claims under FRA, and our village had even got a title. Our experience is that authorities want to push mining by suppressing our rights, and we will continue to fight that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.