The long battle of Hasdeo Arand residents against the Parsa coal project in Chhattisgarh

For three months, from October to December 2019, residents of twenty villages in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests held sit-in protests in Tara, a village in the state’s Surajpur district, against mining clearances awarded by the environment ministry to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited. They stopped for panchayat elections, and were unable to resume due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Courtesy Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sankarsh Samiti
24 June, 2020

As part of an initiative under the Indian government’s new “Atmanirbhar Bharat”—or self-reliant India—mission, the coal ministry launched the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining on 18 June. Three days earlier, sarpanchs of nine villages in Hasdeo Arand, a contiguous stretch of dense forest land in northern Chhattisgarh, wrote to Narendra Modi opposing the auction and calling upon the prime minister to prevent commercial mining in Hasdeo Arand. The sarpanchs wrote that the villagers had already established self-reliant lives and livelihoods, which would come under attack due to the auction. The letter added, “It is unfortunate that when the communities are already grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, they are faced with this uncertainty and threat of displacement.”

Just ten days earlier, to mark the occasion of World Environment Day on 5 June, residents of 20 villages in Hasdeo Arand staged protests in their respective villages against a proposed coal project. The forest is home to Adivasi communities dependent on the forest for its produce and agricultural land, and its residents have long been protesting clearances awarded to coal-mining projects in violation of their rights over the land and its natural resources. The protests oppose the proposed mining at the Parsa coal block in the Hasdeo forest, which has been allotted to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, a power corporation under the Rajasthan government. RRVUNL, in turn, has appointed Adani Enterprises Limited to carry out the mining operations.

The villagers protesting the proposed coal project challenged its legality. They argued that it contravened their individual and community forest rights, under the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. These laws require the informed consent from gram sabhas before any land acquisition can take place in scheduled areas with a preponderance of Adivasi populations, such as the Hasdeo forest. Meanwhile, RRVUNL has claimed that these laws are not applicable to the Parsa project, and that in any case, the concerned gram sabhas had expressed their support for it. But the protesters argued that the gram sabhas of the affected villages had passed several unanimous resolutions since 2015 opposing the project, and that the ministry of environment, forests and climate change had awarded clearances on the basis of forged documents.

In January 2019, the forest advisory committee, or FAC, under the environment ministry, granted Stage-I clearance to RRVUNL to mine the Parsa coal block in the Hasdeo forest. The Parsa project would dislocate residents of Chhattisgarh’s Surguja and Surajpur districts. On 15 May, residents of the area learnt that RRVUNL was initiating land-acquisition proceedings in the villages of Salhi, Hariharpur, Ghattbara, Fatehpur, in Surguja, and Tara and Janardhanpur, in Surajpur.

That day, RRVUNL published a “general caveat” in a local newspaper announcing that it “apprehends that a writ petition … or a Public Interest Litigation may be filed in the Hon’ble High Court as the Land acquisition proceeding is being initiated” in these villages. The public notice stated that RRVUNL had appointed Shailendra Shukla, a lawyer practising in the Chhattisgarh High Court, “to appear and oppose” any challenge to the land-acquisition proceedings on behalf of the power corporation.

Alarmed that the PSU was going ahead with the acquisition for the mining project, the residents resumed their protest for the first time since the lockdown began on 16 May, and staged a one-day protest in front of their houses to oppose the move. The protests are spearheaded by the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sankarsh Samiti, or HABSS, a collective comprising the gram sabhas of 20 villages affected by the coal projects. For three months, from October to December 2019, the village residents held a sit-in protest outside Tara against the mining clearances. They suspended it for panchayat elections in December, intending to resume it in March, but they were subsequently denied permission to hold an indefinite protest in the wake of COVID-19.

The Parsa block is among 30 mapped block in Hasdeo Arand and one of three in the forest awarded to RRVUNL—the power corporation is already conducting mining operations at the adjacent block, Parsa East and Kete Basan. The project is spread over 1,252 hectares of land, and requires the diversion of 841 hectares located in Surguja and Surajpur districts, in the Hasdeo forest. The majority of the people in the region are members of Scheduled Tribe communities and over ninety percent of them are dependent on agriculture and forest produce for their livelihood. The Hasdeo Arand forests form the catchment area of the Hasdeo river, which irrigates over three lack hectares of agricultural land.

“No one can throw us out of our land and forest,” Sakuntala Topo, a resident of Khirti village in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district, said during a protest in October 2019. Korba is a mining-affected region in the Hasdeo forest. “We will not give our jal, jangal, zameen”— water, forest and land, Topo said. “We will not give it for coal mines.” Topo added that leaders of Congress party, such as Rahul Gandhi and Chhattisgarh’s chief minister, Bhupesh Baghel, had promised that they would not allow mining in violation of the rights of the residents. Ahead of the Chhattisgarh elections in November 2018, Baghel and Gandhi had both assured the electorate that the Congress party would prevent mining projects that violated the forest rights of the locals.

Baghel also accused the Modi government of providing the Adani Group a backdoor entry into coal mining through dubious contracts. But in March 2019, three months after Baghel took charge, the Adani Group was appointed as the mine developer and operator for Chhattisgarh’s Gidmuri and Paturia coal blocks. Baghel’s government has not intervened in the coal-mining projects in Hasdeo Arand. “We would like ask this government if they want to displace us Adivasis from our land,” Topo said.

The local opposition to mining operations at the Parsa coal block began years before RRVUNL formally received the first forest clearance, likely due to the course of events leading to the mining operations at the adjacent PEKB coal block. In 2010, Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister under the Congress-led central government, had declared the Hasdeo Arand forest a “no-go zone” for mining operations. But within a year, Ramesh went back on his word, and rejected the advice of the FAC to grant Stage-I, or in-principle approval for forest clearance to RRVUNL to conduct operations at the PEKB mine. The project received environmental clearance in December that year, and Stage-II forest clearance, which is the final forest clearance granted by the MoEFC, by March 2012.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal set aside the clearance and sent the project back to the MoEFC for seeking fresh approval from the FAC. But the Supreme Court stayed the decision shortly after, and mining operations have continued unabated at the site ever since, even while the case remains pending before the apex court. In effect, mining operations at PEKB has become a fait accompli.

As early as January 2015, to prevent further mining in the Hasdeo forest, residents of 20 gram sabhas who would be affected by the Parsa coal block had unanimously passed a resolution opposing all future coal-block allotments in the area. In September 2015, the coal ministry allotted the Parsa block to RRVUNL. To prevent a repeat of the PEKB fait accompli, the villagers sent the resolution to Raman Singh, who was the state’s chief minister at the time under the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But in March 2017, the Parsa coal project was accorded terms of reference, which refers to conditions laid down by the MoEFC that a project proponent—RRVUNL in this case—would have to fulfil to develop and operate the mine. In March that year, residents of Hariharpur and Salhi passed resolutions rejecting the Parsa coal-block mining project. The decisions were reiterated in subsequent meetings at the village held in July and February 2018. The residents had also repeatably pointed this out in letters sent to the MoEFC, the coal ministry, the tribal affairs ministry, and state and district administrations since 2015.

Sections 4 and 5 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act—more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act—mandate that no eviction can take place without due process, and that gram sabhas of the affected villages can take decisions to stop activity that adversely affects the biodiversity. Similarly, the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act also mandates that a consultation with the local gram sabha has to be conducted before any acquisition can take place. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act—more commonly known as the Land Acquisition Act, 2013—also mandates the prior consent of gram sabhas before any acquisition in a scheduled area.

Though the coal blocks are allocated to RRVUNL, the power company follows a model in which it appoints a private company as the “mine developer cum operator.” As I reported earlier for The Caravan, the concept of an MDO is not recognised in any law governing the Indian coal industry. At Parsa, before and after the reallocation of coal blocks in 2015, the mining operations are carried out by Adani Enterprises Limited. 

In 2011, The Hindu reported that Adani was offering microloans to residents of Parsa and Ghatbarra who agreed to sign documents giving consent to acquire their land for the PEKB coal block. Even before the public hearings were held for PEKB, during February and March 2014, 458 residents wrote to the district collector intimating its decision to boycott the hearing citing environmental impact and displacement due to the project. However, the administration went ahead with the hearing and the Chhattisgarh State Power Generation Company, which was earlier allotted the block, submitted a draft environmental impact assessment report without mentioning the local opposition.

After the reallocation of the coal block to RRVUNL, the hearing was scheduled again in 2017. According to protesters, Adani continued the practice of eliciting consent through manipulation of public hearings for environmental clearance. The protesters said that the public hearing was conducted in way that silenced the strong opposition to the coal project. “There were people from outside villages like Salka and Udaipur,  who were brought to the hearing to support the project,” Jainandan Porte, the sarpanch of Ghatbarra, told me. “Many from severely affected areas couldn’t reach there. Also, we were made to wait for three–four hours, and by the time the hearing started, people were leaving and our strength had come down.” Residents of Salhi, Fatehpur, Ghatbarra and Hariharpur also told me that the public hearing was held in Besan, which is between five to ten kilometres away from these villages, in contravention of EAC guidelines to arrange it at a place convenient to the residents.

A spokesperson for the Adani Group responded to an email stating that RRVUNL was the owner of the mine, and that questions should be directed to the power corporation. “As an owner of the mine, RRVUNL is taking all the necessary steps for environment and forest clearances, land acquisition and rehabilitation & resettlement activities,” the spokesperson stated. P Ramesh, the chairperson and managing director of RRVUNL, and the company’s public-relations officer, did not respond to emails with queries about the Parsa coal project.

According to Alok Shukla, a convenor with HABSS, this time, too, RRVUNL and Adani tried to influence the hearing process by offering money and other benefits to the locals. “The hearing was managed to get consent by ensuring participation of residents outside the villages directly affected by land acquisition and those who supported the project,” Shukla told me. “The mining companies have for years been adopting methods like offering money, liquor and tour packages and offering false promises to win the support of some people who are then brought to the hearing venue in buses.”

At a protest against mining clearances given to RRVUNL for the Parsa coal project in Tara, a village in Chhattisgarh’s Surajpur district, a sign reads, “Stop destroying the forests of Hasdeo Arand.” Courtesy Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sankarsh Samiti

Yet, RRVUNL received both environmental clearance from the expert appraisal committee, and forest clearance from the forest advisory committee, both of which function under the MoEFC. In February 2018, the EAC considered the Parsa coal project in its twenty-sixth meeting. The minutes noted that public hearings were conducted in Surguja and Surajpur in October and November 2017, respectively.

Among several other concerns, the minutes recorded that the issue of gram sabhas not having granted consent for the project was raised in the EAC meeting. In its recommendations, the EAC sought “Comments from the State Tribal Welfare Department regarding permission for the project from Gram Sabha, impact on livelihood of tribal population, and their concurrence as per the provisions of the Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas Act, 1996.”

RRVUNL submitted a response on 30 May 2018. The company first argued that the PESA act was not applicable in Chhattisgarh because the state government had not passed any legislation to incorporate the provisions into the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Adhiniyam of 2003, which is the law governing panchayats in the state. RRVUNL further argued that the land acquisition would be governed by a different law altogether, the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, or the CBA act.

According to Sudeip Shrivatsava, a Chhattisgarh-based lawyer and activist, the RRVUNL’s interpretation of the law did not stand scrutiny. Shrivatsava said that the CBA act is applicable when the coal block is owned and operated by the central government and companies owned by it. “Being a state-owned company, RRVUNL should have done the land acquisition under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,” he told me. “The act mandates a social-impact assessment study and gram sabha consent. This study has not been done. The state government is also complicit in this, because it should have intervened and asked for the implementation of LARR instead of CBA.” The Chhattisgarh government is yet to amend the Panchayat Raj Adhiniyam act to ensure compliance with PESA. 

Shukla, the HABSS convenor, similarly noted that RRVUNL’s interpretation of the law was incorrect. “If such interpretation were to be taken on board the whole purpose of enacting PESA act would be rendered moot,” Shukla told me. “Both PESA and FRA are applicable and section 41 of the Land Acquisition Act 2013 also mandates that the consent of gram sabhas should be sought before acquisition or alienation of any land.”

This interpretation of law is not the only disputed aspect of the RRVUNL’s response. The power corporation stated to the EAC that the gram sabhas of all six villages—Salhi, Ghatbarra and Hariharpur in Surguja, and Janardhanpur and Tara in Surajpur—had issued no-objection certificates to the acquisition for the coal project. In support of this claim, RRVUNL submitted NOCs from the district collectors of Surguja and Surajpur, respectively dated 13 February and 27 March 2018. The documents claimed that the villages had issued a resolution in favour of the forest being diverted for the coal project during gram sabhas held between 24 and 27 January that year. The company further claimed that the residents of these villages had “supported the project and were convinced that the project will bring improvement to their living standard” during public consultations held the previous year.

But several villagers told me that this never happened. Referring to a gram sabha meeting in January 2018, Bal Sai Khorram, a resident of Hariharpur village, told me “The gram sabha was to discuss individual and community forest rights.” According to Khorram, land acquisition for forest clearance was not even discussed in that meeting. “But later we came to know that the consent from the gram sabha was submitted for clearance,” he told me. “We opposed it and submitted complaints to the collector and tehsildar and whatever has been submitted in our names should be cancelled. We had raised this demand during the protests.” Khorram added, “When we all have been constantly opposing the project, especially since 2015, how can they say all gram sabhas have agreed to this?”

Many residents said that they had even sent the resolutions declining their consent to the state’s tribal-welfare department. But in May 2018, the tribal-welfare department simply forwarded the NOCs that it received from the Surguja and Surajpur district collectors without making any observations about the resolutions passed by the villagers.

In July 2018, a group of 20 residents even wrote to Naveen Chandra, who was the chairperson of the EAC at the time, drawing his attention to the resolutions passed by the gram sabhas against the proposed land acquisition and coal mining. “The gram sabhas of Salhi, Ghatbarra, Fatehpur and Hariharupur have been opposing the project right from the beginning,” the residents wrote in the letter. “Despite this, to illicit the consent of residents gram sabha meetings are being held one after the other.” They also pointed out that the community rights and individual forest rights of many residents are yet to settled, which is mandatory under the Forest Rights Act.

That month, the FAC also considered the proposal to divert the Hasdeo forest land for the Parsa coal mine, according to the minutes of the meeting. Despite recording that “the area is sensitive from erosion point of view,” the FAC did not make any recommendations against granting forest clearance for the Parsa coal project. Instead, the FAC observed that the NGT’s 2014 judgment on the PEKB did not make any observations about the Parsa block, and sought a legal opinion on whether it could grant in-principle approval to other projects in the Hasdeo forest. 

Then in December, after receiving a legal clearance from the additional solicitor general, the FAC formed a sub-committee to conduct an inspection at the site. The sub-committee comprised one representative each from the MoEFC, the Chhattisgarh government and the FAC. In January 2019, the FAC met again after the sub-committee had submitted its report. The minutes of the meeting noted that the state government official had requested another inspection with a larger committee and over a longer period of time. But the FAC rejected the request, and recommended granting in-principle approval to the Parsa project.  

Around one month later, on 20 February 2019, Shukla wrote a letter to the EAC, drawing the committee’s attention to the allegations of forgery and requesting the committee to deny environmental clearance for the project. “Incomplete studies, inadequate assessments and false and misleading information,” he stated, referring to the submissions made by RRVUNL while seeking the environmental clearance. “The project proponent has relied on all of the above in trying to pursue an EC for this project. If an EC is granted, it will lead to irreparable suffering to the people living there and a long-standing impact on the biodiversity of the region. It is urged that the EAC take strict cognizance of the various glaring discrepancies and not grant an EC for Parsa” mine. However, in its meeting held next day, the EAC granted environmental clearance for the mine.

Throughout these meetings, there is no reference to the FAC or the EAC considering the unanimous rejection of the proposed project by the residents who would be affected by it. By the indications from the minutes of these meetings, the fact that the gram sabhas had time and again passed resolutions declining their consent for the projects had not been a consideration for the FAC.

The FAC appears to have ignored another crucial aspect while granting the Stage-I clearance to the Parsa block. In 2012, the MoEFC granted the final forest clearance to the PEKB coal block, also mined by RRVUNL, on the condition that “the State Government will not come up for opening up of the main Hasdeo-Arand area.” The FAC itself had noted in its July 2018 meeting about the mining project at Parsa that the “the area is sensitive”  and would require the felling of 95,458 trees.

“Whatever is happening right now with the coal project, is being done without our consent,” Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi, told me. “The rights of gram sabhas is what protects us from being driven away from our land and forests. We will go to court to protect our rights.”

I emailed the different departments and officials involved in the process for a response to the allegations raised by the protesters. These included the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board, the district collectors of Surajpur and Surguja, the chief minister’s office, the State Tribal Welfare Department, the EAC, the coal ministry and the MoEFC. None of them had responded by the time this story was published.

On 24 February this year, sarpanchs of 20 gram panchayats in and around the Parsa coal block area—including the six villages that RRVUNL claimed to have received NOCs from—took an oath to protect the forests from the mining projects. That day, the sarpanchs, who gathered at Tara for the protest, also sent a letter to the ministry of tribal affairs seeking to protect their rights under PESA and FRA. The letter was signed by 243 people, and one of their main demands was the cancellation of the land-acquisition process for the Parsa block. “All land acquisition processes initiated based on statements that are forged or obtained forcefully from gram sabhas should be cancelled,” the letter stated. “This is how the procedures for Para coal block has been done.”

“They have overruled the power of our gram sabhas by forging fake documents,” Kariyam told me. “Our demand is that those fake documents should be withdrawn and the clearances given to Parsa coal block should be cancelled. We are inside our houses because of the lock down, but we are discussing these over phone and social media and the fight for our rights is going on. We will return to protest once the lockdown is lifted.”