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.