Chhattisgarh is home to some of India’s most precious forests but it is also an area rich in minerals such as iron ore. The race for extraction of these resources, however, is consuming these forests. The latest data by the Chhattisgarh forest department reveals that at least 4,920 hectares of forest land have been diverted over the past few years for mining of iron ore in the central India state.

According to the Chhattisgarh government, the iron ore deposits in the state are found in rocks that form a part of the discontinuous hill range of 370 km in length that spans several districts such as Dantewada, Bastar, Kanker, Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon, Durg and Kabirdham. Chhattisgarh has 4,031 million tonnes of iron ore reserve (hematite) which accounts for about 19% of the total iron ore reserves in India.

Forests and livelihood

The Bastar region in south Chhattisgarh comprises the heavily forested area dominated by Adivasi communities who depend on forests for livelihood. But the leases granted for iron ore mining which require large-scale clearance of forests is threatening the lives of the local people. In some cases, the locals allege that the permissions have been secured using fake documents.

For instance, in the Narayanpur district, Jayaswal Neco Industries Limited was granted the lease for mining iron ore in about 192 hectares of reserve forest area in Aamdai Ghati (valley) – a hilly area full of ore deposits. The mining started in 2016 and now the company wants to enhance production even as the region has witnessed severe opposition to the project.

As a mark of protest, in July, the left-wing extremists torched the vehicles engaged in road construction while in another case a jawan (soldier) of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force of the central government, was also killed during a road opening operation. The mining site is about 8 km-10 km from Abujhmar, which is known for the heavy presence of the left-wing extremists, is also home to Adivasis such as Gond, Muria and Abuj Maria.

The local people alleged that the consent of the gram sabha was not taken for seeking diversion of forests in the area.

Rajendra Kumar Mahavir of local non-profit, Sathi Samaj Sevi Sanstha, based in Narayanpur, said the locals are opposed to the mine. “Those living here in this area depends on the forests for livelihood and survival whether it is through the collection of firewood, tendu leaf or bamboo,” Mahavir said. “Mining will also impact the forest deities considered sacred by the Adivasi community. These are the primary reasons that the villagers are not in favour of the mine. Besides forests, the locals believe mining will also lead to serious environmental issues.”

In fact, many people, who were promised jobs by the private mining company, are now miffed as they did not get anything, claimed local social workers.

The Adivasi communities depend on forests, and if they vanish, the communities will face a dark future, said Narayanpur resident Mahendra Mandavi who said the previous state government helped the private company get clearance. Queries sent to Jayaswal Neco Industries Limited remained unanswered.

Environmental concerns

The massive diversion of forest areas is also leading to local people and experts raising concerns related to the environment and rights of the Adivasi communities guaranteed under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The Rowghat mine in the Matla reserve forest spanning both Kanker and Narayanpur districts attracted considerable attention due to deforestation. Rowghat has the second largest deposit of iron ore in the state with an estimated reserve of 731 metric tonnes.

According to an official of Chhattisgarh’s forest department, who wished anonymity, tree felling is already in progress and after the monsoon, the remaining trees would be cleared as well.

Anubhav Shori, whose organisation Maati works on issues related to the Forest Rights Act and the rights of Adivasi communities, said the two dominant tribes in the region are Gond and the Muria. “As their livelihood is dependent on forests, mining is bound to affect their lives,” he alleged. “There have been violations in the forest as well as environmental clearances. Though the consent of the gram sabha has been taken, it is not under the true spirit of the law.”

Iron ore mining in Dantewada. Photo credit: Mangal Kunjam

Shori stressed there is no clarity on the number of villages that will be affected and the extent of forest cover lost.

“Mining has not started as yet but processes like road construction, development of township and extension of a railway line are going on,” he said. “The Bhilai Steel Plant, which has got the lease (on 2,028.79 hectares), says on record that 16 villages will be impacted by mining in the core area but I feel over 30 villages will be affected.”

Displacement concerns

Pramod Potai of Sathi Samaj Sevi Sanstha, whose home is in Kanker, said the Adivasi communities are closely linked to forests, hills and rivers and thus there should be proper resettlement in case of displacement.

“The production is yet to start in Chargaon village in Antagarh, the exact mining site in Kanker,” said Potai. “But the problem is that the Bhilai Steel Plant gave the contract to Raipur-based Dev Mining Company protests broke out. People believed that had the Bhilai Steel Plant worked in the area on its own, it would have carried out some measures under the corporate social responsibility.”

Though the Bhilai Steel Plant is yet to respond to queries, an official of the Bhilai Steel Plant, on the condition of anonymity, said that Rowghat is going to be the lifeline of the steel plant after a few years. “Some amount of protest will always be there,” he claimed. “But the Bhilai Steel Plant is taking all necessary steps to resolve the issue.”

According to Somnath Usandi of Kanker district, who is part of the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti that was formed in 2019, there has been no development in Rowghat whatsoever. “Though the Bhilai Steel Plant has obtained the lease, nothing has been done to the advantage of villagers,” Usandi said. “We had appealed for the widening of roads. That is why the Samiti has been formed to register the protest.”

He also alleged that the proper gram sabha consent was also not taken for this project. “The hills in Kanker are as sacred as the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha,” Usandi told Mongabay-India. “Our ancestors used to hold the local deity, Raja Rao devta, [God] in high esteem. We have to save our deity as well as forests and water sources.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court of India had asked the Odisha government to go to the gram sabha [village council] to get permission for bauxite mining in Kalahandi and Rayagada district of Odisha. Following the verdict, the local forest dwellers were asked whether bauxite mining will affect their religious and cultural rights. The locals decided against the mining on Niyamgiri hills which led to the cancellation of a huge project.

He also said that the tree felling is already going on in the area and emphasised that the environment should be protected at all costs. “If people are displaced, what will be their source of livelihood in future?” Usandi questioned.

‘Zero development’

Mining is an important component of the state’s economy but it has not been able to ensure a fair transition in the lives of the affected communities.

In the Dantewada district, about 315 hectares of forest has been proposed for diversion for the Bailadila iron ore mine project deposit 13 at Kirandul. It is being developed as part of a joint venture between the National Mineral Development Corporation and the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation based in Raipur. Similar to Narayanpur, it is also a hilly and forested area, and the people of the Adivasi community are severely against it as they consider one of the hills, Nandraj, sacred.

Local journalist Mangal Kunjam said deposit 13 is forest land. “The land here belongs to the entire community,” Kunjam told Mongabay-India. “Villagers are trying to protect Nandraj, an entire hill considered sacred by the tribal people. They feel that the hill is in danger. There has been zero development here even though the National Mineral Development Corporation has been mining here [a few other deposits] since 1968.”

Kunjam and Dhiraj Rana, a resident of Dantewada, also raised questions about the process where permission from gram sabha was sought for mining. “Information obtained under the Right to Information revealed that the gram sabha [village council] consent was not authentic,” Rana alleged.

An aerial view of the Baildadila iron ore mines in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. Photo credit: Suresh Yadav

The Adivasi community holds Nandraj sacred and it visits the place once a year. “The deposit number 13 is dedicated to Nandraj’s wife,” added Rana. “Though work is stalled, other mines of the National Mineral Development Corporation pollute drinking water sources in villages.”

Tulsi Thakur, a resident of Bacheli in Dantewada, said the protest against deposit 13 started in 2018-’19 and the tribal people took out a 10-km protest march.

Thakur alleged that thousands of trees have been cut in the area. A local forest department official confirmed that trees were cut without the forest department’s knowledge but said the permission for diversion of forest land was obtained by the company. “Ideally, we should have been informed,” he said. “The forest department either cuts trees or supervises the process.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.