The historic rise in temperatures this year has affected the lives of many in India. This has also renewed the focus on the impacts of climate change. Even as people are being advised to stay indoors and away from the sun, an ongoing protest in the heart of India is ensuring that trees and forests are at the centre of debates surrounding climate change challenges.
Like most other parts of India, temperatures have seen a steady rise in central India, including in Chhattisgarh, with temperatures hitting 46 degrees Celsius in some parts of the state. Braving the scorching heat, a woman’s voice reverberates – “We Will Fight”. Her call is completed by people on the other side of the forest, who shout “We Will Win”. These slogans by Adivasi people are being raised to protest against the mass cutting of trees in Hasdeo forest reserve that lies next to Salhi village in Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh. The slogans continue while the people hug the trees to express their dissent.
During the early hours on April 26, people in the villages around Hasdeo forest woke up to the noise of heavy machines and falling trees. Heavy tree-cutting equipment and JCB machines had made their way to the forest. By the time the people rushed to the forest, as many as 300 trees were already down.
Those cutting the trees were accompanied by police personnel. Locals asked for requisite papers and permissions for cutting the trees and put up heavy resistance. The administration was forced to leave after sustained protests from the locals. Since then, the Hasdeo forest, lying in north Chhattisgarh, has become the site of protest where hundreds of Adivasi residents of the region are camping day and night to protect their forest.
Muneshwar Singh Porte, an Adivasi youth from village Fatepur, said, “Our forest and village are being destroyed illegally by the company and the government. We have been opposing this for ten years. We are not getting any kind of hearing. This time, we have been sitting on an indefinite dharna for two months on the issue.”
Protests to protect the Hasdeo forest have been ongoing for over a decade now. However, the Chhattisgarh state government approved the Parsa coal mine in Hasdeo forest, after receiving a green signal for it from the central government last year. The Parsa coal mine, spread over an area of 1,252.447 hectares in Surguja and Surajpur districts, has 841.538 hectares of area, out of which 410.909 hectares falls under forest land. Allotted to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, the coal mine was handed over to the Adani Group by the Congress government of Rajasthan, by contracting the mine on a Mine Developer-cum-Operator basis.
Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited has already been allotted the area of Parsa East Kete Basan, spread over 2,711.034 hectares, which has been allocated for mining. The area is part of the dense forest of Hasdeo forest spread across 1,70,000 hectares.
Despite the fact that several cases have been pending in the High Court and the Supreme Court against mining in this area, the state government gave its final approval to the adjoining Parsa East Kete Basan in March. Spread over 1,762.839 hectares, Parsa East Kete Basan was also allotted to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited. Barely 10 days later, the state government also gave the final green signal to the Parsa coal mine.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an activist organisation working on mining-related issues, said, “Our estimate is that not only will hundreds of people be displaced due to these two new coal mines, as many as 4.5 lakh trees will also be cut. We are fighting against this horrific tragedy on the ground and in the courts.”
Interestingly, the Congress-led Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh governments, which have previously accused the Opposition of favouring the Adani group, have given a go-ahead for these forest coal mines to the same industrial group. Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the Opposition party in these states, has also kept silent on this allocation of fresh coal mines in the Hasdeo reserve since it itself has favoured coal mining in this region in the past.
Parsa coal mine
The Hasdeo reserve hosts 18 identified coal mines. The forests here are the permanent home of hundreds of elephants and other wildlife species. Moreover, this being a “catchment area” of the Hasdeo Bango Dam helps irrigate an area of about 3,00,000 hectares for two crops.
Due to the rich biodiversity and high ecology of the Hasdeo reserve, the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Forest and Environment declared it a “No Go Area” after a joint study in the year 2010, banning any kind of mining.
Ironically, within a year of the ban, the Parsa East Kete Basan coal mine was approved based on a policy of extracting maximum coal at a low cost. It was promised that no more mines would be approved in the Hasdeo forest area in future. Subsequently, the matter reached courts, which cancelled the approvals.
However, on the appeal of the government, the court allowed mining till further orders, mandating the government to submit the investigation report based on a study on the ecology and environment of Hasdeo from a valid institution like the Wildlife Institute of India or the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun. The court is yet to make a final decision on this, with the matter still pending in the Supreme Court.
In 2021, the Rajasthan government started pressurising the Chhattisgarh state government for allocation of Parsa East Kete Basan and Parsa coal mine, maintaining that the coal allotted to the state for its requirement till 2028 has already been exhausted.
The Adivasi people of the area had staged a sit-in protest against the mine for months. They maintained that the area where the Parsa coal mine was located in a Fifth Schedule area, an Adivasi-dominated area, where permission of the gram sabha is necessary for such decisions.
The villagers alleged that the Rajasthan government had used fake gram sabha documents to get necessary approvals. The locals also said that the Coal Bearing Act has been used for the acquisition of land, whereas the Land Acquisition Act should have been invoked for this.
When the Rajasthan government started pressurising Chhattisgarh for the allocation of the Parsa coal mine citing a shortage of coal, hundreds of Adivasi people walked about 300 km from Madanpur to Raipur and met the state Chief Minister and the Governor, demanding cancellation of the land acquisition process.
A delegation of Adivasi people also met Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi and reminded him of his pre-poll speech in the Hasdeo Aranya area, in which he had assured the people that Congress would not allow the Adivasis to be uprooted. In his pre-poll speech, Gandhi had said that the very existence of Adivasis is dependent on forests. He had also said that any development that would require uprooting of Adivasis was not needed.
On January 2, 2018, a report prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, on the instructions of the Supreme Court, was submitted to the government.
The report stated that while only 1% of the country’s elephants are in Chhattisgarh, more than 15% of incidents of human-elephant conflict in the country are reported from this region. The report maintained that it would be impossible to handle the situation of elephant-human conflict if a new coal mine was approved.
The document also noted the presence of several critically endangered and endangered bird species, out of the 406 bird species present in the region. It also mentioned the presence of tigers in the area and underlined that this is an area of rare and endangered animals. In addition, the area is connected to Bhoramdev Wildlife Sanctuary, Achanakmar Tiger Reserve and Kanha Tiger Reserve.
While these agitations were still on and reports were being submitted, on October 21, 2021, the Ministry of Forest and Environment and Climate Change issued the final forest clearance for Parsa. After this, in April, the state government also went ahead with its approval.
Voice of dissent
After the approval of the Parsa coal mine last month, the Adani group started felling trees with the help of the forest department. But the villagers protested and kept hugging these trees, forcing the axing process to stop. Cases were registered against some villagers. Regardless, hundreds of women, men and children are still holding their ground.
Meanwhile, the local residents filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court seeking an immediate ban on the felling of trees in the region and cancellation of the allocation of the coal mine. The court has questioned the felling of trees in such haste, and also asked a valid question: if the process of land acquisition is cancelled then will the fallen trees be brought back to life? Seeking a reply, the High Court has issued a notice to the state government in this regard.
On the other hand, on the basis of a letter from the locals, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has asked the state government to take immediate action regarding the mining activity and felling of trees without mandatory consent from the National Wildlife Council and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It has asked the state government to submit a report addressing these concerns.
Taking a stand against her own party, a parliamentarian from the Indian National Congress party, Jyotsna Mahant, has submitted a letter to the Union Minister of State for Forest and Environment Ashwani Choubey, demanding the cancellation of permission for the Parsa coal mine.
Many environmentalists in the country have also expressed concern over the new coal mine. The state government has been caught in a tight spot as Guru Prakash Muni Naam Saheb, the head of Kabir Panth, a religious sect, has supported the Adivasi people and stood against the coal mining and felling of trees in Hasdeo.
Chhattisgarh has hundreds of thousands of followers of the Kabir Panth sect. Many MLAs, ministers and even the Speaker of the Assembly belong to this sect. In one of his messages, the religious head had said, “I strongly oppose the felling of Hasdeo’s forests on behalf of the whole Kabir Panth Samaj. I also request the entire Kabir Panth society to raise their voice to stop this immoral act, because cutting off a tree in a forest is a sin equal to killing a hundred living beings.”
The Adivasi residents of villages such as Hariharpur, Ghatbarra and Salhi, falling under the Parsa coal mine area, are not ready to give up their land. A woman who has been sitting on a dharna in Salhi for over two months now, said, “We are from the jungle. Our entire livelihood depends on it.”
“If this forest is destroyed, then the Adivasis who have lived in this area for centuries will also be uprooted,” the woman said. “Even if we lose our lives, we will not let coal mining happen here.”
Umeshwar Singh Armo, the convener of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti and Sarpanch of Paturiadand village, said, “Hasdeo Aranya is a very rich forest, where wild animals like tiger, leopard and deer are found in large numbers. A large herd of elephants permanently resides in this area.”
“This forest is the permanent abode of our deities,” Armo further said. “Our culture flourishes in this forest. Besides, the forest of Hasdeo Aranya also saves the environment of Central India. One needs to understand that if Hasdeo is saved, the country will be saved.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.