Spread across 1,70,000 hectares over the three districts of Surajpur, Surguja and Korba lies the dense forest of Hasdeo. Known as the “lungs of Chhattisgarh”, Hasdeo Arand is one of central India’s largest contiguous tracts of forest, with rich biodiversity, an elephant habitat, the catchment area of the Hasdeo Bango dam.

The three districts are home to some 1.79 million Adivasis, including those from the Gond, Oraon and Lohar communities.

Currently carved into 18 coal blocks, Hasdeo Arand has been the site of conflicting interests – mining, environmental, and a sustained decade-long resistance by its Adivasi communities, to felling of trees and mining in the area.

“The movement dates back to 2011 when Parsa East Kete Basan [PEKB], allotted to the Adani group [through Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd], was granted forest and environment clearance,” says Muneshwar Singh Porte, a 27-year-old member of the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. Porte, who is from the Gond tribe and hails from Fatehpur village in the district of Surguja, has been associated with the movement for a decade now.

The clearance was granted despite expert bodies – the Indian Council of Forest Research and Education and the Wildlife Institute of Indiadeeming Hasdeo Arand a “No-Go” area.

In June, the Union government deleted the clause mandating the Gram Sabha’s consent from the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 asked that informed consent be taken from the Gram Sabha before diversion of forest land.

This gave the forest dwelling communities agency to decide what they wanted to do with the land they inhabited and around which their lives revolved. Experts suggest the recent amendment has reversed the process and put the tribals, and their lands, at risk of exploitation.

On July 26, extending support to the Save Hasdeo movement, Member of the Legislative Assembly in Chhattisgarh Dharamjeet Singh of the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh moved a resolution seeking a halt to coal mining in the Hasdeo Arand region, saying that this could impact the rich biodiversity and the dense forest.

The Chhattisgarh assembly accepted the resolution and asked the Union government to cancel all coal blocks in Hasdeo. If the Union government does not accept this resolution, Singh told IndiaSpend that the movement on the ground against mining in the area would continue.

Alok Shukla, convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an umbrella body for people’s movements and activist campaigns across the state, says that “despite all odds against the movement at the moment, the community has refused to abandon its resources. The protest at Hasdeo, and for Hasdeo Arand, will continue.”

With the recent resolution being passed in the Chhattisgarh Assembly he is hopeful that Hasdeo Arand might be saved from coal mining and the state government will stop felling of trees in the area until the Union government accepts the resolution.

The ‘go-no go’ policy

In 2011, the government of India formalised the “Go-No Go” policy in response to Coal India Limited’s request to demarcate the more environmentally sensitive areas from the lesser ones. The intent was to “facilitate objective, informed and transparent decision on diversion of forest land for coal mining projects”. Of the nine coal fields surveyed, Hasdeo was the only coal field where not one block was assigned as a “Go” area.

In July 2012, the environment ministry prepared a report on how to identify “pristine forest areas where any mining activity would lead to irreversible damage”. It had six parameters: forest density, wildlife value, biodiversity richness of the forest, forest type, landscape integrity and hydrological value to determine which forests would be “inviolate”. But activists said the report was made without any participation of the people, and did not include all important aspects of a forest.

Yet “by all parameters, Hasdeo was deemed as an environmentally important area that needed to be conserved and protected from the miners”, says Priyanshu Gupta, assistant professor at Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, and a policy and development researcher.

Mining in PEKB

Despite being listed under the “No-Go” area, Parsa East Kete Basan received clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2011 and started functioning in 2013.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal suspended the forest clearance granted to this project on the grounds of the Forest Advisory Committee’s recommendations being overruled by the environment ministry. The National Green Tribunal requested the environment ministry to conduct a fresh assessment of the biodiversity potential of this area and come back with a recommendation.

In 2014, the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd, a public sector undertaking that had got the rights to mine in Parsa East Kete Basan, filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the National Green Tribunal’s order.

Following this, the Supreme Court stayed the part of the National Green Tribunal order which had stopped the mining work in the area, and mining resumed, a 2018 document from the Forest Advisory Committee says. The Supreme Court did not stay the National Green Tribunal’s order asking for an assessment of the area’s biodiversity.

But “the reassessment never happened”, said Porte. IndiaSpend reached out to the environment ministry for comment and will update the story when they respond.

The clearance granted to the Parsa East Kete Basan was subject to compliance to certain conditions, including training villagers to make them employable, ensuring their health and undertaking measures to control dust and other emissions.

Once operations started, people in the surrounding areas started facing severe impacts, such as deaths and bodily harm caused by speeding trucks transporting coal; dust pollution not only from the increased vehicular traffic but also the unchecked burning of coal; and contamination of water sources – rivers and streams – due to the discharge of waste from the project site.

Shikha Shrivastava, head of the zoology department at the Indira Gandhi Government PG College, Bhilai, talks of how “discharge from the coal mines into the rivers changes the PH scale of the river water, thus affecting the breeding cycle of the fishes and other organisms”. This affects the livelihood and eating habits of the forest-dwelling communities.

Bipasha Paul, an activist and member of the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, and other members of the community who have been monitoring the environmental compliance of the coal mines in the area have also raised a bunch of issues over the years.

Credit: Closing the enforcement Gap: Groundtruthing of Environmental Violations in Sarguja, Chhattisgarh, a collaborative research between Janabhivyakti, representatives of Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, and the Centre for Policy Research- Namati Environmental Justice Program, via IndiaSpend.

One of the recurring issues was that the river turned black every three-four days because of the continuous draining of coal-mixed wastewater into the Ghatbarra nala, and subsequently entering the river Atem. This not only affected the villagers but also the animals dependent on the water.

“The coal-mixed wastewater passing through the fields damaged the crops. The deposits of coal dust in the fields was lethal for people who were solely dependent on agriculture as their means of living, as there were high chances of the land turning barren,” says Shyamlal Kariam of Ghatbarra village.

“The villages of Salhi and Hariharpur had only one source of water, and this rate of contamination was affecting the water and the land ecosystem, and was a threat to the quality of life of the community living there,” adds Paul.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the environment ministry for comment and will update the story when they respond.

However, a spokesperson from Adani Mining Pvt Ltd denied all of the above complaints. Adani Mining Pvt Ltd has set up a wastewater treatment plant and transports coal by train, directly from the mines.

For the Parsa East Kete Basan mining project, “almost 150 Adivasis from Kete village were displaced. They were completely uprooted from their natural habitat,” says Gita Porte, 24, who also lost her home and land in Kete village because of the displacement from the mine.

She added that the rehabilitation site was not suitable, the jobs given did not match their skill sets and most residents did not receive compensation. “Some folks closer to the Panchayat members did. This led to a lot of intra-community disputes. PEKB [Parsa East Kete Basan] is a horror story that everyone needs to learn from.”

IndiaSpend has tried to reach out to those who were members of the Panchayat during that time but some have passed away, and the displacement because of the mine made it hard to track down the others.

Hasdeo bachao: State of play

The movement once again caught everyone’s attention when the villagers of Salhi, Hariharpur, Ghatbarra and Fatehpur started an indefinite protest in April.

(Part 1) Letter written to the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Harsh Vardhan, a member of the Lok Sabha, the environment ministry, Premsai Singh Tekam, member of the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly and Sunil Kumar, Chhattisgarh's chief secretary. Credit: Ramlal Kariyam, member of Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.
Part 2. Credit: Ramlal Kariyam, member of Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.
Part 3. Credit: Ramlal Kariyam, member of Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.

“The Parsa Coal Block was granted Environmental and Forest clearance in 2018, based on the consent of a faux gram sabha,” says Satyam Srivastav, forest rights activist and member of the Society for Rural Urban and Tribal Initiative.

Villagers say that three sarpanches from the villages of Salhi, Hariharpur, and Fatehpur were forced to give consent for diversion of land to the mining company. In addition, the manipulated document also had signatures of residents – from the above-mentioned villages – who were already dead.

“The clearance was granted despite continuous protests and without consent from the members of the Gram Sabha,” says Srivastav. IndiaSpend reached out to the three sarpanches but they refused to comment on the matter.

Figure 1: Photocopies of the alleged faux gram sabha (Ghatbarra), with signatures of Balinder, Dilbandu and Dhiran who had passed away 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively. Credit: Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.
Figure 2. Credit: Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.
Figure 3. Credit: Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.
Figure 4. Credit: Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.

Matters escalated when Adani Mining Private Ltd started clearing the forest in the month of April. Residents from Salhi village say they were woken up in the middle of the night on April 25, by the loud noise of machines cutting down trees. In no time women, men, and children from adjoining villages reached Salhi to protect their land and forest.

A spokesperson from Adani Mining Private Ltd said the company was not responsible for the cutting of these forests. Rakesh Chaturvedi from the forest department said that the department had permission to legally cut the trees.

Women hugging the trees in protest of the forest clearance that happened in Salhi village on April 25. Credit: Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.

“However, by the time everyone reached, those folks had already cut down 300 trees,” says Lilawati Singh Porte, resident of Fatehpur village. “But it was a sight to behold – women, men and children of all ages hugging the trees in protest, and swearing to not step aside until the company folks were gone.”

“The Hasdeo Bachao Andolan is not just a fight for indigenous communities and their rights; it is also a fight to protect the forest and the rich ecosystem to which mining can do irreversible damage,” says Gupta, of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.

August 9 marks the 162nd day of the indefinite protest at Hariharpur, which began in March. The protest has been sustained only because of the indigenous community’s ability to weave their protest seamlessly with their everyday lives.

Suneeti Kariyam, from Salhi village, explains the routine. “All members of the villages get done with their agricultural work by 10 am and reach the protest site latest by 12 noon, with one member from each household staying back to take care of the house.”

“Owing to the protest, the farmers are unable to devote more time to their work,” said a resident who did not want to be named. “To battle that, on a community level, it has been decided that villages will take turns to mark their presence at the protest site, and will be given time to devote to their work.”

Seed balls being made by the women at the protest site. Credit: Muneshwar Singh Porte of the Hasdeo Bachao Sangharsh Samiti via IndiaSpend.

“At the protest site, apart from discussing the way forward, we also complete some of our daily chores – collecting doree, which is a local fruit, tying tendu leaves, and collecting and segregating seeds of the mahua flower. Of late, we have also started making seed balls to preserve the forest,” says Rajni Poyam, a 32-year-old resident of Surajpur.

The transfer of forest land to private bodies like Adani Mining Private Ltd will deprive the indigenous communities of their right to a life of dignity, the right to a healthy environment, the right to preserve their culture and habitat, says Srivastav.

Additionally, disrupting this ecology will only exacerbate human-elephant conflicts in the region. We have reached out to the local forest department in Hasdeo, and the Indian Forest Service, and will update the story when they respond.

Hasdeo Arand – often jokingly termed as “ATM” by the forest-dwelling communities – is much more than just a provider of livelihoods. The local culture and identity is deeply rooted in these lands and the forest, locals say, and add that they will continue the fight for Hasdeo Arand.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.