Chhattisgarh-based environmental activist Alok Shukla was conferred with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on April 29 for championing the cause of Hasdeo Arand – an embattled forest landscape in central India rich with both biodiversity and coal reserves.

Headquartered in the United States, the Goldman Environmental Prize seeks to recognise grassroots “environmental heroes” from six continental regions of the world every year. Since 1990, the Prize has awarded individuals for their “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” It is especially attentive to leaders who are able to catalyse change through community participation. Shukla, 43, represents Asia in this year’s win.

Shukla’s journey as an environmental activist began soon after he graduated from university in 2005, after witnessing the effects of industrial pollution from infrastructure development activities in the cities of Raipur and Raigarh.

Inspired by veteran activists Medha Patkar and former bureaucrat Brahm Dev Sharma, he joined movements opposing sponge iron industries in Chhattisgarh in his early days of activism. By 2011, he decided to stay in Hasdeo and fight against the allocation of coal mines in the forest by convening the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an umbrella body for citizen movements across the state.

The struggle to keep coal underground in Hasdeo has been a decades-long one. Despite recommendations from government research agencies that Hasdeo not be cleared for more mines, coal mining blocks continued to be allocated.

By 2022, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan’s efforts led the state government to pass a resolution cancelling 21 planned coal mines in Hasdeo, saving 445,000 acres of biodiversity-rich forests. Last year, the Ministry of Coal said it would cancel 40 coal blocks for mining on the recommendations of the previous Congress government.

Shukla spoke to Mongabay-India about what winning the Goldman Prize means, the role of political parties and courts in peoples’ movements, and the importance of recognising the power of gram sabhas in forest governance matters. Excerpts:

Alok Shukla, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, with women from the Hasdeo community. Credit:

With the Goldman Prize, the Hasdeo movement has gained international visibility. How do you plan on using this platform and what message would you like to convey?

This prize isn’t in honour of any one person. This is in honour of the tribal people of Hasdeo who have been struggling for the last 12 years to save their water, forest and land. It’s also in honour of every citizen who has raised their voice for Hasdeo, whether it’s through social media or from a city. Getting this far has been a collective effort.

For Hasdeo, the next steps are to see how we can consolidate and further protect the forests that have been saved from destruction and also how to save vulnerable areas from being razed. Climate change is a crisis that the whole world is facing and there is a need to protect the environment world over. This is an effort that will need to transcend the boundaries of villages, cities and countries.

Hasdeo has shown the way by giving voice to these issues democratically, with honesty and with full faith in rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Without the forests of Hasdeo, or forests like it anywhere, dealing with climate change will be an even bigger challenge. I’d like to use this platform to appeal for more support for the protection of Hasdeo. Even though some of our demands have been heeded, it’s not enough.

What are some of the challenges in mobilising and maintaining a movement like this when anti-coal activists and organisations are under tough scrutiny by the government?

It isn’t a question of mobilising people. If today, you go to any tribal village and ask its residents whether they will give up their land, they will refuse. This is a forest they have lived in and preserved for centuries. If some company tells them to move because there’s coal under their homes, no one will agree. The question is, how do you implement this decision and exercise your right?

The tribal people of Hasdeo have two options: Either leave the land or stay and fight. Fight for their livelihood, their culture, and their sustainable way of life. They’ve chosen to fight and I’m standing in solidarity with them. The gram sabhas of Hasdeo have said they do not consent to mining in this region and they are exercising this right collectively, in a democratic manner, while abiding by the constitution. But standing against corporate greed and plunder means you may be attacked.

We’ve faced threats and arrest, but these days in the age of social media we are also being defamed on a 24-hour basis. It’s so easy to claim this movement is foreign-funded and make other allegations, for example.

Hasdeo Aranya. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

How have the recent mining reforms affected mining in Hasdeo?

From 1990 to 2010, very progressive laws were made, like the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), the Forest Rights Act and the Land Acquisition Act, which made the provisions of consent from the community mandatory before any diversions took place. But there have been attempts to weaken these laws at a large scale.

The allocation of coal blocks in Hasdeo started in 2014 and 20 gram sabhas said they did not agree to the blocks being allocated. Hasdeo falls under the fifth schedule of the Constitution and PESA allows for self-governance under the gram sabhas, but this provision is being undermined.

The Coal Bearing Act has been used in mining areas to say that the provisions under PESA are not applicable. But constitutionally guaranteed rights cannot be snatched away and it’s precisely on these grounds that the Hasdeo movement started in 2012. Some parts of Hasdeo have been saved because of this struggle and fought through these same provisions that the state is trying to weaken.

The fight in Hasdeo is simultaneously about two things. One is to conserve our natural resources on the basis of constitutional provisions, and try and protect these laws themselves, which are being systematically weakened.

The Congress today seems to be sympathetic to the Hasdeo movement, even though it was under Congress rule that mining was first sanctioned in the area. Recently, 30 MLAs were temporarily suspended over demanding tree felling in Hasdeo be stopped and Rahul Gandhi has also spoken in support of the movement. Can political parties be allies to peoples’ movements like this one?

Today, India’s political system has transformed such that political parties have a strong pro-corporate policy. However, even within these parties, there are constitutional leaders and politicians. After all, politicians don’t descend from above but come from the grassroots. Rahul Gandhi has expressed his support for the movement since the beginning. Even when his own government was in power, he said mining should not take place in Hasdeo.

It’s under Congress rule that they passed a resolution to cancel allocation of coal blocks in Hasdeo in 2022. A notification was issued excluding 40 coal blocks in the Lemru elephant corridor from mining. If the three more coal blocks – Parsa east, Kanta Basan and Kanta extension blocks – were also included in the notification, like we have been demanding, then perhaps it would have been more of a victory for us.

People’s movements hold political parties accountable and force them to take a stand. Today, regardless of who is in power, no one will openly say that the forests of Hasdeo should be destroyed. It’s become an issue of lives and livelihoods, and it’s not easy to challenge the people fighting to protect these forests. The cancellation of coal blocks in Lemru and other areas is a victory that will strengthen the movement.

Hasdeo Aranya. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

A number of recent judgments from the Supreme Court have indicated support for the preservation of forests and protection from climate change. The SC recently said individuals had a right to remain free from the adverse effects of climate change and also directed the central government to use a broad definition of forests when considering protections under the Forest (Conservation) Act for the time being. What bearing do such judgements have on the ground?

It definitely makes a difference. When the court takes a position like this, it sets an example for the rest to follow. In Niyamgiri, when it was decided that mining cannot take place without the consent of the gram sabhas, it became an example for the rest of the country. The FRA, which sought to abolish past injustices, has helped strengthen many citizen’s movements, including the one in Hasdeo.

The new amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act open up forests to corporate loot and undermine the power that gram sabhas have to stop the diversion of forest land. The government is trying to change the very definition of forests so they are given less protection. Climate change is a crisis affecting the entire world, and such judgements are historic because they put rights to a healthy environment and freedom from impacts of climate change on an equal footing as the right to life. It gives this demand a legal standing, supported by the constitution.

The importance of forests in the context of climate change is gaining visibility and the Hasdeo movement also has a role to play in this. There was a time when a conflict over natural resources was considered a fight between just the administration and the community. The Hasdeo movement has somewhat broken this notion by saying the forest belongs to everyone and the benefits of preserving it are for everyone to enjoy. The movement has gained widespread support from all over the country because it drove home this message.

I think the Hasdeo movement has also challenged the government’s approach to development. On the one hand, the government is making commitments to establish 50% renewable energy capacity by 2030 for the sake of climate change, but on the other hand coal blocks are being allotted at high speed. Ultimately the government will have to reduce fossil fuels, so if you have to reduce coal production, then why destroy the virgin forests of Hasdeo?

Gathering in Hasdeo Aranya. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Why has the enforcement of environmental norms been weak in Hasdeo?

Environmental norms have been systematically weakened so that these resources are more easily accessible for corporates and businesses. The trouble begins when the Environment Ministry, whose mandate it is to protect the environment, starts worrying about (infrastructure) development.

In 2010 it was said that Hasdeo would be a no-go zone because of its biodiversity, but this never materialised as a policy. Later, in 2021, the Wildlife Institute of India clearly said if mining takes place, it will destroy the river system and lead to unmanageable human-elephant conflict. Still clearances were given to projects.

When the Environment Ministry concerns itself with development projects and coal mining, more than the Coal Ministry itself, then the influence of corporate interest in decision-making becomes clear. When we see which corporations exactly stand to benefit from such changes in Hasdeo, it becomes even more clear.

As India goes to vote in this election season, what are your expectations for the future of the Hasdeo movement, as well as environmental protection in general, depending on who comes in to power?

It’s difficult to comment on who will come to power. Governments will come and go, and laws can be made and also taken away. Through all of this, Adivasi communities will not give up their forest easily. It’s because they have been custodians of the environment that we see contiguous forests, water, and land where they live. If attempts to take these rights away continue, then the struggle to preserve them will continue as well.

This article was first published on Mongabay.