In the heart of India, there is a land called Gondwana. Geologists borrowed the name to provide an identity to Gondwana or Gondwanaland, a prehistoric supercontinent that gave birth to India before humans evolved. It is also a name derived from some of India’s most ancient people, a tribe called the Gonds.
Demands for a state of Gondwana date back to before India’s independence in 1947. It was proposed as a home for India’s original people, the Adivasis, who include the Gonds. Today, they are some of the country’s most disenfranchised people, consistently occupying the lowest ranks of national development indicators. There are about 90 million Adivasis, and they are India’s poorest and most illiterate, more prone to ill-health and death than any other group, and least likely to achieve the Indian dream.
In the years after independence, many groups got a homeland, including the Gujaratis, the Telugus, the Kannadigas, the Maharashtrians, the Manipuris and the Mizos. Uttar Pradesh split into Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh into Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh into Telangana.
What never came to be was the Adivasi homeland, Gondwana.
Today, its mythical contours encompass parts of Maharashtra, Telengana, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. If Gondwana were to be created, it would have two unique characteristics: it would be home to some of India’s richest forests and it would be a storehouse of India’s richest mineral deposits.
Those minerals – in this case, coal – are the reason why the Hasdeo Arand forest in the Chhattisgarh part of Gondwana is about to be handed over to a public sector electricity company from Rajasthan. You could argue that development requires sacrifices, but the release of Hasdeo Arand is more than a sacrifice: it is a potential ecological disaster, and it is being done by allegedly forging the consent of local Adivasis and violating India’s laws. There are greater implications. If Hasdeo Arand is wiped out, few of India’s wild places will be safe. And if they are all sacrificed at the altar of development, India’s air, water and people will be in a vastly more benighted state than they already are.
The process of dismantling India’s natural resources is already underway, as wildlife writer and former member of the National Board for Wildlife Prema Singh Bindra wrote last year. Over four years of the Narendra Modi government to May 2018, Bindra reported, 519 infrastructure projects were cleared in India’s protected areas, rising from 260 cleared by Manmohan Singh’s government over the previous four years.
A stretch of unbroken forest
First, a bit about Hasdeo Arand. This one of India’s last remaining stretches of unbroken forest, home to elephants, leopards, bears and myriad other species of plants and animals, and it is a rich storehouse of water in a country that faces a water crisis of unprecedented proportions. Hasdeo Arand is larger than the National Capital Territory of Delhi, not just the core city, but the sprawling urban agglomeration spread across three states.
That the release of Hasdeo Arand is as much about proximity to power as it is – supposedly – about development was apparent when a popular YouTuber called Dhruv Rathee was threatened with legal action when he mentioned the A word: Adani. Billionaire Gautam Adani’s conglomerate, Rathee alleged, owned the mine that would eviscerate Hasdeo Arand. Rathee quickly retracted.
As it emerged, the Adanis were nitpicking. They were technically correct because, as I said, a Rajasthan government company has the contract. However, an Adani company is the mining contractor.
Adani companies routinely pick up mining contracts on behalf of government companies in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leader Modi is seen to be close to Adani.
A people on the brink
But the attempts to violate Hasdeo Arand did not begin with the BJP. It was in 2011 that the Congress’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh was pressured by his government to open three blocks on the “fringes” of the forest to mining. Hasdeo Arand was declared a “no-go” area, inviolate. The mining leases were granted on the condition that they would never be again.
“They are the first and the last,” Ramesh said at the time.
Here we are, eight years later, on the verge of handing over the core forest to uncover the veins of coal below. Only a final forest clearance and two lawsuits in the Supreme Court stand before the mining of Hasdeo Arand. If the mines open, the forest will be gone forever. These are strip mines so Hasdeo Arand will be stripped of its trees, its animals and all life, as giant excavators gouge out the earth and take out the coal.
As for the Gonds and other Adivasis who live outside and within parts of the forest, they will be reduced – as others like them have been in other mining areas – to a lost people. They will be removed from their land, they will lose their fields, they will lose their culture – inextricably tied to the land – and, perhaps, join the great, desolate migration to the slums of Indian cities.
Experience shows that resettlement of Adivasis has largely failed. One-time payments are quickly squandered by those unprepared for modernity; jobs in the mines or power plants require skills that Adivasis mostly do not possess; and promises of schools and other infrastructure rarely go beyond the minimum that companies can get away with.
If Hasdeo Arand goes, the process of wiping out India’s last wild places is likely to accelerate. In less than a lifetime, the places, animals and culture connected with India’s ancient essence, and the means to its future well-being, could be erased – permanently.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism non-profit.