Adivasi Women Of Hasdeo Arand Lead a 300 Km March to Save their Forests

Image credits: Twitter / @alokshuklacg

“We will not leave our forests and lands for Adani,” thundered Mayawati, a 65 yr old Adivasi woman from Fattepur village in Surguja district in northern Chhattisgarh. Mayawati is among the hundreds of Adivasi residents of villages in the Hasdeo Arand forests who are on a 300-kilometer long protest march to save their homes and livelihoods.

On 2 October, 2021, amidst a push by the central government for increasing coal production as a result of the reported coal shortage in the country, the residents of villages in the Hasdeo Arand forests, spanning across ​​north Korba, south Surguja and Surajpur districts of Chhattisgarh, came together to protest coal mining projects and the forced land acquisition process in the region. Two days later, they set out on a protest march from Fattepur village in Surguja to the state capital  Raipur to meet the Governor Anusuiya Uike and Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel to present their demands. 

Fattepur is one of the villages at risk of displacement, when mining operations commence in the Parsa coal block situated  in the central part of Hasdeo-Arand coalfield, where forest clearances were given despite the Gram Sabha’s  opposition. It has become the focal point of revival of a decade-long movement against the forceful acquisition of Hasdeo forest lands without the Gram Sabhas’ consent. Their demands include cancellation of all the coal mining projects in Hadeo Arand and the land acquisitions carried out without the consent of the Gram Sabha under the Coal Bearing Areas Act of 1957 among others. 

After ten days, the protesters reached Raipur on 13 October, 2021 and are yet to meet the governor and chief minister. They were met by T.S. Singh Deo, the minister for health and Panchayati Raj in the Chhattisgarh government, who reiterated that the region which was declared a ‘no-go’ zone for mining must be honoured. 

Hasdeo forests consist of some of the largest contiguous tracts of forest covers in central India outside of the Protected Area— an area that is not a part of any designated national park or wildlife sanctuary.  Agriculture and forest dwelling Adivasi communities live in the region and depend on the forests for their livelihood. These forests, rich in biodiversity, are home to many endangered species of flora and fauna and perennial water sources. The region is also part of an important wildlife corridor that stretches from Jharkhand to Chattisgarh supporting the migration of elephants.

“Government has withdrawn its political commitment, trampled upon the constitutional rights of the people, and is destroying one of the biggest contiguous tracts of forest cover in the country at a time when the world is faced by a climate emergency,” said Alok Shukla, a Chhatisgarh based environmental activist and a member of the Convenor Collective of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an organisation working on mining and its impact on the environment and communities. 

As India gears up for the upcoming 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, it has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the share of non-fossil-based energy resources to 40% of installed electric power capacity by 2030 under the Paris Agreement. It has also committed to creating an additional carbon sink through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

“These people have no options – it is a question of their villages, their forests and their very existence; which is why they had to organize this protest march”, said Shukla speaking to Behanbox over phone at the end of the fifth day  of the march.

Women Lead

Adivasi women have vociferously opposed the government’s and corporations’ attempts to acquire forested land for mining projects in the Hasdeo region.

“Whenever the villages face any pressure with regards to mining, women are the first ones to stand up against it. This is because women pay a disproportionately high cost for displacement caused by mining”, said Bipasha Paul, programme officer of Chhattisgarh-based NGO Janabhivyakti, which is working with the residents of Hasdeo Arand. 

“Take water for instance. Mining destroys and pollutes all available water sources in the area. As a result, women have to walk for several kilometers to fetch drinking water,” Paul told Behanbox.

“Women have played a huge role in mobilizing people for the movement. Ever since the combined Gram Sabha meeting and the protest march was announced, women of the villages started spreading awareness about the gravity of the situation and motivating people to join in large numbers,” she said. 

The Adivasi economy, largely dependent on forest produce, is run primarily by women. They rely heavily on the biodiversity of Hasdeo forests. They have an intergenerational knowledge of extracting benefits from different parts of trees and plants, including the roots. “This irreplaceable symbiotic system of coexistence will collapse if mining in the region is approved,” added Paul.

Displacement leaves an entire community vulnerable but women experience it in disproportionate ways. Shakuntala Ekka, a resident of Kehti panchayat in the Hasdeo region recalls the plight of women who were displaced after the Parsa East and Kete Basen (PKEB) coal block was cleared for mining in 2011.

“Only a woman can understand another woman’s pain. Having lost their land, livelihood and homes, women were forced to work as domestic helps in other people’s homes.  Many faced harassment. Their financial independence was taken away. They were left at the mercy of their husbands, many of who spent the entire compensation money on alcohol,” she said. 

“We live in mud houses but we would prefer this over living in small box-like houses they give in the name of rehabilitation. These forests are our paradise. We would never leave them,” Shakuntala told Behanbox.

Costs of Mining

The 300 kilometer march to the capital city is the latest in a continuum of decade long protests by the Adivasi communities of Hasdeo against mining operations. Mining activities will fragment one of the last few remaining intact forest covers in central India, violate forest rights, increase human-wildlife conflict, destabilize the Bango dam, and displace forest-dwelling indigenous Adivasi communities, in addition to destroying the natural ecosystem.

“Mining will decimate about 17,000 to 20,000 acres of dense forests, completely displace 8 villages and destroy considerable land and forest area of 15 villages if the new coal blocks are opened. The rise in human-elephant conflict has already resulted in the death of 204 people and more than 45 elephants in Chhattisgarh,” said Shukla.

 For the Adivasi communities, Hasdeo forests and lands are their only source of livelihood. “We collect putu (Indian mushroom) from the forests; the sale of which can get us almost 500 rupees for an hour’s work. The sale of Mahua (Madhuca Longifilia) and Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) can fetch us money in thousands of rupees. It is good enough for us to live comfortably. If the forests are taken away from us, how will we survive?” asks Mayawati.  

“That mining will improve peoples’ lives is a façade. Their idea of compensating these forest dwellers is to offer them jobs at subordinate levels. But the communities want their future generations to carry the legacy of this sustainable lifestyle forward while protecting these resources,” said Paul. 

A 2021 report by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), a government agency under the environment ministry, has recommended allowing coal mining in a part of the region with adequate safeguards. The recommendation was made despite the report’s own observation that mining will give rise to seemingly unmitigated changes in the habitat, river water courses, and will have an impact on the community in the form of loss of livelihood, identity and culture. 

The report noted that while the overall 14 (mining) projects may not be recommended in order to conserve “the relatively dense moist-dry deciduous Sal dominated forest tracts that provide home range for elephants,” but the four contiguous coal blocks, Tara, Parsa, PEKB and Kente Extension, that are “either already opened or in advance stage of getting the statutory clearances/Terms of Reference approved, can be considered for mining with strict environmental safeguards including appropriate conservation measures for the management of surface water and biodiversity.”

“It is clear that the government only cares about pleasing big corporations and the recommendations in the report have been made under pressure from the Adani group – one of India’s biggest and fastest growing conglomerates, who has been granted the Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) contracts for all operational and upcoming mines in the state,” said Shukla.

Institutional Processes And Coal Mining

The Hasdeo Arand Coalfield with more than a billion metric tonnes of coal, is divided into 18 coal blocks and is spread across 1878 square kilometres. Of this, 1502 square kilometres has a  forest cover. Successive governments have pushed for coal mining despite the knowledge of the drastic ecological impact of mining in the region.

Hasdeo is a designated tribal majority area under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India which delineates a separate legal and administrative framework for these areas in order to safeguard the interests and rights of the Adivasi population. The Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act, 1996, and the Right To Fair Compensation And Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act, 2013, clearly state that the Gram Sabha or Panchayat should be consulted before land acquisition in tribal majority areas. 

In 2010, Hasdeo Arand was declared a no-go zone by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) advised against granting clearance to mining projects in the area on three occasions, in 2009, 2010 and 2011, on the grounds it would destroy the dense forests that sustained a rich ecosystem inhabited by elephants, leopards and sloth bears. The MoEF upheld the FACs decision but it was overturned by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who granted a stage I forest clearance to Tara, Parsa East and Kete Basan coal blocks in the region. At the time, Ramesh justified this move with the claim that the blocks were on the ‘fringe’ and asserted that these would be the first and the last coal blocks to be opened in the region.  

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) set aside the clearance and suspended the mining work underway at the Parsa East & Kete Basan (PEKB) block while directing the MoEF to commission studies by expert bodies on all aspects of the mining proposal, including a stock of the natural ecosystem in the region and how it will be impacted. In the same year, the Supreme Court of India stayed the NGT’s direction regarding the suspension and the mining operations have continued since. 

 In 2015, twenty Gram Sabhas unanimously passed a resolution against the auction of coal mines in the Hasdeo region citing violation of Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. The Act recognizes the forest dwelling tribal communities’ and other traditional forest dwellers’ rights to forest resources. 

“Seeing the movement against the allotment of coal mines gaining ground, Rahul Gandhi, former President of the Indian National Congress and a current Member of Parliament visited Hasdeo to assure the residents that the forests and the land will not be snatched away from them if Congress is voted to power and that the party will support to the movement,” said Shukla 

“The Congress Party has been in power in the state since 2019 and has failed to honor its word,” he added. “Despite laws and the clear opposition from the villagers, the government has illegally pushed for the process of land acquisition without the Gram Sabha’s consent.” 

Adivasi women protesting the use of forged consent by the government to grant clearance

“The diversion of forest land for the allocation of the Parsa coal block was done through forging fake Gram Sabha documents. People have written letters to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister and the District Collector, along with filing a First Information Report (FIR), and moving the High Court. Yet, no investigation has taken place”, Shukla told Behanbox.

“Despite the blatant violations of laws, villagers have stuck to constitutional means and knocked on all available doors for justice to protect their rights; however, their cries have been ignored so conglomerates such as Adani Enterprises Limited can make profits,” he said. 

A statement issued by the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti said, “the government illegally allotted seven coal mines in our region to state government companies. The state governments have, in turn, appointed Adani to develop and mine these blocks.”

Chotia and Parsa East and Kete Basen (PEKB) are the two operational mines in the Hasdeo coalfield. However, the stage II clearance granted to PEKB block clearly states that ‘..the government would not put forth any new proposals to open the main Hasdeo Arand any further for mining purposes’ under condition 21. 

The PEKB coal block, which was granted a forest clearance in March 2012 for 15 years, has exhausted its reserves seven years before the approved timeline and has applied for an amendment to the forest clearance granted to it by MoEFCC. 

However, the open cast mine (OCM) at Parsa has been placed on the Expert Appraisal Committee’s (EAC) agenda on at least three occasions in a bid to push for the grant of environmental clearance. Numerous other proposals have also been introduced to the MoEFCC.

In February 2019, Union Environment Ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) gave stage I clearance to the Parsa coal mining project citing fait accompli reasons without referring to a biodiversity impact assessment report of the project in the region. According to the FAC meeting minutes of July 26, 2018, the area where the Parsa coal mining project had been proposed “is sensitive from erosion point of view and vegetation density”, but in the past “similar case of PEKB and Tara Coal block in Hasdeo-Arand Coal was granted approval by the competent authority by overriding the recommendation of the then FAC.”

In 2020, nine sanpanchs and a Janpad member of Podi Uproda Panchayat in Korba district wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi urging that the auction of 16 coal blocks be put on hold. The letter stated that the Gram Sabhas had not consented to mining in the region. 

The Chhattisgarh cabinet approved the auction of 17 coal blocks in the state out of the 18 identified by the Centre this year.

Eisha Hussain is a multimedia reporter at Behanbox. Her work has covered issues around gender and sexuality, displaced communities from conflict zones, and protest cultures.

[real3dflipbook id='1']