Of Adani, coal and development: Hasdeo Arand, a case in point

Hasdeo Arand forest, Saraguja disrict, Chhattisgarh. Photo: Vaishnavi Suresh

Parsa coal block, one of 30 in the Hasdeo Arand coalfield recently came one step closer to getting environmental clearance. The minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee’s (EAC) meeting held on 21st February 2019 state that the proposal was ‘recommended’ for getting Environmental Clearance. If successfully sought, this will be the third mine to open (after Chotia and Parsa East Kete Basan) in what was once declared a ‘No Go’ area for coal mining in Chhattisgarh. The opening up of this mine in core forest area could have deleterious consequences for the people, forest and river of Hasdeo.

A visit for work to Chhattisgarh led me to India’s largest intact dense forest area, Hasdeo Arand, spanning across the northern Korba and Sarguja districts. The low hills, sal trees and clear skies make Hasdeo an environmentalist’s dream. Madanpur (where I stayed) is an adivasi village falling in the heart of this Gondwana belt. All along the route from Raipur, you are welcomed by forest cover on either side of NH 130. But among the seemingly endless forest, one also sees stone markers and barbed wire, demarcating forest patches that form parts of existing coal blocks.

Coal sourced from Parsa East Kete Basan (PEKB), one of two operational mines (other being Chotia), located in Hasdeo has been linked to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) since 2011 for thermal power projects in Rajasthan. The contract for Mine Developer and Operator was given to Adani Enterprises.  Parsa, the latest to get clearance is contiguous to PEKB and Tara coal blocks. All three lie in the Hasdeo Arand Coalfields. But the forest with more than 1,70,000 hectares of dense cover is home to a lot more than just fossil fuel reserves.

Barbed wire demarcating PEKB mine expansion runs through elephant corridor. Photo: Vaishnavi Suresh

Elders from the villages of Sarguja and Korba speak of their younger days as the glory days of the forest. Much has changed, and not all of it positively so. Bhagirati Sinh*, aged 62, has lived in Khirti village for over 40 years. “Earlier we used to make amla (gooseberry) chutney and eat. When that tree bore the amla fruit in season, it bore fruit in abundance; we would use it with everything- as good as our use of salt! And we used to sell and get good money also. We sold tendu, char and amla… but amla is basically over now. Even Mahua and tendu have reduced so much. Now, three of us pluck 400 leaves with difficulty. Whereas earlier, one person used to pluck 400 herself!”

A similar sentiment echoes nearby. Sundar Ram*, a 55 year old resident of Madanpur village says,“ Earlier, there used to be dense forest cover.  My grandparents and father told me there were so many trees here in Madanpur that there used to be herds of elephants too. They’ve mostly disappeared from here now –if the jungle is gone then where will they stay? Our situation is somewhat similar. We’re forest dwellers, if the jungle eventually disappears, where will we stay?”

When PEKB was granted Stage II Forest Clearance, one of the conditions stated that “the State Government shall not put forth any new proposals to open the main Hasdeo Arand any further for mining purposes.” 841 hectares of forest land is due to be diverted for the new Parsa coal block. Parsa lies in core forest area.

That Hasdeo is different today from two decades ago can be attributed to a host of different factors, natural and manmade. But coal mining (existing and upcoming) in an ecosystem that is fragile and crucial to all of Chhattisgarh’s rainfall, only exacerbates the threats.

Over 80 years old, Laxminath* is a resident of Paturiadand, Korba district. He tells us about the Karma Tyohar, a Gond festival that marks new harvests and involves customary dance and music. “We used to celebrate Karma with a lot of gusto back in the day. The men would dance in one line, and the women opposite them. A group would play instruments made from animal skin and sing while some danced. I remember, if a man wanted to get into the women’s line and dance with them, he would have to wear a costume on his waist. It would be like a skirt made from real peacock and other feathers, only then he could try and change lines… but there are hardly any peacocks left in this forest now! And anyway everyone wants to dance to these “DJs” now… but yes…”

Such conversations help bring into focus the Gond community’s intrinsic relationship with the forest. Yet, Laxminath tells us before we leave that his son in law works in Adani’s coal mine (PEKB). With agricultural and forest land diverted for mines, employment (albeit temporary) obviously assumes priority for the people.There are few people who have lost land working in the mines from almost every village, but not even all of them. There is no job security, and alternative options are limited.

When asked about whereabouts of the people who lost their homes and ancestral land to PEKB, all the villagers we had a chance to interact with categorically said they do not have a clue. “I don’t know where they have gone. They built some houses for the people, but if you see the houses you will also not want to live there. They are like cages made of concrete. For a person from the forest who is used to living in open spaces, it is ridiculous to expect them to be happy in that colony. Most of the people who were allocated those homes have left them, gone to other districts and villages, and maybe some of them are dead, who knows,” Josephine* told me, a local community volunteer with Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HASS), and resident of Morga village.

On visiting this resettlement colony, we met two individuals. One was a boy aged 18. He works at the mine as a blasting machine operator and lives with two others. “I get paid Rs. 10,000 per month. There is a thekedaar (contractor) who gives us the salary.” Open cast mines (like PEKB and Parsa) form the majority of India’s coal mines. Like the youth in the resettlement colony, mine workers employed by private contractors get paid nearly three times lesser than their government employed counterparts, according to this article in the Asian Age.

The entrance of the colony is marked by a small bus stop. The top has the logo of Sarguja Zila Khanij Sansthan Nyas (translates to Sarguja District Mineral Foundation Trust) and below it, reads “khanan se sabka vikas”, or “development for all through mining.” The people displaced by the coal mine and the standard of living in the resettlement colony paint a different picture.

The Gond people’s farmlands, houses, forest land and grazing commons  – land from all categories has been taken for the mine. None of the benefits of the mining accruing to the local people is bad, but added to that is coal dust pollution, water pollution, extremely disproportionate employment opportunities and impacts on their health. Despite a 32% tribal population, economic interests being favoured over adivasi issues in Chhattisgarh is unfortunately not uncommon.

The forests of central India comprise both natural and cultural ecosystems and Gond people have long been at the heart of this. Stretches of land that have served as elephant corridors and kept man animal conflict at bay for decades were disturbed when mining commenced in PEKB. There has been a notable increase in the number of ‘attacks’ that have occurred in villages closest to the mine, Shivnath* and Parvati* tell us. Their new house is less than 500m from the coal mine; originally, it used to be where the mine stands now. “We put those bricks there to fill up the hole. Two elephants attacked our village one week ago. Nobody was hurt. If there was a light here we could’ve seen them before they broke into our house maybe. Before the mine, elephants used to walk through the jungle. Now there are no trees, where will they walk? We don’t have electricity here. We have a tubewell connection, but without electricity it doesn’t work. We were given a generator, but the diesel to operate it is too expensive. We used to cultivate rice earlier. Now we make baskets and mats out of bamboo (‘basod ka kaam’). Two of our sons work in the mine. They gave the job because they took our land. What’s the point? ”

State and Central government authorities have categorically denied the existence of such corridors despite increased elephant run ins and warning signs telling people to “beware of elephants” adorning the forest. Lemru elephant reserve was proposed to reduce the problem of man- animal conflict. But it stood on 40 MTPA reserves of coal that would have been ‘blocked’ if it came up. PEKB is one such mine that is operational now.

Impacts of the mine go even further, the effect on water being a major concern. Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan says, “the Hasdeo river is extremely polluted at the moment. Waste from coal mines is let into the same river from which they source the water, and that affects all the ecosystems and livelihoods directly dependant on the river. The fish are practically over now. Chhattisgarh has a steadily increasing number of privatised rivers, and industrial projects affecting them are also high.”  The Hasdeo river system is a primary source of water for irrigation and domestic use for thousands of locals. Sailhi naala, located midway between Hariharapur and Parsa villages flows with moderate amount of water in peak summer. It flows to river Atem, a tributary of Hasdeo. It flows from the mining lease area. It used to be a perennial water source earlier, but the natural flow has been badly affected. For expansion of PEKB, in fact, it has now been diverted too. Pollution from the mine and coal washeries add to the burden of water resources of the region.

When the ‘No Go’ status for PEKB was revoked against Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) recommendations, it was also pointed out that the total number of trees to be felled for this was 95,458 and that PEKB was an area sensitive to erosion. It is imperative to note that the FAC recommendation was overridden; consequently paving the way the for opening up of new blocks like Parsa and therefore Hasdeo Arand’s slow but steady demise.

To that effect, the recommendation for environmental clearance accorded to Parsa open cast mine is a huge blow to the people and movements on the ground. There are 995 families that will be affected by the new coal mine.  Out of the total, 584 will lose (agricultural) land, and 411 will lose their homes as well as land. The loss of natural habitat for animals, or of native species of plants in forests, and issues of the Gond people losing ancestral land are all interconnected. Adding Parsa to the list of operational coal mines in the forest of Hasdeo is history waiting to repeat itself.

Note: * Names of the people of Hasdeo have been changed for security reasons. 

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