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New Delhi: Despite a decade-long resistance against mining activity, displacement and deforestation, the Chhattisgarh government, led by the Congress, gave its final go-ahead for tree felling and initiation of mining activity in Hasdeo on April 6. The final approval allows for the non-forest use of land for the Parsa opencast coal mining project, which falls in the Surajpur and Surguja districts.
The deforestation and mining will likely displace over 700 people and threaten the independence and livelihoods of tribal communities in the area, activists say citing a study. The Parsa coal block has been allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited while coal mine developer-cum-operator operations have been awarded to Adani Enterprises.
As part of protests, families are camping out in the forests in shifts to protect trees. After the approval was granted on April 6, women of the region also hugged the trees, in an echo of the famous Chipko movement.
Activists said the local administration wants the protests to stop asap.
A first information report (FIR) has been filed against 10 local activists in connection with the protests. The FIR was registered on April 15 based on the complaint of one Anupam Dutta, who activists claim is an Adani employee. The FIR has invoked sections of the IPC related to fraud, rioting, unlawful assembly, intent to cause hurt and criminal intimidation, among others.
“An FIR has been filed against activists and locals participating in protests, as all attempts are being made to suppress the movement,” Bipasha Paul of the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan told The Wire. “On April 25, trees were marked and numbered” – and they were cut down at night.
“This was an attempt to evade the protestors, since the protests were on throughout the day.” According to Paul, the cutters accessed the trees via routes through the adjacent villages of Janardanpur and Tara under the cover of darkness.
According to activists, at the last hearing at the Bilaspur high court, on April 28, a transit bench had taken cognisance of the protests and allegations pertaining to the approval for mining under the Coal-bearing Areas Act 1957.
According to local activists, local authorities had faked the consent of the gram sabhas for the mining activity and that of the Adivasis was overlooked.
Protestors had organised a sit-in in December 2019 against these alleged actions and marched for a 300 km march to Raipur last year urging chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and governor Anusuiya Uikey to take action. Baghel had then promised to take action and order an inquiry, but there has been none so far.
Hasdeo resident Ramlal, who has been named in the FIR, said, “We have been protesting relentlessly for the past 10 years. We protested for 75 days straight last year … All the assurances given to us have proven to be hollow.”
“We are continuing our resistance and we will not back down at all,” he added. “They cut our trees at night – ye chori nahi toh kya? [‘Is this not theft’]? This is nothing but the prioritisation of corporate interests over the lives of common people.”
Amid the protests, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), has sought an explanation from Chhattisgarh’s chief wildlife warden on tree-felling for mining operations at the Para coal block without mandatory prior approval from the National Wildlife Board (NBWL) and itself.
The NTCA letter followed a complaint filed by the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan alleging that authorities hadn’t received this prior approval.
“The fact that these trees are being felled is a massive failure of the Congress government’s leadership and its hollow promises to us,” Alok Shukla of the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, told The Wire said. “At this point, both legal [options] and resistance are taking place simultaneously.”
According to the Hindustan Times, the Chhattisgarh government allocated the Parsa east & Kente Besan block to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited for second-phase mining, after the first phase wrapped up in March 2022.
“The Rajasthan government has been allowed to divert 1136.328 ha of land for the second phase, which the Chhattisgarh-based activists claimed would mean cutting of around 2,42,670 trees in the jungles of Parsa and Kente villages, of Udaipur tehsil of Surguja district,” the newspaper wrote.
The Hasdeo forest in Chhattisgarh’s Korba, Sarguja and Surajpur districts covers an area of 170,000 ha. It includes an important elephant migration corridor. It also encompasses the catchment area of the Hasdeo river, the largest tributary of the Mahanadi. The Union government declared the area to be declared a ‘no-go zone’ for mining in 2009 – but mining in the area has continued unabated only because the policy for the zone is yet to be finalised.