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New Delhi: A week after taking out a 300-km padyatra (march) against mining and leading a ten year long agitation, tribals of the dense Hasdeo Aranya forests are shocked and disappointed.
On October 21, the Union government accorded stage II clearance for mining in the Parsa coal block in Chhattisgarh. Parsa is one of the six coal blocks allocated in the region despite the Adivasi agitation. East and Kanta Basan is an open pit 15 million ton-per-annum (MTPA) coal mine operated by Adani Group and owned by Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam (RRVUNL). It is also the block which faced the most amount of resistance.
While the letter from the Union government states that the decision has been taken on the basis of the compliance report forwarded by the state government, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel himself had met tribals on the last day of their yatra, going on to assure them that the decision will be made in their favour.
The letter from the Union reads: “
The State Government has forwarded the Draft Biodiversity Assessment Report which has been considered in the Ministry as the final report from the State government and the recommendations in the report have been considered to be accepted by the State Government for their compliance. Therefore, in view of the compliance of Stage-I approval and submission of the Biodiversity Assessment Report, approval of the proposal has been considered by the Ministry. However, in case, new facts are brought to the notice of the Ministry subsequently, the Ministry will be at liberty to impose additional condition (s) in this regard.”
Speaking to the Wire, Alok Shukla from the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan said, “This development coming in the light of a decade-long movement of the Adivasis and the 300-km-long yatra… This is disappointing to say the least. Both the Central and the state governments have failed us… it is clear that the priority for the government is not the people, but corporate profits. This move is an attack on tribal rights and the environment. The Central and the state governments are hand-in-glove trying to destroy this region.”
Hasdeo Aranya is a dense forest stretch spread across over 1,500 km through central India. The area is home to India’s tribal communities, with an estimated five billion tonnes of coal buried under the dense forests. Mining has become a huge business in the area, leading to protests by the locals.
Locals and activists have stated that the process has been riddled with contradictions. The Hasdeo Aranya forests were declared an entirely ‘No-Go area’ in 2010 based on a joint study by the coal ministry and environment and forest ministry. However, the declaration was revoked in the next few months and stage one mining clearance was given, leading to the commencement of mining activity in 2013.
The latest biodiversity study, which formed the basis of the clearance given by the Union government on Thursday, also takes different stands, contradicting itself.
The Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) states that 14 out of the 23 proposed coal blocks in the region should not be given clearance given the dense forest tracks. The study admits, “Mining related land-use changes will harm forest cover/density, forest type, and forest fragmentation. In addition, forest fragmentation will contribute to decreased patch/corridor connectivity, increased edge effect, change in microclimate and promote invasive species if not taken adequate mitigation measures.”
However, the study also states that mining in the other blocks – Kente, Parsa East, Kanta Besan and the Tara block – can take place with environmental safeguards and conservation methods. The Chhattisgarh government, led by Bhupesh Baghel, had used the issue as a poll plank, promising to safeguard the region against mining. However, it is now maintaining a silence over the letter issued by the Central government.
Speaking to The Wire on the condition of anonymity, a state Congress leader overseeing the issue said, “If there is mining in the region, we have taken cognisance of the issue. We had even reserved the area of an elephant reserve. As the situation stands, the Central government is operating on its own pressures amid this – there are coal blocks proposed in this area. Still no decision has been taken, unless the decision is taken it is not fair to blame the Congress. We are sure that some mid path may be found despite the ongoing pressures.”
The Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, along with the tribals of the region, have maintained that these contradictions and the silence of the state government have paved way for violations of constitutional provisions. A statement by the CBA reads:
“According to the Forest Rights Act, 2006, before the forest clearance to any project, completion of forest rights claims process and written consent of the gram sabhas (village councils) concerned is imperative. However, the forest rights claims of the villagers related to Parsa open cast mine are still pending and the gram sabha consents dated January 24, 2018 for Hariharpur, January 27, 2018 for village Salhi and August 26, 2017 for village Fatehpur were fake.”
Moreover, mining in the region is being given a greater push owing to the dilution of environmenta; protection norms by the Central government through the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition & Development) Amendment Bill, 2021. It exempts private parties from conducting social impact assessments and paying compensation or seeking the consent of locals, setting a precedent for land acquisition.
The original Act of 1957 did not allow permanent structures or projects. Through these proposed amendments, once the lease is granted to a mine, private companies would continue to have control over the acquired land even after mining activities are completed and would be able to continue ancillary activities and build coal-related infrastructure.
Speaking to the Wire, Kanchi Kohli, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said, “When the Central government uses its eminent domain privilege and applies the coal bearing areas law to Hasdeo, it may see it only for its coal. When Gram Sabhas exercise their constitutional mandate for governance, they talk about food security, forest based work, water, heritage, wildlife and even climate change. The environment ministry’s recent decision to approve a coal mine based on a draft biodiversity assessment, brings out this sharp contrast.
She added, “The onus to grant final approval for forest diversion now rests with the state government. This is even though the legalities of opening up mining in Hasdeo calls for a thorough examination. And today, the 300 km march has established that while the governments may push for the mines in Hasdeo, they don’t have any social legitimacy to operate.”