Protests in Hasdeo Aranya | 10 years with a coal mine for a backyard

The dense green of the forested area sits next to the grey of the coal mines that have eaten into the land and rights of the people of Chhattisgarh’s northern region. Some forest dwellers have sat in quiet protest for over a year even as their land has been diverted to mining without their consent

Updated - April 21, 2023 08:39 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2023 01:35 am IST

Mohar Sai and Mayuri’s children, one of them studying at Adani Vidya Mandir, stare into the coal mines in their backyard in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district.

Mohar Sai and Mayuri’s children, one of them studying at Adani Vidya Mandir, stare into the coal mines in their backyard in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district. | Photo Credit: A.M. Faruqui

In Chhattisgarh’s harsh dry summer of 2016, Mohar Sai, who has lived all his 43 years in Hariharpur village in Salhi panchayat of Surguja district, received an offer from “the company”. The job, which was to pay ₹9,000 every month, entailed keeping count of coal sites where blasting was being carried out. “The company” is Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL), which has been mining over the past decade in Parsa East and Kente Basan coal blocks, quite literally, in Mr. Sai’s backyard.

For more than a year now, locals, largely from the Gond tribe, in Hariharpur, Ghatbarra, and Fattepur villages, have been holding a sit-in at the entrance to Hariharpur against mining.

In March 2022, the Chhattisgarh government had granted expansion approval for the project to open the Parsa Coal Block, which would dig under Hariharpur. Here, about 2 lakh trees have been marked for felling. The mines will expand into Fattepur and Ghatbarra.

In 2007, the Parsa Kente Collieries Limited (PKCL) was formed, in a joint venture between AEL (74%) and Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RRVUNL: 26%). The following year, Adani Mining Private Limited (a wholly-owned subsidiary of AEL) was given the sub-contract of mine development and operations. Work began in 2013-14, with the contract extending for 30 years, permitting the operation to extract and supply 15 million tonnes per annum.

The villages lie in a crescent, between the coal mines on one side and the Hasdeo forest on the other. “Mining will lead to the loss of about 8 lakh trees of the Sal forests in Hasdeo Aranya, which will end up affecting the catchment of the Hasdeo river,” says Alok Shukla, Chhattisgarh-based environmental activist who has been protesting against mining for over a decade now. The Adani Group did not respond to The Hindu’s queries.

Mayuri, a resident of Hariharpur village, picking mahua from under the last line of trees in her backyard.

Mayuri, a resident of Hariharpur village, picking mahua from under the last line of trees in her backyard. | Photo Credit: A.M. Faruqui

Coal conflict

Mr. Sai accepted the job with “the company” and today earns ₹15,000 a month, moving ‘up’ from working in the mines to an office job. He originally farmed his 6-7 acres and collected forest produce from 2-3 acres for which he held individual forest rights (IFR), granted under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. This was enough to sustain his family.

In the year that he was offered the job, he also realised that the mine had consumed his forest land. “I was never notified by the district authorities that my FRA patta was being cancelled or stayed or withdrawn,” Mr. Sai says, adding that he felt it was better to settle for whatever money the company was paying for the rest of the land: ₹6 lakh. Despite his discontent, Mr. Sai is scared for his job and does not participate in the strike.

He sits in a crisp white shirt and a pair of blue jeans on the porch of his home, on his weekly day off, while his wife, Mayuri, picks mahua from under the last line of trees in their backyard. Beyond this, the ground dips into the greys of the coal mines. “This season, there is not enough fruit,” she says. The fruit is fermented and distilled to make moonshine.

When it began, the blasting was a few acres away. “Slowly, from 2018 onwards, it started coming closer. By 2020, bits of stone and coal dust would be all over the house. When we hung our clothes out to dry, they would have a layer of coal dust,” says Mr. Sai. Today, the mine is less than 100 metres away from their backyard.

Now, whenever Mr. Sai takes the cattle grazing in whatever forest they have access to, he sees black paint on freshly scraped patches of tree trucks: “1507, 1509…” they read, marking them out for cutting down.

Around the time that mining was beginning, there had been an attempt to save the trees. Based on a petition filed by Sudiep Srivastava, a Chhattisgarh-based activist, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in 2014, stayed the mining licences, ordering studies on the environmental impact of the mines. However, the Supreme Court set the NGT order aside and mining began.

Now, cattle have less to graze on, the groundwater level has gone down, and the blasting has loosened the earth around borewells and tube wells people had been using for minor farming. In addition, next to Hariharpur runs a stream, which locals say used to have water and fish throughout the year. This has turned into a muddy rivulet since the digging has affected the catchment area, according to Mr. Shukla.

One of Mr. and Mrs. Sai’s sons is in Class VII at Adani Vidya Mandir, a state-of-the-art school built by the Adani Foundation and RRVUNL, providing free education to talented underprivileged children in the area. Even though Mr. Sai is not happy with the education his son is getting, since all of it is in English and he cannot understand it, his son says he enjoys school. “I love the football ground at school. There is some difficulty because of English medium,” he says, adding that his favourite subject is Hindi.

In the same village is Mangal Sai, now 40. He remembers how five years ago he had walked into the forest to check on the Sarna sthal (one or a cluster of Sal trees worshipped by Adivasi communities in a form of forest- and nature-worship known as Sarnaism). His family had been going there for at least five generations. He had, the year before, planted a Sal there, but now all that stood was a stump. It had been cut for the PKCL site. Mr. Mangal Sai also sold his land and took up a job at the mine, but unlike Mr. Mohar Sai, he sits in protest. Neither has any money left from the ‘compensation’ for their land.

Muneshwar Singh Porte (fourth from left), a member of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, at the protest site at the entrance to Hariharpur. The collective has been leading the sit-in in the village since March 2, 2022.

Muneshwar Singh Porte (fourth from left), a member of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, at the protest site at the entrance to Hariharpur. The collective has been leading the sit-in in the village since March 2, 2022. | Photo Credit: A.M. Faruqui

History undone

The last decade or so of mining in the area has split residents of these villages. On the one side are families who do not want to sell their lands and work at a coal mine. They believe “the company” is dividing them by paying some of them to spy on others’ plans with their land. On the other side are those who want to cash in, believing the protesters are ruining their prospects.

Of them, Muneshwar Singh Porte says, “They are on the company’s payroll. Every time a fight breaks out over the land in the village, these youths are there instigating the crowds, and somehow the police always side with them.” The Fattepur resident is a member of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS), a collective that has been leading the sit-in at Hariharpur since March 2, 2022.

Protests against mining in the Hasdeo Aranya region have been going on since the area was first granted clearance for this purpose by the Chhattisgarh government in 2010. Villages had started flagging issues with how forest land was being taken away from them and those who did not want to part with their land started protesting. Mr. Porte was among them.

Over the last 10 years, Mr. Porte and the HABSS, an association of villagers in Fattepur, Ghatbarra, and Hariharpur, have taken out protest marches from time to time, held a 75-day sit-in in 2019 that ended in a 300-km march to Raipur, and met the Chief Minister and Opposition leaders in Delhi to make their representations. They have also been courted by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in the State.

At the protest site, just about 20-25 locals gather every day for a few hours, though every Monday as many as 250-300 from nearby villages congregate as a show of strength. Today, the protest site has just Mr. Porte and six to seven others. “The mahua season is going on. That is why the women join a little late,” Mr. Porte says, adding that their stir will be on until they can be assured that no more land will be taken up for mining.

“Just imagine, in a good year, each family can collect about 1,500 to 2,000 kg of just mahua. Each kg results in about one litre of arrack and sells for about ₹80. That alone will bring in about ₹13,000 each month. On top of that, we collect wood from the forest, other produce like tendu (tobacco leaves). Why would I want to break my back for a mining company for the same or less when I can make it from this?” Mr. Porte says. Jobs at the mine entailed at least eight-hour shifts, six days a week. He has a simple question: “What happens after the coal is gone?”

Protests erupted in March 2022 after the Chhattisgarh government granted approval to open the Parsa Coal Block.

Protests erupted in March 2022 after the Chhattisgarh government granted approval to open the Parsa Coal Block. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The larger struggle

Just as Mr. Mohar Sai held individual rights for forest land, entire villages in Chhattisgarh have community forest rights (CFR), which allow for members to take collective decisions over how the land and its resources are used. Much like Mr. Sai discovered his land was gone, so did Ghatbarra and Fattepur villages.

Jainandan Singh, Ghatbarra’s sarpanch, says that they had applied for the CFR in 2012 and received the patta for it in 2013. “But in 2015, we were orally told that the 810 hectares of forest land had to be cut because the mine’s approval predated it,” he says.

In 2019, the Supreme Court had admitted a public interest litigation plea challenging the mining clearance granted to RRVUNL in Hasdeo Aranya for the Parsa coal blocks. Several outfits joined the batch of pleas, including the HABSS. These remain pending in the court.

The Chhattisgarh government’s March 2022 clearance for the second phase of mining came within hours of a meeting between the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, both from the Congress. The States are headed for Assembly elections this year.

In November 2022, the Chhattisgarh government wrote to the Union government, seeking that the forest clearance granted for mining in Hasdeo be revoked. Meanwhile, conflicts between individuals and groups persist, where the ‘old’ world and the ‘new’ world meet.

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