January 28, 2024

Hasdeo in Trouble: Peoples Struggle to Continue

Tapan Mishra

THE newly-elected BJP government in Chhattisgarh is proceeding with full force to clear large tracts of the Hasdeo-Arand forest, paving the way for open mining in two large coal blocks allotted to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam operated by the Adani Group to supply coal for generating electricity for Rajasthan and adjoining states. Permission has been granted to clear around 135 hectares of forests in the Parsa East and Kanta Basan (PEKB) coal blocks, and a notice to that effect was issued on September 18, 2023. Widespread felling of trees began recently under heavy security cover.

The biodiversity-rich Hasdeo Arand forests are spread over 170,000 hectares and are home to Gond tribals and other largely hunting-gathering Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) such as Abujhmaria, Bihor, Halwa, Baiga and others.  The impact zone of the mining activities is spread over the Surajpur, Surguja, and Korba districts of the state.

Officially, an estimated 15,000 trees are expected to be felled. However, local tribal and activist groups have reported that almost 30,000 trees have already been cut down. A further 2,50,000 face a similar fate in the near future when forest clearing over an additional 840 hectares in Parsa will commence. Apart from economically valuable trees such as sal and mahua which yield sustenance incomes and other uses to the tribals, many other ecologically and socially useful shrubs and grasses are also being sacrificed. Many species of wildlife notably elephant, bear, reptiles and others are also being displaced by the deforestation and mining-related activities.

The potential scale of coal availability, and hence the possible scale of ecological destruction and impact on tribals and other forest dwellers, is eye-popping. It is believed that the capacity of the PEKB blocks itself may be around 20 million tonnes per annum, whereas an estimated total of 5 billion tonnes of coal could be present under the dense forest area, potentially threatening around 800,000 trees in all.

It is not as if all this has taken place overnight, and only under the BJP regime in both the centre and in Chhattisgarh state. However, the previous state government yielded before widespread protests and pressure from tribal groups and environmental organisations at least to some extent.

According to some press reports, some forest clearance did take place over 43 hectares in 2022 and in another 91 hectares in early 2023, although these were sporadic attempts in the face of strong resistance by tribal and other groups.

During the Congress regime, the Chhattisgarh assembly passed a unanimous resolution on July 26, 2022 designating the 2,000 square km area of Hasdeo-Arand as a mining-free Lemru Elephant Reserve, the fate of which currently hangs in the balance. According to wildlife experts, northern Chhattisgarh used to be the home of elephants a century or so ago, but had become virtually extinct locally since the early part of the twentieth century. More recently, elephants have been seen entering Chhattisgarh from Jharkhand having migrated due to extensive mining and steel projects in western Orissa and south-eastern Jharkhand.

In response to a case, the previous state government had even submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court in July 2023 stating that there is no need to allocate or use any new mining reserve in this area.

In separate earlier reports released in 2022, both the premier Indian Council of Forestry Research and education (ICFRE) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had strongly opposed the mining project in this area on the grounds that it would adversely affect the river Hasdeo, increase human-elephant conflict and damage precious bio-diversity.

WII, which was appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to look into the matter, stated that over 80 per cent of the Hasdeo-Arand coal belt and the landscape surrounding it is forested and the coal blocks themselves mostly lay within the forest. The area was also the habitat of several rare, endangered, and threatened fauna. Importantly, the WII had highlighted the impact on the lives and livelihoods of the tribals and other forest dwellers.
Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) contributed about 46 per cent of the cash income of households. Fuelwood, fodder, medicinal plants, water and other resources that local communities obtained from the forests would have accounted for an additional 15 to 25 per cent of income if monetised.

Prior to 2014, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) and the coal ministry had started working on the idea of mapping ‘go’ and ‘no go’ or ‘inviolate’ areas within forests. ‘Go’ area is one where mining and other development activities may be carried out subject to forest clearance, whereas no such activities may be carried out in ‘no go’ areas.  This was based on measurable ecological criteria such as forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, forest cover, landscape integrity and hydrological value, all parameters being scored on a 0-100 scale. Unfortunately, dependence of forest dwellers on forest resources had not been included among the parameters. It is noteworthy that the Hasdeo forests too had been declared a “no-go” area but time and again this has been overlooked by different state and central authorities.

The present ruling dispensation regularly criticises activists and tribal groups as being anti-development or even disruptive, and the Hasdeo agitations have even been cited in actions taken against some think tanks. The fact is that mining and related deforestation activities have only brought displacement, loss of land and income, loss of access to a wide variety of resources and no share in the so-called development slated to take place, benefits from which only accrue to corporate houses. It is little wonder that tribals revolt against such projects, which also cause huge ecological destruction. 

These anti-tribal or anti- forest-dweller and anti-ecology corporate activities have in fact been enabled and facilitated by the wholesale dismantling of environmental regulations by this regime since 2014. The recent amendment of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules have empowered the government and corporate houses to destroy natural habitats without EIA and proper ecological management plan by conveniently redefining project areas. The 2023 Amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, have also helped to destroy protected forest areas like Hasdeo, and undercut the rights of forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. With such wanton destruction of forests, how can India ever hope to meet its own commitments under the Paris Agreement on increasing forest cover and carbon sequestration?

Hasdeo is but the latest example of the massive destruction of forests underway for the benefit of corporate interests, especially favourite ones.

Cannot connect to Ginger Check your internet connection
or reload the browser
Disable in this text fieldRephraseRephrase current sentenceEdit in Ginger