Chhattisgarh’s new BJP government restarts controversial coal mining in Adivasi areas

Adivasis and environmentalists face off with the government and Adani Enterprises Ltd, as deforestation resumes amid fears of corporate raj.

Published : Dec 29, 2023 18:17 IST - 7 MINS READ

Ashutosh Sharma
ControversyAshutosh Sharma
Tree felling resumed in the Hasdeo forest area of Chhattisgarh for coal mining projects, prompting protests by various groups. This photo from June 2022 shows felled trees from the same project, which has drawn opposition from activists and tribal communities.

Tree felling resumed in the Hasdeo forest area of Chhattisgarh for coal mining projects, prompting protests by various groups. This photo from June 2022 shows felled trees from the same project, which has drawn opposition from activists and tribal communities. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

On the morning of December 21, Ajay T.G., a documentary filmmaker, and Alok Shukla, the convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan—a people’s movement opposing the privatisation of forest resources—were reportedly kidnapped by unidentified individuals. They were released later in the evening. The incident occurred as they were en route to the tribal-dominated Surguja district, where Chhattisgarh police had detained local Adivasi activists. The police had “counselled” villagers not to disrupt the resumption of large-scale deforestation in the biodiversity-rich Hasdeo Arand region, part of the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) Phase II mining projects.

While the police denied allegations that they were picked up to silence them, many perceive the event as the beginning of corporate raj in Chhattisgarh. The widespread felling of trees began under heavy security cover days before Vishnu Deo Sai assumed office as Chief Minister on December 13. The felling disregards expert opinions, a unanimous resolution passed by the Chhattisgarh State Assembly the previous year, and local protests.

Deo Sai, the first tribal Chief Minister of the State, home to 7.5 per cent of India’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) population, claimed that the decision for coal mining and tree felling was made during the Congress regime and the ongoing work is an extension of that decision.

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Describing the detentions as “illegal” and a “dangerous” precedent, Shukla said several people have been detained to repress voices of protest. “In some cases, police didn’t even let people change their clothes before they were picked from their homes,” he told Frontline. On December 28, Shukla led a protest in Raipur and submitted a memorandum to President Droupadi Murmu and Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan, urging their intervention to safeguard the rights of Adivasis in the Hasdeo Aranya forest area protected under Schedule V of the Constitution.

In Surguja district, where the BJP won all 14 Assembly seats in the recent election, forest land has been handed over for PEKB Phase II mining despite protests by the gram sabhas of villages such as Salhi, Hariharpur, Fatehpur, and Ghatbarra. The memorandum argued that the ongoing deforestation violates the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA.

Shukla mentioned that the former Governor directed the Chief Secretary to investigate the “farzi” (fake) gram sabha resolution used by the mining company to secure clearance. However, tree cutting has already begun by then under police protection.

The disputed forest area spans Surajpur, Surguja, and Korba districts, becoming a focal point for government-backed corporate mining and the anti-mining struggle of Adivasis and environmentalists. In 2015, the Adani Group stated that it had plans to invest more than Rs.25,000 crore in two projects in Chhattisgarh. The projects included a Coal to Poly-generation (CTP) facility and a Rice Bran Solvent Extraction Plant and Refinery. Criticism of the previous Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government over mining clearances and coal deliveries by Adani Enterprises Ltd (AEL) prompted the Chhattisgarh Assembly to pass a unanimous resolution on July 26, 2022, designating the 2,000 sq km area of Hasdeo Aranya as the mining-free Lemru elephant reserve. The AEL coal mining project has faced controversy for over a decade due to protests by affected villagers over livelihood concerns and the negative impact of deforestation on the Hasdeo river catchment and biodiversity in the area.

Reports suggest that the Adani Group has been pushing hard to mine more coal in Chhattisgarh even though some parts of its plan have hit snags. In Chhattisgarh, the group is targeting coal mines with a potential output of 3.7 billion tonnes of coal.

Notably, in response to a case related to mining in the Hasdeo Aranya forest area, the Chhattisgarh government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court in July, stating that there is no need to allocate or use any new mining reserve areas.

Political slugfest

According to official sources, 41 hectares of trees were felled in 2022, and clearance for an additional 93 hectares was granted in November 2023. Both the Congress and the BJP have criticised each other over mining-related deforestation during their respective periods in opposition.

Leading up to the recent State Assembly election, the BJP in its election promises, promoted as “Modi ki Guarantee 2023”, highlighted the former Congress government’s “deceit” in giving mining permission to the Rajasthan government at Parsa East and Kanta Basan block in Chhattisgarh.

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The Chhattisgarh unit of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also criticised the BJP government in the State and the Centre over the ongoing mines-related felling of trees. Accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of working against tribal interests and of favouring Adani, the party shared a video clip on social media platform X showing Modi promising tribals that he would not let any damage happen to the forests. In the video, Modi can be heard saying, “I assure Adivasis that your jal, jangal, and zameen (water, forests, and land) will not be threatened”. The AAP wrote on social media, “Modi has given Adani free rein to cut forests within no time after the BJP formed the government in Chhattisgarh.”

Villagers of Hariharpur protesting on June 6, 2022, after the Chhattisgarh government gave its assent for clearing trees for the Parsa Open Cast Mining project in Hasdeo Arand.

Villagers of Hariharpur protesting on June 6, 2022, after the Chhattisgarh government gave its assent for clearing trees for the Parsa Open Cast Mining project in Hasdeo Arand. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

On December 26, Chhattisgarh Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla held a press conference in Raipur, claiming that the former Congress government had cancelled the approval for coal mining in the Hasdeo area. Similarly, Charan Das Mahant, the Leader of the Opposition in the Chhattisgarh Assembly, accused the BJP-led State government of favouring AEL.

Another senior Congress leader, T.S. Singh Deo, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the State, who had earlier criticised his own government over the mining projects, expressed solidarity with the protesting Adivasi villagers. Though he admitted that permission for PEKB Phase II was issued by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre after a proposal was sent by the then BJP-led State government, he said that the local population had opposed two other mining projects as well.

Also Read | Where would the proposed Forest Conservation Rules leave forest dwellers?

During the election campaign, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi repeatedly accused Modi of being unduly close to Gautam Adani. “Agar kamal ka button dabaoge toh VVPAT se Adani niklega (If you press the lotus button on the VVPAT, Adani will emerge),” former Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had said during an election rally. However, earlier in 2022, he justified his government’s approval for cutting trees spread over 43 hectares for Adani’s coal mine in Hasdeo, stating it was necessary for the “national interest”.

The roar of chainsaws

Recent developments have significantly altered the daily life of Kramkathra villagers in Surguja district. Residents now keep vigil through the night, wielding torches to deter wild elephants stranded in the area due to the clamour of petrol-powered chainsaws in the neighbouring Pendramar-Ghatbarra forests. The intrusion of the hapless elephants has caused distress and financial devastation to humans, damaging houses and standing food crops, as reported by local forest officials.

There are also accounts of stranded elephants impeding traffic on highways near the forests earmarked for mining. Alok Putul, a senior journalist based in Raipur, shared a picture of two baby bears on X, noting that “both of them were found in the same Surguja forest where Hasdeo Arand is being destroyed”.

In 2012, Sudiep Shrivastava, a lawyer based in Bilaspur, approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Two years later, the NGT halted mining licenses, instructing the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) to assess the environmental impact of mining in the region. Shrivastava told Frontline, “The then BJP-led governments in the State and Centre didn’t follow the direction. The studies were finally conducted in 2019 and submitted to the top court in 2021.”

Also Read | Tribal communities in Madhya Pradesh face persecution for defending their rights

The WII and ICFRE, in their reports, cautioned against opening a new mine in the area, predicting an ecological crisis and human-wildlife conflict. They recommended declaring the Hasdeo Arand coal fields and the surrounding landscape a no-go zone. Regarding the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Chhattisgarh, the WII report revealed that despite having few elephants (less than 1 per cent of India’s wild elephant population), Chhattisgarh saw a significantly higher number of HEC incidents, with over 60 human fatalities annually.

Although the Supreme Court revoked the mining allocation as part of a broader coal-scam judgment, the Narendra Modi government reallocated PEKB Phase II mining projects in February 2022, ignoring the two studies and the longstanding protests of local residents under the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti banner. Shrivastava, who filed another petition in the Supreme Court based on two studies in April 2023, said, “Forests like Hasdeo are precious carbon sinks. Allowing coal mining in such a biodiverse area, when 85 per cent of India’s coal deposits are outside dense forest areas, reflects mental bankruptcy.”

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