Hasdeo Aranya: A Forgotten Issue In The Election Spotlight

Since 2010, both Congress and BJP have only highlighted Hasdeo Aranya while in opposition, failing to take meaningful action once in power

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Demonstrators hold 'Save Hasdeo Forest' and 'Adani: Don't Mine Indigenous Lands' placards during protest Photo: Getty Images

In the ongoing general elections, the issues concerning water, forests, and land, which have been a priority for tribal and other forest dwellers, have been sidelined by both major alliances, the INDIA bloc and the NDA. 

One example is the Hasdeo Aranya in Chattisgarh. This forest spanning 1.70 hectares, is spread across the districts of Korba, Sarguja, and Surajpur, and is known as the lungs of central India. For the past decade, not only the tribals of Chhattisgarh but also the tribal community of India as a whole has been protesting to save this forest as trees in this area continue to be cut down for coal mining.

In 2010, Hasdeo Aranya became a topic of debate when the BJP was in power in the state. Later, the Congress formed government in the state of Chhattisgarh. Now, the BJP is in power again. Since 2010, both parties have shown questionable intentions. Ironically, Hasdeo Aranya gains importance for these parties only when they are in opposition, but their stance changes once they assume power.

According to Alok Shukla, a member of Hasdeo Bachao Andolan, Hasdeo could have been a major issue in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, but it did not gain significant attention. Alok Shukla says that the present government in Chhattisgarh is once again planning to start the felling of trees in the new Parsa block of coal mining.

He further adds, “The current situation in the Hasdeo issue is that some old coal blocks have been cancelled and the two new coal blocks allotted have been withdrawn. However, Fake consent was obtained from the gram sabhas in the Hasdeo Arand area. On October 23, 2021, the governor wrote to the chief secretary to probe these fake consents, however, no enquiry has been done till now. Therefore, the fight for Hasdeo is ongoing.”  

In the past decade, several organisations and activists have actively campaigned against mining in the area of Hasdeo Aranya. Several individuals from tribal communities marched hundreds of kilometres to Raipur in October 2021, alleging “illegal” land acquisition. The importance of biodiversity in the area has been highlighted by studies by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE). They also highlighted the issue of human-elephant conflict. Further forest degradation and habitat loss have led to elephants raiding urban areas. Regarding the human-elephant conflict in Chhattisgarh, the report highlights that despite having few elephants (less than 1 per cent of India’s wild elephant population), Chhattisgarh saw a significantly higher number of human-elephant conflict incidents, with over 60 human fatalities annually.

According to Senior Journalist Alok Prakash Putul, the catchment area for the river Hasdeo is the forest area of Hasdeo. If the Hasdeo forest is degraded or destroyed, eventually the river Hasdeo will be affected, thereby impacting paddy cultivation in the state of Chhattisgarh. Hasdeo River irrigates 4 lakh hectares of field in the state itself. 

Issues related to Forest Rights Act 

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), which came into force in 2008, recognised the historical rights that forest dwellers and scheduled tribes have over forest resources. According to a forest rights activist, this act has not been properly implemented in any of the states, because of which tribals and other forest dwellers have been deprived of their forest rights. Recently, the People’s Forest report highlighted that before elections, they had mapped 153 Lok sabha constituencies, where beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act live. A researcher from the People’s Forest report, Tushar Das, emphasises that during elections, none of the issues concerning tribals and other forest dwellers are given importance.

In 2019, the Supreme Court directed state governments to review rejected claims of tribals and other forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). However, even after 5 years, many of these claims have not been reviewed. In most states, community rights have not been distributed as per the FRA.

Forest Rights Act is a major issue in the state of Jharkhand. In the past 4.5 years, the alliance of Congress and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha have been in power in Jharkhand. Both parties have promised in their election manifesto to grant more forest rights if they come into power. According to data from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs of India, the current Jharkhand government, an alliance of Congress and JMM, neither received any single forest rights claim nor granted any forest rights. On the other hand, during the same period, some states received new forest rights claims and granted forest rights.

Sudhir Pal, the Convenor of Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch, states that the Jharkhand government promised the tribals forest rights before coming into power, but they have not fulfilled this promise. Unfortunately, this issue has not been highlighted in the general elections.

The importance of forest rights in the state of Jharkhand is evident from the data. Before the Jharkhand Assembly elections in 2019, the Jharkhand Forest Rights Forum, in collaboration with the Indian School of Business (ISB), had conducted a survey regarding the potential beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act. According to the survey, out of 32,112 villages of Jharkhand, 14,850 villages were adjacent to forests, whose area is 73,96,873.1 hectares. In these areas, there is a possibility of claims under the Forest Rights Act on 18,82,429.02 hectares of community and individual forest land. The total number of individuals living in this area is 2,53,64,129 in which there are 46,86,235 families. There are 75,66,842 ST and 30,98,330 and SC respectively.