Monday, Aug 15, 2022

111 Days Of Protests, Villagers Demand Removal Of All Coal Mine Projects In Chhattisgarh

Protesting against the state's upcoming coal mine projects, protestors in Chattisgarh's Surguja district claim they will stand their ground until their demands for the cancellation of the projects are met.

Coal mines (Representational image) AP Photo

After battling the scorching heat of the summer months while protesting against the clearances to coal mines projects in the Hasdeo Arand region since March this year, villagers in Chhattisgarh's Surguja district are now prepared to get drenched in the monsoon rains during their ongoing agitation. 

The protesters said nothing can dampen their morale as they are fighting for the land where they have been living for generations and they will not give up the demonstration until their demands are met. The protest at Hariharpur village, located around 60 km away from Ambikapur (headquarter of Surguja district), against three coal mine projects entered its 111th day on Sunday.

Though the state government has halted all the proceedings regarding three upcoming coal mine projects allotted to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) in the area, the protesters are sticking to their demand for the cancellation of the projects. The state government had granted permission for non-forestry use of 841.538 hectares of forest land for the Parsa mine (Surguja and Surajpur districts) and 1,136.328 hectares for PEKKB phase-II mine (Surguja) after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot met his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel here in March this year seeking to clear hurdles in the development of the coal blocks allotted to the former's state.

Another coal block - Kente extension allotted to RRVUNL in the Hasdeo Arand region is pending for public hearing. In October last year, villagers from the region had marched from Surguja to the capital Raipur, covering over 300 km on foot, to register a protest against the proposed coal mines. When they got no relief, residents of projects-affected villages namely Salhi, Fatehpur, Hariharpur, and Ghatbarra, set up a tent in Hariharpur and launched an indefinite protest. The village has become the epicenter of the protest where protestors bring raw rations from their respective homes and cook and eat together.

"We have been living for generations and conserving the forests. Our life is dependent on it. We just want the government not to destroy it for the sake of coal," said Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi village. Kariyam, who is part of Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti - a group of local villagers, has nine members, including his three children, in the family and all of them attend the protest on an alternate basis. Be it summer or monsoon, we will not leave the protest site unless our demands are met, he added.

Sarpanch (village head) of Ghatbarra village panchayat Jainandan Porte echoed the same sentiments and asked why was the government playing with the environment and lives of forest dwellers. "The government has put on hold the work of mines but it seems that it is just an attempt to silence the protest. We want cancellation of the clearances," he added. According to the protesters, the clearances granted to PEKB phase-II and Parsa mines were based on fake gram sabha consent documents.

Hasdeo-Arand coalfield, spread over a 1,878 sq km area in Korba, Surguja, and Surajpur districts in the northern part of the state, is located about 300 km from Raipur. The region is called as 'lungs of Chhattsigarh' for its rich sal forest. "The gram sabhas of the affected villages have already opposed these mining projects and any kind of nod to them is a violation of the provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the PESA Act 1996, the Forest Rights Recognition Act 2006, and the Land Acquisition Act 2013, said Alok Shukla, an activist who has been at the forefront of the agitation.

Last year, the biodiversity study conducted by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) along with the Wildlife Institute of India, in Hasdeo Arand Coalfield, concluded that coalfields may not be recommended for mining keeping in view of conserving the dense forest which is also home to elephants, he said. The region is also a catchment area of the Hasdeo River, a tributary of the Mahanadi river, that flows through it, and the Bango dam, which helps in the irrigation of over three lakh hectares of agricultural land, he said. The agitation will continue till the cancellation of all the coal mining projects, he added. 

Currently, there are two coal mines – Chotia and PEKB phase I, operational in the Hasdeo Arand region, he said. The forest department, in April this year, launched a tree cutting exercise to pave the way for the start of the Parsa coal mining project, triggering strong opposition from local villagers who forced the authorities to halt their action after 300 trees were axed.

A similar scene was witnessed when tree felling started for PEKB phase II last month. The row over these mining projects also revealed differences within the ruling Congress after health minister T S Singh Deo, who represents the Surguja constituency, came out in support of the protestors. Even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his visit to Cambridge early this month said that he has problems with the decision of approval to mining in Hasdeo Arand.