In Chhattisgarh, a protest is going on against coal mine projects in Hasdeo Arand—a dense forest spread across 1,70,000 hectares over three districts, Surajpur, Surguja and Korba. This decade-long protest escalated in March, when the Chhattisgarh government allowed the second phase of coal mining in an area of 1,136.328 hectares in Parsa East-Kete Basan (PEKB) coal mine.
The first phase of mining, on 762 hectares of land, was completed in March 2022. A total of 2,711 hectares with 15 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) capacity, was allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) in 2007. With no coal supply from the mine now, the Rajasthan government began pressing the Chhattisgarh government for opening the second phase.
Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh government also gave Stage II approval for another coal mining project in Parsa opencast coal block under Surajpur and Surguja districts on April 6. This project has 5 MTPA capacity. But both projects faced huge resistance, as locals are protesting against the coal mine. The Rajasthan government is also trying to speed up the process of getting final clearance for the third project—Kente Extension—with 9 MTPA capacity that it also allocated in 2015.
Rajasthan is dependent on Chhattisgarh for coal supply for its electricity production units of 4,340 MW total capacity, according to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot. In March, during his visit to Raipur, he told media that if coal supply is affected, electricity supply will also be affected in Rajasthan.
He had said, “The people of our state are looking towards Chhattisgarh for early clearance of these projects.”
Chhattisgarh-based activists claim that over 2 lakh trees are to be axed for the project. Tree felling has started within a month of final approval to the Parsa coal block.
“So far, around 300 trees have been felled in Janardanpur of Surguja district in Chhattisgarh,” says Alok Shukla, the convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.
The tree cutting has stopped as of now due to continuous protest by villagers.
Once a "no-go" area — a government designated category for areas with thick forest cover where mining is not allowed, Hasdeo Arand has 23 coal blocks. In 2020, the Union government listed nine of them, including five falling in the Hasdeo region, for commercial mining, including Morga-2, Morga (South), Madanpur (North), Shyang and Fathehpur (East). But it removed these five blocks and included three other blocks after protests began.
Hasdeo Arand provides livelihood to several forest dwelling communities including the Gond tribe, the second-largest Scheduled Tribe in India. They are dependent on forest produce for food and medicines, grains, seeds, tubers, flowers, fruits, and roots. For livelihood, they make use of timber, leaves and grasses to make ropes, mats, brooms and baskets that sustain them.
A joint study by Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICERE) with Wildlife Institute of India (WII), while recommending coal mining, says, “Four contiguous coal blocks falling within the Gej-Jhink watershed viz., Tara (15), Parsa (13) PEKB (14) & Kente Extension (12) that are either already opened or in advance stage of getting the statutory clearances/ToR approved, can be considered for mining with strict environmental safeguards including appropriate conservation measures for management of surface water and biodiversity.”
It also raises several red flags. It says, “Cumulative impact of displacement due to mining operations will have a serious impact on the community in the form of loss of livelihood, identity and culture.” This is because 90 per cent of the households are dependent on agriculture and forest produce for their livelihoods from forests.
Ramlal Kariyam, a local who has been fighting against the mine, says, “Those who have been displaced are facing trouble sustaining their livelihood. They are wandering from one place to another.”
Kariyam says that, so far, one village is displaced. That is Kete and its villagers were provided rehabilitation in nearby Basan village. “Pain of those who have to leave their house is huge,” adds Kariyam.
Meanwhile, a separate report by WII 2021 flagged several concerns and warned against mining. Among all, one was human-animal conflict.
It said, “In Chhattisgarh, human-elephant conflict situation is a paradox with a relatively low number of elephants (<300, which is <1 per cent of India’s wild elephant population) but high levels of HEC [human-elephant conflict] with over 60 human lives lost every year due to conflict (>15 per cent of the reported human deaths due to HEC).”
The report suggested that years of infrastructure development and mining are “further fragmenting the habitats making conflict mitigation a huge challenge”.
This is creating problems for not just Chhattisgarh but also the neighbouring state Madhya Pradesh, which is facing human-animal conflict. High on mahua, wild elephants reportedly crushed five people last month in MP’s Shahdol district. This is not usual news for a state where only seven elephants were recorded in 2017. Experts believe the elephants came from Chhattisgarh.
Bhopal-based wildlife activist Ajay Dubey says, “There is a movement of elephants into districts like Anuppur from Koriya, Marwahi, and Janakpur. And habitat loss due to development activities like mining is the reason.”
The reports also suggested that Hasdeo forest is a migratory corridor for tigers. The WII report says, “The habitat connectivity for large mammals like tigers and elephants between Hasdeo Arand area and Achanakmar Tiger Reserve is strong.”
The report cited a letter of Korba forest division adjoining Hasdeo forest, where tiger footprints were found in 2014. Threatened large carnivores like common leopard, Indian grey wolf, striped hyena, sloth bear and others are also found in the forest.