India: Adivasi resistance to coal shows centrality of forest rights and climate justice to green climate action

November 15, 2022
Hasdeo forest protectors. Image credit: Alok Shukla/
Hasdeo forest protectors. Image credit: Alok Shukla/

India strongly relies on carbon sequestration through increasing its green cover to tackle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As India showcases its climate performance at COP27 in Egypt, a prominent protest by Adivasi Indigenous communities is taking place in central India’s Hasdeo forests, where new coal mines are being pushed without consent, exposing the injustice in India’s policies and practices towards forest-dwelling people.

While India is destroying ancient and biodiverse forests such as Hasdeo, which act as powerful carbon sinks, its green cover can be seen as increasing due to a rise in monocultural plantations and privatisation and corporatisation of forestlands.

By asserting their right to determine the fate of their forests, on which their livelihoods and survival depend, the people of Hasdeo are telling the world that green climate action is not possible without justice, community rights, and democratic freedoms for Indigenous peoples.

Exactly a year ago, during COP 26, youth representatives from the movement to save Hasdeo forests protested outside the Glasgow meeting venue against coal mines being rolled out on their traditional lands as India’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Stretching across 170,000 hectares, Hasdeo Aranya is one of central India’s most intact Sal forests, a hotspot for biodiversity, prime habitat for elephants and leopards, and a source of major rivers.

The environmental stewardship of Hasdeo’s Adivasi communities, including Gonds and other traditional forest-dwellers is recognised as part of the global phenomenon of custodianship of natural resources by Indigenous peoples. Movement leaders have questioned why, instead of preserving their traditional economy — based on harvesting and selling leaves, herbs, flowers, fruits and other non-timber-forest-produce — and their self-reliant living based on these forests, the Indian government is destroying Hasdeo under advancing climate impacts in the Indian subcontinent.

One of three pledges in India’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted in August is to create additional carbon sinks of 2.5‒3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. (India also pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030, and to source half of its installed electricity from non-fossil-fuel based sources by 2030, including renewable sources such as wind, solar and large hydropower.)

India’s official records — which have been questioned by the United Nations for lack of transparency — show that forest cover is growing. But problematically, the official definition does not distinguish between ecologically-rich natural forests, such as Hasdeo, and monocultural plantations under private ownership; it merely measures canopy density (over 10%) and area (over 1 hectare) to designate places as forests. India also did not sign the global pledge to halt deforestation at Glasgow.

Independent estimates, such as those published on the Global Forest Watch Dashboard, counter the official figures and show that India is continuing to lose and divert natural forests for industrial use.

Alongside contrasting forest cover figures lies the increasing commercialisation of India’s forestlands such as through compensatory afforestation projects by private corporations, while simultaneously eroding Indigenous people’s forest rights and consent to mining activities on their forestlands.

Changes to forest rules made in June contradict India’s Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA), which requires governments to seek free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before allowing industrial projects on their traditional lands. The timing for this policy change coincided with hundreds of trees being felled in Hasdeo without Adivasi consent and with the backing of the state, forcing the 10-year-long movement to escalate its fight.

State and Adani violating forest rights

Owned by a state-based enterprise and operated by the Adani group, the coal mines at the heart of the Hasdeo conflict are located deep inside intact forests that were declared off-limits for coal mining by the government in 2010. However, the government changed its own rule the following year to approve the first coal mine — Parsa East and Kanta Basan (PEKB) — at the fringe of Hasdeos’ thickest forest.

The PEKB has been operational since 2013, bringing environmental destruction, water pollution, displacement and disruption of livelihoods to Hasdeo’s Adivasis. The PEBK extension and Parsa coalmines were approved during India’s new wave of coal mine allocations in 2020. Approvals were granted without Indigenous consent and based on fraudulent village council resolutions.

Hasdeo’s residents organised under the banner of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Resistance to Save Hasdeo Forests) in 2011, when the prospect of coal mining arrived at their doorstep. The movement has been fighting for more than a decade against deforestation, land acquisition and coal mining and to legally secure the community’s rights over forestlands under the FRA.

Adani, backed by the state police, began felling trees at the site of the PEKB extension mine in May this year, forcing the movement to further step up its resistance. It adopted tactics from the 1970s’ Chipko (hug) forest resistance movement founded by peasant communities in the Himalayas, where women hugged trees to prevent them being logged by contractors.

Under thick police presence to prevent resistance, 8000 trees were destroyed in September at the site of the Parsa coal mine. However, the movement secured a temporary respite for the forests through a Supreme Court order halting further deforestation until a hearing in mid-November.

The movement is determined to continue fighting for Jal, Jangal, Jameen (water, forests, land) until all coal mines are cancelled, and has received global solidarity.

Who do the forests belong to?

As Indian environmentalism marks 50 years of the Chipko resistance, the re-enactment of its most iconic act of resistance by the women of Hasdeo raises many questions about the state and the fate of India’s forest democracy.

Forest ownership and forest rights of communities and Adivasis had been wrested away under colonial forest laws that remained unchanged for nearly 50 years after Indian independence in 1947.

The standoff between the state and villagers in the Chipko movement forced a community-oriented forest management plan for the region, starting to shift the ground towards community democracy in forest ownership. The Indian government enacted democratic reforms for forest-dwelling communities in 2006 in an attempt to redress colonial injustices.

The FRA provided statutory backing for community-driven forest governance, giving communities the opportunity to participate in managing biodiversity and water catchments. The FRA’s predecessor — the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) — extended powers of self-governance to village councils in Adivasi majority areas in forested central India, and mandated that village councils be consulted ahead of land acquisitions.These laws transformed discourses around forest ownership in favour of communities and made village councils spaces where people could make decisions about mining on their lands.

However, the twin motivations of state administrations in central India — to not give up control over forests and to facilitate mining for revenues — is evident through the poor implementation of the FRA, This includes recurring violation of the FRA’s provisions for community consent for mining, and even overturning previously-granted forest rights — for example, in the case of Ghatbarra village adjoining the PEKB coalmine — which set a dangerous precedent for the future of forest rights in central India.

In Hasdeo, the government’s conflict of interest over forests, between the obligations of democratic laws and favouring mining corporations, is clearly evident.

At a time when the promise of the FRA to transform Adivasi lives through securing rights over forests has begun to grow dim, the Hasdeo movement’s re-enactment of Chipko’s tree-hugging imagery sends a reminder about the long history and continuous nature of forest-peoples’ struggles for democratic rights. The central demand at the Hasdeo movement’s long march on October 2 this year on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary was around “Gram Swarajya” or self-rule in villages. Gram Swarajya is a central pillar of the Gandhian vision for modern India and a key plank of the PESA and FRA.

Forest rights are fundamental to Adivasi climate justice

On the world stage, India rationalises its coal-intensive development on the basis of equity and democratising the carbon space.

India’s forest and forest-dwelling communities are impacted by advancing climate change, the risk of their forest homes and lands being destroyed for mining and other industrial activities, as well as from the on-the-ground effects of India’s climate mitigation plans, which are driving privatised monocultures and plantations at the cost of natural forests.

While India strongly argues for global North-South equity in climate action and for nations of the global North to support loss and damage payments at COP27, articulating a well-formulated global South climate justice discourse, in the forested heart of central India, the Adivasi Hasdeo community is struggling for Indigenous climate justice through secure forest rights, forest-bound-livelihoods, self-determination and dignity.

The resistance of Indigenous peoples whose lives and wellbeing are intricately tied to their forests will continue to raise the uncomfortable truth about climate injustice in India’s forest policies and practices towards central India’s Adivasi people.

The relentless fight for Hasdeo is a reminder that there can be no green climate action without consent, secure community rights and democratic freedoms for Indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples.

[Ruchira Talukdar’s research and writing focuses on the comparative aspects of environmental and climate justice between the global North and South. Her PhD thesis compared coal conflicts and protest movements in India and Australia, with an emphasis on the intersections between grassroots and Indigenous people’s movements and mainstream environmental activism. She has worked within the environment movement in India in Greenpeace, and Australia in Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation, for nearly two decades. She is co-founder and mentor at Sapna South Asian Climate Solidarity, an Australia-based climate justice collective.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.