India: Indigenous peoples demand ‘water, forests, land’ before coal

Issue 
The forests are a primary source of livelihoods for locals. Non-timber forest produce including grass, firewood, mushrooms, herbs and medicines supply daily essentials. Mahua flowers and tendu leaves are collected and sold. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury

In Australia, the Wangan and Jagalingou’s “Standing Our Ground” movement on their traditional lands in central Queensland, against Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, is completing its third month. This assertion of sovereignty and culture comes after more than a decade of resistance to the contentious project.

In a parallel movement, Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) from 30 villages in Hasdeo Aranya, the densely-forested northern region of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India, walked 300 kilometres in early October, to demand the protection of their Jal, Jangal, Jameen (water, forests, land) against coal mining.

Hasdeo forest-dwellers are living under the shadow of coalmines owned by Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam (RRVUNL), an electricity generator owned by the Rajasthan state government, but by Adani Enterprises.

Adani holds to mine 964 million tonnes of coal in Hasdeo. The Parsa East and Kente Basan Coal Block (PEKB) has operated since 2013, the Kente Extension is in the land acquisition stage, and the adjoining Parsa Coal Block is under development.

The residents of Hasdeo Aranya are living with the of land being acquired without the consent of village assemblies, and community consensus for coal mining being fraudulently.

This is on top of the ecological impacts from mining, especially water pollution due to environmental by Adani at its PEKB coalmine, disruption of livelihoods through loss of grazing land and forest produce, and of sacred groves.

Residents have also been opposing new coal mines proposed in Hasdeo since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government announced its push for a coal-powered post-COVID-19 economic recovery last year. The government carved up Hasdeo’s forests and villages into 18 for mining development, six of which have already been allocated.

Since the commencement of mining in 2011, locals have organised under the banner of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Resistance to Save Hasdeo Forests).

The movement has been fighting for a decade against deforestation, land acquisition and coal mining and to legally secure the community’s rights over forest lands under the (FRA).

The march to the state capital began on October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, and his protest philosophy of non-violence and Satyagraha — a willing acceptance of the truth — and his vision for an independent India through self-sufficiency and self-determination in its villages.

Singing and dancing, and with some young men carrying traditional bows and arrows, people marched for more than ten days to the state capital, to voice their .

Organisers of the have threats and intimidation from the police. Disregarding Adivasi rights and biodiversity, within a week of the protest the Indian government gave final for the clearance of forests for the Parsa coal mine, paving the way for the felling of 100,000 trees.

Hasdeo Aryana is in central India, a region that has old-growth Sal (shorea robusta) forests, holds vast reserves of coal, and is to 75% of India’s Indigenous population. The struggle of Hasdeo's residents for culture, livelihoods and survival, demonstrates a pattern seen in central India, of governments community forest rights, favouring mining corporations through diluting rights and consent clauses and environmental safeguards, and activists.

The wielded by the Group — India’s biggest private coal miner and thermal power generator — exacerbates this tension between Indigenous rights and coal mining. The resistance highlights the challenge for Indigenous justice in a postcolonial context of development as found in India — where rights and sovereignty are denied, despite being legally guaranteed — and the need for global solidarity with Adivasi movements.

Hasdeo Arand forest. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury
Hasdeo is one of central India’s most intact Sal tree forests. It is home to forest and farming-based Adivasi groups such as Gonds and other traditional forest-dwelling communities and a biodiversity hotspot. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury

Coal over forests

Stretching across 170,000 hectares, Hasdeo Aranya is one of central India’s most intact Sal forests. It is home to forest and farming-based Adivasi groups such as Gonds and other traditional forest-dwelling communities. It is a hotspot for and prime habitat for elephants and leopards. The forests are a source of major rivers. The environmental stewardship of Adivasis of Hasdeo stands as part of a global phenomenon of custodianship of biodiversity and natural resources by Indigenous peoples.

Coal mines have been in deep forests in central India since the rush for coal development began in 2005. The previous Congress government first designated the Hasdeo forest as a “no-go” zone for coal mining on account of the high quality of forest cover. But the environment minister capitulated under pressure — the coal basin that sits under the forests holds an estimated one billion metric tonnes of thermal coal.

The government withdrew the “no-go” designation and approved the PEKB coalmine in 2012, arguing that it was on the fringes of Hasdeo Aranya. Instead of being the “very last” coal mine approved in Hasdeo Aranya, as promised by the environment minister, this paved the way for the opening up of these dense forests for coal mining.

Coal mining over constitutional rights

Hasdeo Aranya is a designated tribal majority Scheduled Area. The constitution safeguards Adivasi lands through separate legal and administrative frameworks in Scheduled Areas. But coal mining is prioritised through the Coal Bearing Act 1957 (CBA); it vests final power in the state to acquire any land, including Adivasi lands in Scheduled Areas, for coal mining.

However, subsequent laws such as the , have brought mechanisms for constitutional guarantees and democratic decision-making in Adivasi majority areas through the autonomy of gram sabhas (village assemblies). Unsurprisingly, the implementation of these rights has been flawed in central India.

The FRA, enacted around the same time that India began massively increasing its coal production, acknowledges the historical marginalisation of Adivasis and other traditional forest-dwellers during British colonisation — through alienation from their forests — and intends to return forest ownership to communities. It empowers gram sabhas in tribal majority areas to give or withhold consent to mining. However, its provisions have been through the forging of consent for mining, and its implementation marred by a rejection rate as high as 50% for community claims in central India.

Over the past 10 years, Hasdeo Aranya residents have encountered these and other challenges in securing their rights and rejecting coalmining.

Take the case of Ghatbarra village adjoining the PEKB coalmine. In 2011, the village assembly passed a resolution coal mining under the FRA, and the community lodged its forest rights claims under the act.

The FRA stipulates that forest clearance for mining should not be granted before the process of recognising communities’ rights has been completed. Nevertheless, the PEKB mine was approved in 2012 and Adani began construction works in 2013.

The environment minister’s approval was challenged in India’s Green Tribunal, which mining to be suspended, but the proponent succeeded in securing a stay order against the tribunal’s suspension from India’s Supreme Court. Since then, mining at PEKB has continued.

Mining is being on the basis that it has become a “fait accompli”, as observed by the government’s Forest Advisory Committee.

However, Ghatbarra residents consider this mining as ; the movement has also highlighted the Adani Group’s acquisition of land from Adivasi farmers who hold individual forest rights (IFRs) under the FRA. Project-impacted families have not been properly even after five years.

In a final blow, in 2016, forest rights legally recognised in Ghatbarra in 2013 were , ironically on the grounds that recognition was granted after the approval for forest clearance had been issued, and that residents had been disrupting mining since securing forest rights. This incident set a dangerous precedent for the future of forest rights in central India.

Legal manoeuvres

The Modi government auctioned off land and forests in 90 coal blocks across the country in 2015,. It allocated coal mines to state enterprises such as the RRVUNL; it allowed private companies to bid for coal blocks for “ for thermal power production. To hasten coal mining and other land intensive projects, the government the public hearing, consent and social impact assessment provisions in (LARR 2013).

Villages across Hasdeo Aranya have been mobilising since 2011, when mining started impacting people’s lives. In December 2014, 16 gram sabhas passed resolutions the auctioning of their lands and forests to mining corporations, and demanded that the PESA and FRA be implemented.

During widespread protests in Hasdeo Aranya over the BJP government’s coal mine auctions, leaders from the opposition Congress party to protect people’s forests, rights and livelihoods. It could have to be a turning point for people’s rights when the Congress came to power in the state in 2018, ending 15 years of the BJP government in Chhattisgarh. But the new state government act against illegalities in land acquisition and environmental clearances for the Parsa and Kente Extension projects.

The Parsa coal mine was given state approval for forest clearance in 2019, on the basis of village assembly resolutions and before claims under the FRA in the area were recognised. Unlike the PEKB, Parsa is located in the heart of Hasdeo Aranya and mining will destroy more than 800 hectares of dense old-growth forest. In response, 150 Hasdeo gram sabhas came together to their opposition to the clearance and to any new coalmine.

Locals were shocked by the central government’s land acquisition for Kente Extension last year, when the country was in pandemic lockdown; the government issued a notification about the commencement of land acquisition on its website, but did not inform the state government or Panchayats (local governments) in Hasdeo Aranya.

Land is being acquired through the CBA that turns on the principle of eminent domain; it is designed for a “” and disregards rights and consent of communities. Instead of LARR 2013, which stipulates social impact assessments, the government used the outdated CBA to the gram sabha brought through the PESA and FRA. This effectively turned the clock back on a long movement in India towards land justice for communities.

Protesters gather before starting their 300 km walk to protest coalmining. Photo: @shasdeo/twitter
Protesters gather before starting a 300 km walk to protest coalmining. Photo: @shasdeo/twitter

Need for solidarity

The Hasdeo Aranaya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti has persisted with its resistance through the gram sabha and the autonomy vested in them under law.

The movement has in the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and challenged forest clearances in the National Green Tribunal and High Court. Activists have played an important by making information accessible to village communities — on clearances, decisions, notices issued in English — and by helping to interpret the law.

Month long dharnas (sit-ins), padyatras (marches) and fasts have become regular features in the decade-long resistance. The dharna started in October, 2019, against land acquisitions for Parsa, when hundreds of villagers protested for more than three months. The sit-in could not continue due to the COVID-19 lockdown last year.

Ironically, Modi’s coal-led economic program, which seeks to create a self-reliant India through the auctioning of 40 coal blocks for commercial mining to private corporations, the long-established self-reliance and sustainability of Adivasi livelihoods in Hasdeo Aranya.

The Modi government was forced to remove five other Hasdeo Aranya coal blocks from its 2020 auction list, following from peoples’ movements and objections from the state government.

A continues between the BJP central government’s impetus for coal mining and the Congress state government’s establishment of the Lemru Elephant Reserve in Hasdeo, for habitat protection and to reduce human-wildlife conflict. While the reserve can hold the to saving forest homes and livelihoods from future mining, movement members have found major parties to be complicit in withholding the community’s rights, self-determination, and dignity while backing powerful mining corporations.

Forced to live under the shadow of coal mining, residents have begun Adani’s PEKB operations for environmental violations, particularly the discharge of dirty water from the washing of coal.

Movement spokespersons have urged the protection of Hasdeo’s dense forests, the global crisis of climate change in mind. These ancient forests are irreplaceable ecosystems, sacred and lived landscapes, prime habitats for wildlife, and vital for regulating the climate.

India is the world’s producer of solar power and has made significant commitments to renewable capacity to 450 gigawatts by 2030, but is still pushing coal mines that are now destroying last remaining forests. Meanwhile, the draft forest policy pushes compensatory afforestation and commercial plantations, and is geared towards tapping carbon markets, but does not prioritise the protection of old-growth forests and forest livelihoods of Adivasis and traditional forest-dwellers.

The Modi government has introduced to the CBA to smooth the way for commercial coal mining; a corporate land-grab and worsen the tension between Indigenous rights and coal mining in central India.

Some environmentalists are that the government could use the current shortage of coal in India’s power plants — largely caused by logistical factors — to further dilute the laws governing forests and the environment. These top-level legal manoeuvres have a critical bearing on the ground in Hasdeo.

Hasdeo Aranya raises questions about Indigenous justice in India’s postcolonial context, where Adivasi struggles to protect Jal, Jangal, Jameen are framed around constitutional rights and legally guaranteed sovereignty that are illegally denied to them.

This is a somewhat different challenge to that experienced by the Wangan and Jagalingou during their resistance to the Carmichael coal mine in Australia’s settler colonial context — where no legal provision exists to reject mining on traditional lands under the Native Title Act.

Solidarities across these two contexts of a state-Adani nexus for coal mining are essential.

[Ruchira Talukdar is an independent researcher and writer on climate and environmental politics and social movements. Her Doctoral thesis compared the politics and social resistance on climate and coal in India and Australia. She lives in Melbourne on the lands of the Wurundgeri people.]