Chhattisgarh: Why is the Adani Group so keen on Hasdeo forest?
With about 400 coal blocks to choose from, why does the Adani Group only want to mine in Hasdeo forest? Also, the vanishing tigers of Achanakmar
Our country has more than 600 known coal block reserves, of which two-thirds are available for mining. Given this bounty, and given that conservationists and environmentalists have reservations about mining in only one-third of these coal blocks, that still leaves plenty of options.
Why, then, is the Adani Group, which routinely imports coal from Australia and Indonesia, so keen on the Hasdeo Arand forest? Surely it could look elsewhere? If they are attached to the state, within Chhattisgarh itself there are other active coal mines. What, then, is the reason for the group to pursue mining rights in Hasdeo for the past decade-and-a-half?
Environmental lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava offers an explanation. Hasdeo is a virgin forest, pristine and dense. The coal here is closer to the surface and easier to access. As a result, mining costs would be lower. Forest officials and forest mafia alike are also in favour of mining in the area with an eye to profiting from the proceeds of felled or filched timber.
All that stands in the way of this plunder are the protests by Adivasis, which are now spilling out of Chhattisgarh, with processions in adjoining Madhya Pradesh, including in the city of Indore. Arrests and road blocks on 7 January failed to prevent a large number of people from different parts of the state from converging at the rallying point in Hasdeo, where a large group of Adivasis have been camping.
The protestors, staunch opponents of coal mining by the Adani Group in Hasdeo, are drawing inspiration from the Punjab farmers’ agitation against the farm laws.
Not a kilo of coal would be allowed to move out of Chhattisgarh, they pledged. The protests, which have been going on for over 600 days, intensified last month after a large number of trees were swiftly felled days after the new BJP government was installed. The tribal voters from both Surguja and Bastar divisions who supported the new Adivasi chief minister feel betrayed. They are convinced he is already a puppet in the hands of the Adani Group and the Modi government. What other choice do they have now but to intensify protests, organise road blockades, seal the borders and stop the movement of coal?
The felling of trees in Hasdeo had begun in 2022 when there was a Congress government in the state. The Union government had also given its approval the same year. For mining, clearance was required by both the Union and state governments. After stalling for some time and, despite getting the assembly to unanimously pass a resolution against mining in Hasdeo, the Congress government succumbed to pressure.
State Congress chief Dipak Baij, MP, acknowledged last week that it was a mistake and pledged to join the good fight against mining. He also publicly admitted that while the so-called approvals by the Gram Sabhas were secured under the previous BJP government, the Congress government under Bhupesh Baghel had failed to hold an inquiry and get those approvals overturned.
Alok Shukla of the Hasdeo Bachao Andolan explained that protestors are agitating on two basic points. They contend that the ‘consents’ shown by the Adani Group from Gram Sabha members and the sarpanch have either been obtained by subterfuge and fraud or are, quite simply, fake. Many of the signatures cannot be attributed to any bona fide Gram Sabha members, while their own signatures on official documents are unidentifiable. On paper, this has been under investigation for the past five years, but there is still no official word about the findings.
The second issue, Shukla said, is that both the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in two separate reports, recommended against any mining in the area, citing that it would increase human-elephant conflict and negatively impact biodiversity.
Both the studies, which were released in May 2022, pointed out that though Chhattisgarh has fewer elephants compared to other states, a disproportionately high number of deaths and damage to property are caused by human-elephant conflict resulting from habitat loss and clearing of forests. Filmmaker and researcher Ekta added that elephants are increasingly straying on to NH 343, as well as into urban areas.
The ICFRE study also pointed out that the loss of natural environment would cause grievous harm not only to the means of income for the local adivasis but also to their culture and identity. The study indicated that PEKB block (operated by Adani) provided "habitat to rare, endangered and threatened flora and fauna". Activists underscore the threat mining would pose to the Hasdeo river and the Bango reservoir, a source of both drinking water and irrigation in the region.
The report concluded by adding a caveat that if the government still wanted to go ahead, it should only allow mining in ‘PEKB, Kanta Extension, Tara and Parsa’ under ‘strict environmental safeguards’.
Adivasis are, in fact, already opposing another coal mine being developed by the Adani Group in Raigarh, which will destroy villages, fertile fields, forests and places of tribal worship. Public hearings notified in June 2019 for land acquisition could not be undertaken owing to largescale protests.
Adivasis accuse officials of fabricating affidavits to claim that public hearings for acquisition of land were successfully held and the consent of villagers obtained legitimately. Renewed efforts were made last month to carry out a survey in the area for a new railway line to facilitate transportation of coal for both existing and future coal mines. The good news is that the surveyors were chased away by the people and had to beat a hasty retreat.
Kabhi haan, kabhi na
The alacrity with which the new BJP governments in both Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have restored consent to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate public servants working for the state government is indicative of what the central agencies are up to. Several states, including Punjab, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mizoram, West Bengal, Telangana and Meghalaya had earlier withdrawn this consent, which meant that while the CBI could investigate Central government officials in the state for corruption, it could not do so in the case of state government employees.
The restoration of consent by Chhattisgarh means that former chief minister Bhupesh Baghel — whose name is learned to have been added to the chargesheet in the Mahadev App case by the Enforcement Directorate after he lost the election — and others in his government are going to face the heat before the Lok Sabha election. How Machiavellian is that?
Vultures thrive while tigers dwindle
The Achanakmar Tiger Reserve is part of the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary launched in 1975 in what was then undivided Madhya Pradesh. Part of Project Tiger, it was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2009 with much fanfare. Recent reports suggest that only around eight tigers are now left, prompting wildlife experts to give serious thought to relocating tigers from other reserves.
Vultures, on the other hand, seem to have done better, having gone up over four years from around 30 to 45. Vulture conservation and research associate Abhijit Sharma says that environmentalist Shirish Damre even spotted two new species, the Himalayan Griffon Vulture and the Eurasian Griffon Vulture, on 1 January 2024.
One such unsuspecting Himalayan Griffon was caught by villagers in Uttar Pradesh and generated much excitement, with some TV channels claiming that Jatayu, the vulture-king demi-god from the epic Ramayana, had come to visit Ayodhya ahead of the consecration of the Ram Temple! Wonders never cease.