This is an eye-witness account of the weekend’s protest by hundreds of Indian tribal people (Adivasi) against coal projects in the Hasdeo forests. They gathered in one of the threatened villages to call on the Adani Group and governments to end the takeover of ancestral lands for coal mining. It was the first step along a 300-km path to the state capital that started on Monday, facing down attempts by supporters of Adani's coal-mining agenda to disrupt the peaceful protest. Their long march, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, will pass through landscapes already degraded by coal mining and coal-power plants.
On 2 October 2021, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, Gond Adivasi (indigenous) residents of the Hasdeo Aranya forest in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh conducted a mass gathering – a mahasammelan – of representatives of over 20 villages that are facing evisceration due to a series of proposed coal mines.
The mass gathering started off on a fractious note. While over 250 people had arrived in support of the day’s protest, a small group of about 20 sought to prevent the gathering from taking place. This group heckled the protesters and prevented them from setting up a tent and banners. The situation approached physical violence, with the two groups fiercely confronting each other. This led to intervention by a contingent of police forces. The police separated the two sides before any violent acts could take place, and while heckling by the group of opponents continued, the protesters, undeterred, carried on with their public meeting.
‘We will not allow the Adani company to snatch away our rights’, declared Sunita Porte, a village leader, to loud cheers.
The gathering, called for by the Committee for the Struggle to Save the Hasdeo Forest (Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti), took place in the village of Fatehpur, which is a short distance away from the Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine – the only coal mine that is currently operational in the region, owned by the state power generation company of the state of Rajasthan, and mined, developed and operated by a company in the Adani Group. The village of Fatehpur falls in the Parsa coal block which is adjacent to the PEKB mine, and is the first of several undeveloped coal blocks in the forest area that the government intends to open for mining. (The Parsa coal block is also allotted to the same Rajasthan power company and is also contracted to the Adani Group to mine, develop and operate.)
In recent months, while India reeled under the coronavirus pandemic and multiple lockdowns, the government of Chhattisgarh, which is led by the Indian National Congress party, has taken several steps to begin the process of mining in the Parsa coal block. First, in March the state government’s Environmental Appraisal Committee granted the Environmental Clearance for coal mining to begin in the Parsa block. Then, in September, the state government issued a notification beginning the process of acquiring land from residents of Ghatbarra village, which neighbours Fatehpur and is also within the Parsa coal block area.
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It is against this backdrop that the Committee had issued a call for a new wave of political action to oppose the state government’s plans. The mass gathering is to be followed by a 300-km-long march to the state capital Raipur that commenced Monday. Over the next 10 days, the Adivasi of the Hasdeo forests will march to the state capital to present their demands directly to the state’s Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and the state’s Governor Anusuiya Ukey. (In the Indian system of government, the Governor is the formal head of a state government, who functions without any independent powers under the counsel of the elected government headed by the Chief Minister.)
They allege that the process by which their ‘consent’ was obtained for coal mining to proceed in the Parsa block (a legal requirement for such projects) was illegally conducted, and that they do not in fact consent. Further, they allege, their concerns went unheard in the processes that led to approvals being granted to the project. Finally, they allege, the notification of land acquisition is illegal, violating multiple laws.
The meeting was addressed by Muneshwar Singh and Sunita Porte of Fatehpur village and Bal Sai Korram of Hariharpur village (another village that neighbours Fatehpur, that also comes within the Parsa coal block area), all members of the Committee.
‘We have decided to march to Raipur and meet the Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel,’ announced Singh. ‘We do not consent. Our “consent” was illegally acquired, at a public hearing at which we weren’t present,’ he reminded the group. ‘We demand that the state government initiate an investigation into how the illegal public hearing was conducted, and cancel all clearances granted to the Parsa coal mine project. We will present our demands to Chief Minister Baghel and Governor Ukey.’
Significantly, the gathering was also addressed by Siddharth Singh Deo on behalf of Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo (T S Singh Deo), who is the state’s Health Minister and the elected representative of the Surguja district in the state assembly. Much of the Hasdeo forest, including the area that comes within the Parsa coal block, is in the Surguja district. T S Singh Deo is a senior leader of the Congress party who served as the Leader of the Opposition from 2013 to 2018, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled the state of Chhattisgarh. He is at present involved in a leadership tussle with Chief Minister Baghel and media reports have indicated a possibility that the party may soon effect a change in leadership in the state, with T S Singh Deo tipped to replace Baghel as the Chief Minister.
This makes the address by his representative Siddharth Singh Deo (who is also his relative) all the more significant. Siddharth Singh Deo told the gathering that ‘we have been listening to you throughout the course of your decade-long struggle and we will continue to listen.’
The gathering was concluded by an impromptu march around Fatehpur village by the entire crowd. Protest slogans such as inquilab zindabad (long live the revolution), ladenge jeetenge (we shall fight, we shall win), and ‘Adani ki jagir nahi, Chhattisgarh hamara hai’ (Chhattisgarh is ours, not Adani’s estate) filled the air.
AdaniWatch’s coverage of the Adivasi struggle against coal mining in the Hasdeo forest will continue in the days to come, throughout the period of the long march to Raipur.