A prominent member of the Chhattisgarh government has said he wants the biodiverse Hasdeo forests to be declared a ‘no go’ zone for coal mining, even as the government of which he is a part is pushing for more mines. The call came in response to the leaking of a report by an expert scientific institution in India recommending against expanded coal mining in the area. The report warned that coal mining would further fragment the Hasdeo forests, leading to human-elephant conflict that the state government would struggle to mitigate. Adani is a major developer of coal mines in the Hasdeo forests, which are also home to tribal people who oppose the mining.
The Hasdeo forests (‘the Hasdeo Aranya’) occupy 180,000 ha in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh and are home to more than 80 species of tree and a diverse array of mammals, fish, reptiles and birds. Indigenous tribal people (Adivasi) have tended these forests, including sacred groves of trees, for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the Hasdeo forests also grow on top of a billion tonnes of coal.
Coal mining in the Hasdeo Aranya has been contentious from the outset. In 2011, the central government’s environment ministry gave the go-ahead to the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) coal mine, despite advice to the contrary by the government’s Forest Advisory Committee.
An Adani Group subsidiary commenced mining, but an appeal was mounted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) – India’s equivalent of an environment protection authority. The NGT ordered that advice should be sought from various bodies, including the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
In November 2021, parts of the WII report were leaked to the Gaon Connection, which reported on the report’s warnings about the impacts of extended coal mining in the Hasdeo forests.
The WII impact assessment considered several Hasdeo ‘coal blocks’. It noted that out of four highly biodiverse blocks identified, only the PEKB block is a currently operational coal mine. The report recommended that, since the PEKB mine is already operational, mining in the Hasdeo forests should be restricted to that one operation. It recommended that the other parts of the Hasdeo forests and the surrounding landscape should be declared ‘no-go areas’ to mining due to their ‘irreplaceable rich biodiversity and socio-cultural values’.
A senior member of the Chhattisgarh state government, health minister T.S. Singh Deo, responded to the report’s findings on Twitter.
‘A report by Wildlife Institute of India substantiates the stance of No-Go which is the only way to save Hasdeo region’ he tweeted. ‘I wish that these suggestions are implemented as policy decisions as had been done by UPA and @Jairam_Ramesh ji.’
Meanwhile, the Chhattisgarh state government, of which Mr T.S. Singh Deo is a part, was pushing for accelerated approval for phase 2 of the PEKB mine.
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The WII report also warned that fragmentation of the Hasdeo forests by coal mining would exacerbate conflicts between elephants and the local inhabitants.
‘The coal mines, along with the associated infrastructure development, would result in loss and fragmentation of habitat,’ the report said. ‘Mitigating such effects on wildlife, particularly the animals with large home ranges such as elephants, is seldom possible.’
‘The human-elephant conflict in the state is already acute and has been escalating with huge social and economic costs on the marginal, indigenous local communities. Any further threat to elephants’ intact habitats in this landscape could potentially deflect human-elephant conflict into newer areas in the state, where conflict mitigation would be impossible for the state to manage.’
AdaniWatch has previously reported on human-elephant conflicts in the Hasdeo area, many of which have been fatal.
A high-profile defender of these landscapes and their Adivasi communities is Alok Shukla, convenor of the Campaign to Save Chhattisgarh.
‘Despite so many red flags, the mining process is still being initiated in the Hasdeo Aranya coal fields. The WII report has bared all despite efforts to suppress the findings of the report. All the cautions, government’s guidelines, (and warnings of) the danger to the rich biodiversity were bypassed and mining was initiated to promote the interest of a few industrialists,’ Shukla told the Gaon Connection.
‘The study report conducted by the WII in the area clearly states that the entire Hasdeo forest area outside the PKEB coal block should be declared as No Go. Allowing a new mine will make the human elephant conflict in Chhattisgarh so vicious that it is difficult to cope again.’
The WII report was also critical of the environmental management plan pertaining to the PEKB mine.
‘The wildlife conservation plan for PEKB open-cast mine and washery project prepared by the proponent is basic and generic in nature,’ the report said. ‘Due to this it requires substantial revision, and the management provisions need to be spatially explicit and closely consider the ecological, behavioural and social dimensions of the landscape.’
‘The (Hasdeo forests) and the landscape surrounding it support rich biodiversity with a multitude of mammalian species including elephants and also harbours forest-dependent communities’ the WII report went on to say. ‘Therefore, sustaining its forest cover and sustaining its overall ecological integrity is essential. It is pertinent that the Chhattisgarh forest department, with due consultation and involvement of local communities, identify areas within the (Hasdeo forests) and the landscape surrounding it for declaration as Conservation Reserve (CR) under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.’
In October 2021, AdaniWatch reported on the brave efforts of the Adivasi people to stop new coal mines in the Hasdeo forests. They walked over 300 km from the threatened villages to the state capital, Raipur, to take their case to the state’s decision makers. The Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh promised to take their concerns into consideration, but within days, a new coal mine (Parsa) had been approved.