In India, a conflict between various state governments and the central Modi government is developing over Modi's determination to proceed with a controversial auction of 41 coal blocks. In the state of Chhattisgarh, a proposed elephant reserve in the Hasdeo Aranya forest could prove crucial to whether coal mining in these biodiverse forests proceeds. But if the reserve is compromised to enable mining it will worsen human-elephant conflict for the indigenous Adivasis.
‘The previous government had proposed only 400 square kilometers for the elephant reserve. My government has expanded this to 1950 square kilometers. This is the biggest in the world.’
So said the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh in April 2020, referring to his government’s plan to resolve the conflict between conservation and coal mining. In response, conservationists fear that the reserve will be hemmed in by Adani’s coal mines, becoming ‘an open-air elephant prison’.
Chhattisgarh is a central Indian state where great masses of coal occur beneath one of India’s greatest tracts of forest. Adani is already operating a large coal mine in the area. It has been criticized for degrading the land and water on which the local people depend but now plans to develop a string of new mines in the Hasdeo Aranya forest. To investigate the growing controversy over the company’s actions, I visited the area on behalf of AdaniWatch in February 2020.
How Mining Has Worsened Human-Elephant Conflict
The Hasdeo Aranya is part of a large forested corridor that stretches over 1500 kilometers through central India. The area is a traditional home of the Adivasis, India’s indigenous peoples, and is habitat for hundreds of elephants.
On the highway that passes through the Hasdeo Aranya, I pass periodic signs posted by the local forest department that say ‘beware: elephant affected area’. The framing of the message makes it clear who the administration sees as the interlopers.
Nevertheless, this part of India is historically known for its elephants. According to government sources, central India holds 10% of India’s total population of about 27,000 wild elephants. Meetu Gupta is a member of the state’s Wildlife Board and runs Conservation Core India, a conservation NGO in the state’s capital Raipur. She tells me that local folklore says that elephants from the region were once sent across the subcontinent. Traditional houses are designed to account for the proximity of elephants – granaries were fortified against breach; the houses all have a side door specifically meant for families to escape if a tusker takes interest.
However, the elephants largely avoided human contact, and vice versa, because the passages for elephant travel avoided human settlements. Only in recent decades, as the area has become increasingly industrialised, has the problem begun, Gupta says. Various reports based on government data say that 325 people and 70 elephants have lost their lives during encounters over the last five years.
In the Hasdeo Aranya, the Adivasi residents and local campaigners agree that increasing development is to blame. One activist accompanying me, who requested anonymity, says that the Forest Department has deliberately avoided formally identifying the elephant passages precisely, despite knowing them well. Later in the day, as we visit the a coal mine, such a passage is pointed out to me by Ramlal Kariyam – a member of HABSS (Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which translates as the committee for the fight to save the Hasdeo forest), an organisation set up by the Adivasi residents of the region, and a resident of a village that will be lost if mining extends into the adjacent block. He understands the animals’ plight – ‘they are forced to walk around the mine and come close to the road’.
Adani, Coal Mining and the Congress Party
Thirty such coal ‘blocks’ have been identified in the Hasdeo Aranya forest by the Indian government, and it should come as no surprise that India’s biggest private power generator – the Adani Group – is interested in exploiting them. Five billion tonnes of coal lie beneath the forests. Mining has become a huge business for Adani. Its website lists seven coal mines and two iron-ore mines in Chhattisgarh at which Adani is the ‘mine developer and operator’ (MDO). It has become India’s biggest private coal miner.
The one coal block in this part of the Hasdeo Aranya where operations are underway is being mined by Adani, where it is MDO for a power company owned by the government of the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Over 100,000 trees were cut down for this mine and some sections are still being cleared. Two blocks adjacent to this mine are leased to the same company, and Adani has secured the contract to mine those as well. However, a fierce movement of resistance by local communities stands in the way. Committees of action have been formed by HABSS and protests have occurred in nearby towns.
In December 2018, when the Indian National Congress won the Chattisgarh state election, it was felt as a moment of hope for the state’s forest residents. For fifteen years, the state of Chhattisgarh had been ruled by the BJP – the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a party seen as friendly to industrialists. It was the BJP state government that had allowed the first coal mine in the Hasdeo Aranya forest to open – over the objections of the local community. In opposition, the Congress had stood firmly in support of the Adivasi communities, repeatedly challenging the government over its plans to open more of the state’s precious ecosystems to coal mining.
In June 2015, the then president of the Congress party – Rahul Gandhi – had visited Madanpur village in the Hasdeo Aranya forest, the headquarters of the HABSS. Gandhi told the Adivasi members there that ‘the Congress Party and I are with you’.
Proposals for Elephant Reserves
In August 2019, the new Congress government unveiled its plan to address the two main issues – protecting the elephants and saving the Hasdeo Aranya forest from coal mining. The plan was to create a 1995-square-kilometre reserve – the Lemru Elephant Reserve. An earlier government proposal for a reserve of 400 square kilometres had been shelved in 2011 due to pressure from coal lobbyists.
More than 25 elephant reserves have been established in India since the 1990s. They cover some 58,000 square kilometres and contain a population of over 20,000 elephants. The reserves do not have the status of national parks. Traditional activities of the Adivasi can continue within elephant reserves, where there is a strong emphasis on managing human-wildlife conflict. Various forms of development are allowed within the reserves. However, the explicit recognition of an endangered species is supposed to inform prescriptions applied by governments and corporations.
In Chhattisgarh, following the government’s announcement, the Forest Department announced that no coal mining would be allowed in a buffer zone of ten kilometres outside the boundary of the reserve. Industry groups claimed that this would result in a mining ban in the forest. Business papers fretted that the proposed elephant reserve would ‘cast a shadow’ on coal mining. However, the proposal had yet to be formally drawn up, approved by the Chief Minister’s Office, and notified by the government.
When I visited Hasdeo Aranya in February, the locals had received word that the boundaries for the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve did not, in fact, cover the coal blocks proposed for new mines in the Parsa Kente area. Even the ‘buffer zone’ had been drawn to exclude proposed mines.
A map of the reserve boundaries, a copy of which has been obtained by AdaniWatch and is being exclusively published by AdaniWatch and NewsClick, confirms that this is the case. The map was prepared by the forest mapping section of the government of Chhattisgarh. This map has gone through all the approvals in the state bureaucracy and now awaits the chief minister’s approval. One anonymous source who is in a position to know confirms to me that the officials drawing up the map were explicitly instructed to ensure the proposed new mines in Hasdeo Aranya are at least ten kilometres away from the boundary of the elephant reserve.
When we ask about it, the Chief Minister of Chattisgarh, in an interview with Newsclick, makes his assertion that the reserve will be ‘the biggest in the world’.
The claim is demonstrably untrue. There are reserves that protect elephants in Africa and Indonesia that are much bigger than the 1995 square kilometres of the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve. In India, there are elephant reserves in the states of Jharkhand, Assam, Meghalaya, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Uttarakhand that are also much bigger, in some cases occupying more than 5000 square kilometres.
Seeing the map of the Lemru proposal, Alok Shukla, who is the convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (the Campaign to Save Chhattisgarh, an umbrella body for people’s movements and activist campaigns across the state), explains that leaving the coal blocks out of the proposed elephant reserve will restrict the elephants to one patch of forest when they have been used to freely moving across thousands of kilometres. Referring to a map of Chhattisgarh hanging on the wall, he points out that to the west and north-west of the proposed reserve are the Hasdeo coal blocks, to the east is another large coal mine, to the south and south-east are the city of Korba and an industrial area, and to the south-west is a large reservoir on the Hasdeo River. Gupta tells me that elephants are a species that cannot be confined to one region. A single elephant can cover over 3000 square kilometres in a few months.
The proposed elephant reserve, she warns, will effectively be ‘open-air elephant prison’.
The Chattisgarh Congress party has proclaimed this proposal as one of its showpiece policy measures, designed to benefit the Adivasis of the Hasdeo Aranya who face expropriation of their lands and destruction of their livelihoods by coal mining. However, it seems that, once in government, the party succumbed to industry arguments that the reserve would ‘cast a shadow’ over the proposed coal mines. The reserve as currently drawn up thus indirectly benefits mining companies such as Adani, opposite to its purported intent.
Coal mining will, therefore, exacerbate elephant-human conflicts while the battle over the Hasdeo Aranya forests continues in the public arena.
(With contributions by AdaniWatch coordinator, Geoff Law)