Coal India Indigenous People
Adani’s coal hard cash leaves displaced villagers with nothing
Jun 01, 2023
Bir Sai (L) and Ravinder Singh, two natives of Ghatbarra, stand next to a blazed tree in the forest proposed to be cut down. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

Clever but unscrupulous means have been used by Adani and state authorities to take over ancestral lands for coal mines in India’s Hasdeo forests. Cash inducements backed up by the force of police are employed to make villagers surrender their properties. Despite handouts and ‘resettlement’, Adani’s coal mines have left a trail of misery.

When I met Jainandan Singh Porte in 2019 in Tara, a village in India’s Hasdeo forests, he was addressing hundreds of villagers protesting against the government’s approval for a new coal mine in the region. Addressing the villagers under a bright yellow tent (Shamiyana), Porte spoke with a voice that echoed through the massive crowd.‘Jal, jangal oar jameen. Yeh hamara haq hai aur hum jindagi bhar iske liye ladengey (water, forest and land – we have a right over them and we will fight all our lives to get them),’ he thundered, asserting that fighting for such rights was central to his Adivasi identity. (Adivasi is a term for indigenous tribal people in India.)

Ghatbarra's sarpanch Jainandan Singh Porte in his house. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

Porte stood tall and projected a resolve to fight till the very end. In early 2023, nearly half a decade and countless protests later, what’s left of his hair is rapidly greying. He walks with a hunch. But the defiance is still there and he still firmly believes that his people can pull off a victory.

‘As long as I’m here, I will continue fighting for jal, jangal and jameen. I just hope I don’t become Bhagat Singh in this process,’ he laughs wryly.

Bhagat Singh was an Indian freedom fighter who was hanged by the British.

Porte is the village head (Sarpanch) of Ghatbharra, the village that has been home to him, his ancestors and generations of his fellow villagers. Ghatbarra lies within the dense Hasdeo forests in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, a biodiversity hotspot that contains several rare species and an elephant corridor.

Over a decade ago, after learning that Hasdeo rests atop five billion tonnes of coal, the central government earmarked large swathes of the region into 23 coal blocks. Five of those blocks are in different stages of the formal process of becoming coal mines. In 2013, one was partially excavated to create a large open cast mine in the middle of the Hasdeo forests. It was christened the Parsa East Kete Basan (PEKB) mine. The owner of this mine is Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RVUNL), the state government’s electricity generation company. It formed a joint venture with Adani Enterprises Limited in which all the mining developments and operations are performed by Adani.

4.	The PEKB coal mine as seen from within the last remnants of Ghatbarra's forests. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

The coal in the first phase of PEKB was supposed to last until 2026. But in 2020, RVUNL wrote to the environment ministry claiming that coal in PEKB was fast diminishing and requested approval for an early start of mining Phase II. In 2022, amidst staunch opposition from the indigenous residents of the region, approval for Phase II was given.

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‘We are from Dharavi’ has become a battle cry

The elusive Community Forest Rights

For over a year now, the natives of Hasdeo have been protesting. Every Monday, crowds gather at the same protest site in Tara.

‘Our demand is very simple,’ one of the protesters told me during a recent protest. ‘Just leave us and our land alone.’

The villagers are resolute in their demand and their slogan captures the essence of it: ‘Hum hamara haq mangte, nahi kisi se bheek mangte.’ (We demand our rights, we don’t beg anyone).

Adivasi culture has long preceded the rules and regulations of the 21st century. An unwavering part of Adivasi culture, especially for the Gond community, is how their lives are interwoven with the forest. This right was legally recognised in 2006 when the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed. Under this Act, Community Forest Rights (CFR) to resources in the forest are recognised as being held by forest-dwelling tribes and communities.

Under the law, Community Forest Rights (CFR) to resources in the forest are supposed to be held by forest-dwelling tribes and communities. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

The Act also recognises the role played by these communities in ensuring the conservation and survival of the forest ecosystems. In 2016, three years after the people of Hasdeo were granted CFR, the Chhattisgarh government revoked Ghatbarra’s CFR following the villagers’ continuous fight against the mine clearances given to Adani Enterprises.

While that hasn’t deterred the Adivasis staying in Ghatbarra or its neighbouring villages, many houses in this region behold a strange site on Monday afternoons. As some family members—usually the women—get ready to leave for the protest, the men don fluorescent jackets with ‘Adani’ written in bold across their chests and leave for work.

Women in Ghatbarra stand in front of sarpanch Jainandan Porte's house months before the seemingly likely uprooting of their village. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

‘In a way, it’s like the women are protesting for the men in their family to lose their jobs,’ remarks Rishi, a member of the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS), one of the most prominent and longest standing people’s movement in the region. But the reality is not that black and white.

‘Our options are limited now,’ says Deepak (name changed), a resident of Ghatbarra. He is referring to an incident that took place late last year.

Acceptance of fait accompli

On 27 September 2022, a group of policemen woke Porte up at 5:30 am and whisked him away in a police jeep. Confiscating his phone, they claimed that a senior police officer wanted to meet him. Simultaneously, other prominent leaders from the movement – those belonging to the adjacent villages of Sahli, Hariharpur and others – were also illegally detained. In Raipur, Alok Shukla, founder and convenor of HABSS, was detained by the income-tax department. Meanwhile, long indigo-coloured buses filled the narrow streets of Ghatbarra.

‘There were more cops than there were villagers,’ recalled Mangalsai Armo (50), a villager. ‘We didn’t know that the cops had arrived the previous night.’

The villagers knew what was to come. Five months prior to this incident, the Chhattisgarh forest department chainsawed 300 trees in a village called Janardanpur, not too far from Ghatbarra. This was for the new Parsa coal mine, the second mine scheduled to open in the Hasdeo region. Natives allege that village-council permissions—without which clearance for the mine cannot be given—were forged. Despite repeated demands and protests, the government of Chhattisgarh has refused to investigate the matter. So when hundreds of police officers cordoned off Ghatbarra last September, many Adivasis rushed to the jungle, only to be stopped by the police.

‘They said it was dangerous to go near the forest and didn’t allow us entry,’ said Mangal Sai Armo.

Those who forged ahead anyway were detained.

‘They also blocked the Tara Nala road with logs so that people from other villages couldn’t come to support us,’ he said, talking about the only motorable road to Ghatbarra.

With the villagers held back, men clad in neon-orange vests made their way to the forest to start cutting down the trees. For the next few hours, as villagers unsuccessfully tried to break through barricades both human and object, thousands of trees were felled. While official numbers put it at 8000 trees, local people argue that over 12,000 trees were felled on that day. Irrespective of the number, two things were clear: Almost the entirety of Ghatbarra’s forest was razed in a span of hours and Ghatbarra itself was next.

A felled tree in Ghatbarra's forest. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

When Porte was dropped back at the village hours later, he saw what he expected.

‘As soon as they picked me up, I knew what was going to happen,’ he said.

That day is etched in everyone’s memory in Ghatbarra. The people in the village, much like the Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities across the country, depend on the forest. As per the FRA, they are entitled to sell non-timber forest products for their livelihoods. Without the forest, the people of Ghatbarra are left with two options: migrate to a bigger town or a city for employment, or work with the only company in the region that is hiring – Adani Enterprises.

The ones who choose the former seldom see their families. And the ones who choose the latter face problems of their own.

‘Our forest is gone… and so are our livelihoods,’ said Ravinder Singh, a villager. ‘If we had our forest, we wouldn’t work with the company. But if the mine is also shut now, how will our families survive?’

Ghatbarra is not the first village in Hasdeo to be thrust into this position. Ghatbarra’s dilemmas resemble the past of another village that existed not too far from it – the now extinct village of Kete.

How money fails to compensate for lost land - whole families ruined

Over a decade ago, when Kete was cleared out for the first phase of the PEKB mine, Adani Enterprises had to adhere to rules pertaining to resettlement and rehabilitation as per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. It was obliged to provide the villagers with compensatory money, residences and jobs.

Toilets in the resettlement quarters remain unused due to the lack of running water and drainage. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

The precise amount of compensation money each villager would get was calculated on the basis of how much land they sold to the company. This process was flawed; some villagers claimed that they were not fairly compensated. In large part, this was because of complex land-holding patterns within the village where verbal agreements prevailed over official papers. When legalities come into the picture, compensation could be given only to those who could show papers of ownership. Amongst the people affected by this was them was Kalyan.

‘He got almost a crore [US $120,000] in compensation,’ recalled Ramlal Kariyam, a member of HABSS and a resident of Sahli, a village adjacent to Ghatbarra. For a family accustomed to earning less than 10,000 [US $120] rupees a month, a lump sum of 10 million rupees was more money than they could have dreamt of - and more money than they could manage. Very few people in Hasdeo have a bank account to their name, and even fewer have the financial literacy to deal with large sums. The money rapidly dwindled.

A herder from Ghatbarra walks through the village's common pastoral land as livestock graze. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

‘Some of them spent a lot of money on materialistic items such as cars and liquor,’ said Ramlal. But this was only a small fraction of people.

‘A bunch of them opened up shops or small businesses. But since they only knew farming or selling forest produce, few of these businesses still exist. Most of them faced losses and were shut.’

Because the resettlement quarters, built in the neighbouring village of Basan, were practically unliveable, some of Kete’s displaced residents used the compensation money to buy land and build houses elsewhere. How Kalyan lost most of his money, however, was more scandalous.

‘A fund company popped up out of nowhere,’ said Ramlal. It tried to convince the villagers of Kete to invest their compensation money in ‘chit’ funds. When the company failed to convince people, it hired some villagers to convince others.

‘When Kalyan got all that money as compensation, he was somehow convinced by two hired men to put all of it in the company,’ said Ramlal. ‘The chit fund company ran away with all the money they took from the villagers.’

When I met Kalyan in July 2018, he sat outside his room in the resettlement quarters. There was an eerie silence in the neighbourhood. Only a handful of families lived there. The quarters consisted of two rooms of less than 10 square metres allotted to each family, irrespective of family numbers. These houses were a fraction of the size of the houses in Hasdeo from which these people had been evicted. For every two households, there were four toilets, with no running water. The women cooked on firewood stoves outside their individual rooms. The spaces between the rooms were overgrown with weeds.

Rajkumari walks through the resettlement quarters in Basan where former Kete natives now reside. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

As I started interviewing Kalyan, his youngest son lay down on the floor wrapped in a blanket.

‘He’s not well. We were going to use some of the money for his treatment,’ Kalyan said, adding that his son had frequent seizures. On Kalyan’s right was a pair of crutches, which was when I noticed his amputated right leg.

‘This was from an accident at a construction site I was working at,’ he said. ‘After losing all that money, I had to find some way to feed the family.’

After the accident, his wife began working as a labourer at construction sites under the MGNREGA scheme. (This is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, a social-security scheme and labour law in India which guarantees employment at a minimum wage.) With the paltry minimum wage she received, they ensured that their two older kids remained in school.

‘Whatever happened has happened, but anyway this situation is temporary,’ Kalyan said in a hopeful tone.

‘My daughter, Rajkumari, is a very smart girl. When she grows up, she’ll take care of all of us and get us out of here,’ he said, hopefully.

The following year I revisited the resettlement camp and went looking for Kalyan. On the very same porch that I met him stood his inebriated wife. In a broken voice, she told me that both Kalyan and her younger son drowned in the Hasdeo River a few months after I had met them. Jaspal, her elder son, had to drop out of school after his father’s death. Fourteen-year-old Jaspal told me that his brother’s and father’s death had impacted his mother’s mental health.

‘After their death, she has been drinking and taking intoxicants,’ he said.

To fend for what was remaining of his family and to keep his sister Rajkumari in school, Jaspal decided to fill in for his mother as a daily wage labourer.

‘At least my sister is in school; she was always the smartest one anyway,’ was one of the last things he told me when I asked him if he wished he could continue his education.

My next visit to the resettlement camp was four years and three waves of the pandemic later. This time the quarters were almost full but Kalyan’s house was locked. The neighbours informed me that Jaspal’s mother had remarried and left for another village. Jaspal had shifted to the neighbouring district of Korba to work as a labourer. Rajkumari, the clever daughter, had had to drop out of school as her uncle, with whom she was now staying, could not pay for her education. She now spends most of her days cleaning dishes and doing other household chores.

In six years, Kalyan’s family that once had five members now has three – all of them scattered, living a life removed from each other, their village and their culture. Their family life is irrevocably over. Every house in the resettlement colony has a similar story to narrate.

Cash converters – how land is acquired from traditional owners

Displacement is not always a violent process and Ghatbarra is proof of it. The first time that people from Adani Enterprises came to visit the village, they didn’t come with police. They came with money.

This was in 2021, nearly a decade after the first phase of PEKB became operational. Adalsai Armo, one of the oldest natives of Ghatbarra, was told that some people in ‘pants and suits’ had come to visit him. They told Armo and other villagers that in the first phase of PEKB, some of their land was dug out for the mine and that the company was there to compensate the villagers. The villagers weren’t even aware of the land the company claimed they owned. But, they thought, if official documents said that they owned land and were going to get paid for it, why would they question it.

‘I got nearly 6 lakhs [US $7250] for my 0.8 acre of land,’ said 70-year-old Armo.

Adalsai Armo, one of the first villagers from Ghatbarra to give up his land for the mine. Image Vaishnavi Suresh

Most of the people that the company spoke to belonged to influential families within the village, including Armo, who is regarded as a big shot. When the company people left, they told these villagers that they would be back in a year for PEKB’s second phase – with more money. The villagers were tactfully given the message that they only had to give up their house, farms and forest land in order to receive money and to curry favour with ‘big people’ to climb up the social ladder. This would open new doors for them.

None of these promises was written on paper. It was easy to understand how effective these strategies were when I heard Adalsai Armo speak.

‘Of course, we are sad about letting our forest and land go. We are Adivasis, after all,’ he said. ‘But we won’t settle for less money. We will seek fair compensation.’

All these promises were also made to the people of Kete, but in less than a decade, the broad consensus is that their lives have becomed worse since the mining company arrived.

‘We won’t let that happen to us,’ Armo claimed with confidence. ‘We are going to demand that they give us land in Bulanga village in Surguja district. We are ready to pay for the land but the Collector, government and the Company will have to get the permissions and papers in place.’

When asked if the government or the company knew about these demands, he said it is something he’ll discuss with them at a later stage, once the compensation process is complete. But what if they wouldn’t agree to his demands? Armo took a second and responded, unsurely: ‘Then we will fight.’

Armo and the 31 villagers the company initially contacted were some of the first to hand over their individual forest-titles. The perceived rewards convinced others to follow suit.

Many others took a pro-mine stance only after their forest was alienated on 27 September 2022.

‘Nobody is giving up their land happily; we are giving it up because we don’t have an option,’ said Bir Sai, one of the villagers. ‘How else do I put food on my table?’

This technique of leaving villagers with no recourse but to give up their land is not unique to Ghatbarra. Similar tactics have been deployed across enough mining and energy projects globally. Academia defines it as the ‘social engineering of extraction’.

The atmosphere in Ghatbarra is rife with mistrust. A village that once lived in harmony now sees its residents on a spectrum between those who have vehemently opposed the mine for a decade, and those who have become advocates for the mine.

Representatives from RRVUNL and Adani Enterprises Ltd did not respond to queries from the author regarding the issues raised in this article despite repeated attempts to contact them.