Defenders of India’s Hasdeo forests enjoyed a huge breakthrough last week, when the relevant state government said it was suspending works on three Adani coal-mining projects. The decision was made following dissent against the mining by a high-profile member of the ruling Congress party in the state of Chhattisgarh. Adivasi (tribal) people have strenuously opposed the coal mines because of the threats to their ancestral lands and way of life. They have called for the stay on the mines to be made permanent.
On 10 June 2022, authorities in central India’s Hasdeo Aranya forest region told the press that they have ‘put on hold’ all official processes for three proposed coal mines that are to be run by companies in the Adani Group.
This decision, made amid a widening rift within the state’s Congress party government over the issue, represents a significant breakthrough for the forest region’s Adivasi (indigenous tribal) residents who for nearly a decade have publicly opposed destruction of the Hasdeo forests by a series of coal mines.
On 6 June 2022, the state health minister Singh Deo met protesters in Hasdeo and assured them of his support. He is reported to have said to them ‘get united, stand united, and if anyone comes with a gun I will take the first bullet.’ And on 23 May, a national figurehead of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, supported protests against the mining and said he was working within the party to address the issue, with results to be ‘visible within a few weeks’.
At a press conference in the state’s capital Raipur, defenders of the Hasdeo forests vowed to continue their protests against coal mining in Hasdeo until all mining proposals are cancelled permanently. At the media conference, Alok Shukla, a leading figure in the Movement to Save Chhattisgarh, joined with elected heads of village councils to call for impartial investigations into the way in which rules have been skirted in the approvals granted to the mines.
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A boost for the Adivasi protest movement
In July 2020, Jainandan Singh Porte told Adaniwatch ‘if we can prevent the next mine from opening, we can protect all of the rest of the forest.’
In June 2022, he was one of the three elected sarpanches participating in the above media conference. Porte is also co-convenor of HABSS (Committee for the Struggle to Save the Hasdeo Forest).
The government’s decision comes after eight months of intensifying struggle on the part of the movement. In September 2021, Adivasi residents of the Hasdeo forests embarked on a 300-km ‘long march’ from the forest to the state capital. At the conclusion of the march, the protesters met the state’s governor Anusuiya Uikey and chief minister Bhupesh Baghel.
Soon after, however, these efforts appeared fruitless as approvals came through for two coal mines and the process of approvals for a third began. All three mining operations are owned by a Rajasthan state-owned power company that has contracted an Adani company to develop the mines.
The second phase of the Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine, the first phase of which had been operational since 2013, was approved by the state government in March, after a meeting between the chief ministers of the states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot impressed on his Congress party-mate, Baghel, that Rajasthan was facing a power crisis owing to a shortage of coal. Soon after, in April, the Chhattisgarh government granted final approval for mining the Parsa block, which is adjacent to PEKB.
In a key step in the process of approving the third coal mine, a public hearing was scheduled to take place on 13-14 June to seek the public’s views on the Kente Extension coal block. This is adjacent to PEKB and Parsa. The Adivasi residents of the forest have been demanding that this public hearing be deferred, alleging that previous public hearings for the earlier mines were rigged and that their ‘consent’ to the projects was fraudulently recorded. Hence the demand for an impartial investigation into these allegations.
Meanwhile, things had become desperate on the ground. In May, bulldozers arrived with crews to begin clearing the forests for the PEKB phase 2 and the Parsa projects. Local village residents bravely took to tree-hugging or Chipko (a tactic adopted widely across India in the 1970s), physically putting their bodies on the line to stop the destruction.
Against this tense background, the reported decision to put the mines on hold constitutes a significant breakthrough. Surguja District Collector Sanjeev Jha (the top government administration official of the district in which the three coal blocks are located) said to the Hindustan Times ‘all departmental or official processes for the second phase of PEKB and Parsa and Kente Extension mining projects have been put on hold indefinitely.’
Rift in the Congress Party
The district administration’s decision came shortly after a public rift opened up in the state’s ruling Congress party.
While Chief Minister Baghel had opposed coal mining in Hasdeo as a member of the opposition, as chief minister he has staunchly backed the mining projects. His Health Minister, Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo, who is the elected representative in the state’s Legislative Assembly for the Surguja district, opposes the mines. Singh Deo is also a senior leader of the Congress party who was the leader of the opposition in the state prior to 2018.
On 6 June 2022, Singh Deo met protesters in Hasdeo and assured them of his support. He is reported to have said to them get united, stand united, and if anyone comes with a gun I will take the first bullet.’
The following day, chief minister Baghel responded. ‘Not a single tree branch will be cut if Singh Deo doesn’t want so’, he is reported to have said.
This came after several weeks of hard-line posturing by Baghel. On 19 May, Baghel had defended the mining projects in remarks to reporters saying that coal is ‘required to meet the country’s energy requirements.’ As late as 5 June, Baghel had been on the attack saying that “the matter (of felling trees) is being politicised...those trying to politicise the issue should first stop using ACs (Air Conditioners), fans and coolers.’
These remarks by Baghel had been made, however, in the shadow of opposing remarks by one of the Congress party’s most senior figures in the whole of India. On 23 May, Rahul Gandhi, a national figurehead of the Congress, said that the Hasdeo protests were ‘justified’ and that he was ‘working internally within the party’ to address the issue. The remarks were made in response to questions from an environmentalist at an address at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
The rift in the Congress party now appears to have made its way into the official government orders as well.
The Hindustan Times quotes government officials as saying that ‘(district) collectors were instructed by top officials to pause all mining projects until (Singh Deo) “gives his consent”.’
Make the suspension permanent, say campaigners
At the press conference at Raipur, Alok Shukla pointed out that the country’s constitution has empowered the people to consent to development projects, not a minister. The fight for Hasdeo is a fight for all of Chhattisgarh, Shukla said, as it is the catchment area for a river system that waters the northern and central parts of the state.
Calling for Hasdeo’s coal to be left in the ground, Shukla said that a mining ban will not affect the country’s coal supply. The government-owned coal mining company Coal India Limited, currently operating at 60% capacity, already supplies more that the country’s demand for coal he said, adding that the country is already running ahead of projected coal demand in the year 2030.
The push to mine coal in Hasdeo is purely for Adani’s profits, Shukla said, and the constitutional rights of Adivasis and their gram sabhas (village assemblies) have been trampled for the purpose.
When the Congress had come to power in the state, Shukla said, ‘we had hoped that the illegalities committed by the previous (BJP) government would be investigated and corrected. Sadly, the new government hasn’t done any investigations in Hasdeo. It is not acting impartially but is behaving almost as if it is Adani’s agent.’
The Governor Uikey too had ‘assured us that she won’t let any injustice happen to us and ensure fair investigations, but no investigation was conducted and the processes have moved on.’
The ‘government should listen to the people and to its own party leader Rahul Gandhi,’ Shukla went on. ‘Singh Deo has stood with the people who elected him as he should, and we hope he will continue to do so.’
‘Until the mines are cancelled, our agitation will continue. The area was earlier declared a ‘no-go’ area for mining (by the central government in 2010, later rescinded). It should be made a ‘no-go’ area once again.’
A pro-Adani astro-turfed campaign
AdaniWatch reported in October last year, during the long march to Raipur, on heckling, taunts and abuse that the demonstrators had faced from pro-Adani elements. In a telephone interview to AdaniWatch on 11 June, Alok Shukla said that such actions have now transformed into an organised and systematic pro-Adani pro-mining campaign that has been pushed in the Hasdeo region.
‘For the past few months an astro-turfed campaign has been going on in Hasdeo to support mining’, Shukla said.
Shukla elaborated, ‘all of us campaigners, and all the Adivasi defenders of Hasdeo, are being heavily trolled and viciously abused on social media. It appears to be the work of professional agencies who have hired a few locals with enticements to join their campaigns. I am personally facing trolling and disinformation has been spread about me for the past several months. We have blocked hundreds of their online profiles but the trolling continues.
‘These elements have set up a Facebook page named ‘Hasdeo ka Sach’ (the truth of Hasdeo), claiming to represent the people of the region, but representing not the views of Hasdeo’s defenders but those who want Hasdeo to be mined and the forest to be destroyed. There are several other similar Facebook pages as well, that have been set up within the past two months.
‘These social media accounts and pages are spreading disinformation. They showed visuals of natural forest saying that it is a reforested area planted by Adani (to compensate for deforestation in the proposed mines). They have put out videos showing statements by people who live outside the areas that come under the proposed mines saying they want mining to start. This disinformation is continuously going on.
‘This is why we have been asking: has Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot given out a contract for spreading disinformation and propaganda against Hasdeo and Chhattisgarh as well, along with contracts for mining? The people of Hasdeo have been fighting for all of Chhattisgarh, so propaganda against them amounts to propaganda against the state.
‘The same local elements who run these online campaigns are also involved in creating disruptions to the movement to save Hasdeo on the ground. They are given enticements to do so. It is reprehensible and disturbing that a corporation would adopt tactics such as these.
‘We squarely lay the blame for this propaganda and disinformation on the Adani Group companies. Who else would do something like this? We allege that this propaganda effort that involves trolling on social media and spreading of disinformation through various channels as well as offline disruptions is sponsored by companies in the Adani group. Who else stands to benefit?’
In several ways, he said, the community and the movement against mining in Hasdeo had already put the work on hold.
‘On the ground, the community had already stopped the work of tree felling. The community had already put a stop to it, even before the authorities decided to put the work on hold. The community has also refused to accept the compensation that people are being offered for their lands in the Parsa coal block, so that’s another way in which the community has kept the process on hold, even before the authorities made this decision,’ Shukla said.
‘Meanwhile, a coal washery is being constructed at the Parsa coal block. The community will check whether work on that construction has truly been stopped or not. As per this statement that work has been put on hold, the washery construction must be stopped as well.’
Finally, Shukla spoke about the political aspects of the protests against mining in Hasdeo.
First, he said, the gram sabhas’ (village councils) views and decisions must be respected and taken seriously by the system. ‘For us it is clear that the gram sabha’s view is paramount in the Constitution (when it comes to giving permission for mining). It is the gram sabha’s decision that should take precedence over all other institutions or authorities. For the past decade Hasdeo’s gram sabhas have exercised their rightful constitutional authority in opposing further mining of the forest region. The villages’ statements of ‘consent’ that have been recorded have all been on the basis of falsified records and rigged proceedings,’ Shukla said.
‘(State health minister Tribhuvaneshwar Saran) Singh Deo has clearly said that the community’s view should be followed. He has also personally said that forest areas like Hasdeo should not be destroyed. His views are clear, and so are those of his party leader Rahul Gandhi. Their party’s government should listen to them and proceed towards cancelling the coal mining approvals for all the coal blocks in Hasdeo,’ Shukla concluded.
Are these Rahul Gandhi’s ‘results’ in action?
In his remarks at Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi said the ‘results’ of his ‘internal work within the party’ would be ‘visible within a couple of weeks.’ Is this decision by the Chhattisgarh government one of those ‘results’? Is there more to come? AdaniWatch will keep abreast of all developments.
The author is an independent journalist.