India Coal
Chaotic scenes as authorities try to strong-arm village approval for Adani coal-mine expansion
Jul 03, 2024
Chaos ensued when officials attempted to wrangle permission from villagers for the Adani coal-mine expansion.

The villages of the Hasdeo forests have once again been invaded by police, officialdom and Adani employees preparing to clear another area of forest for an Adani-operated coal mine. Chaotic scenes ensued when local authorities attempted to wrangle formal consent for the mining from local people. The plan backfired when officials were repeatedly howled down. Meanwhile, work on a nearby proposed coal mine has been temporarily stopped while a state commission hears a complaint by the area’s tribal inhabitants.

The coal projects concerned:

  • The Adani-operated Parsa East Kente Basan coal mine - approved for expansion.
  • The Parsa coal block being developed by Adani for mining.

The Adivasi tribal residents of the Hasdeo Aranya forest in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh are dealing with a mix of good and bad news.

On the one hand, they have reason to celebrate as an interim order by the Chhattisgarh State Scheduled Tribes (ST) Commission has temporarily put a stop to a coal mine being opened in the Parsa coal block, which is adjacent to the PEKB coal deposit. The ST Commission, which is a constitutionally mandated independent authority meant to safeguard the rights of tribal communities, delivered this order while conducting hearings on a complaint brought before it by a local community organisation.

A police barricade preventing wider attendance at formal meeting on 19 June.

The Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS – the Committee for the Struggle to Save the Hasdeo Forest) has long opposed the Parsa coal project. The rights to mine this block are owned by the Rajasthan government and contracted to the Adani Group for development and operation. The consent of six villages assemblies is a legal requirement before mining can proceed. According to HABSS, village-assembly resolutions claiming to show that the residents of the six villages had consented to allow mining were fabricated. The HABSS complaint to the ST Commission demanded cancellation of the allegedly-fabricated resolutions and an order for the government departments concerned and the police to investigate. On 31 May, the commission temporarily ‘set aside’ the resolutions’ validity until its next hearing.

The Adani-operated PEKB coal mine - Adani is seeking to cut down more of the Hasdeo forests so the mine can expand. Image Abir Dasgupta

(‘Gram sabhas’, or village assemblies, are the lowest unit of legislative authority in the Indian Panchayati Raj system, which provides for local self governance in villages.)

On the other hand, Hasdeo villagers are bracing themselves for destruction of forests to enable the Adani-operated PEKB coal mine to expand. According to local media, the state government has approved this third round of tree felling and the operation had been expected to begin on 7 June. The clearing of the forest did not occur on that date but is imminent. Tribal residents have recently discovered orange markings on trees, earmarking them for cutting.

To add insult to injury, on 19 June a village council meeting (Gram Sabha) was convened by officials in order to secure agreement from landowners and other village stakeholders for the clearing to proceed. Police barricaded the village in an attempt to stop locals from mobilizing. Nevertheless, the meeting that proceeded frequently dissolved into chaos as villagers bailed up officials to shout their opposition to the mine. The meeting’s failure to achieve the objectives of state officials and the Adani Group did not stop the state’s chief minister, Vishnu Deo Sai, from falsely claiming that consent to the clearing of nearly 200 ha of forest had been obtained.

Police barricaded the village before the meeting to prevent villagers opposed to the coal mine from mobilising.

The Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine is owned by the state government of Rajasthan and has been operated by an Adani Group company since 2013.  

(Story continues below)

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A march, a détente and a reversal

These developments come after a harrowing six months for the Adivasi. The state government of Chhattisgarh changed after elections in December 2023. The previous Congress government led by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel decisively lost to the BJP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Vishnu Deo Sai was elected the new BJP Chief Minister for the state.

That election brought an end a de facto détente on tree felling for the PEKB mine that the Congress state government had maintained for the final eighteen months of its rule. This détente goes back to April 2022, and before that to October 2021, when two significant events took place for the movement to save Hasdeo.

In October 2021, the activists of HABSS led a march that mobilised tribal residents from across the entire forest to walk over 300 km from their cluster of villages to the state capital, Raipur. This march helped persuade the government to declare the Lemru Elephant Reserve across 1995 square km of the forest, with boundaries as shown by a map first published by AdaniWatch in 2020.

The Adivasi (tribal) people of the Hasdeo forests marched 300 km to the state capital to defend their ancestral lands from Adani-developed coal mines.

While this elephant reserve excluded the Adani Group’s operational PEKB mine and its proposed coal mines, it included within its boundary and its buffer zone (a radius of 10 kilometres from the boundary line of the reserve) 25 out of 30 coal blocks that had been identified in the forest region. This included, significantly, two coal blocks that had already been allocated to different state governments, and several coal blocks that the government had listed to auction off to private commercial coal-mining companies. These deposits, and the forests and villages occurring on top of them, were now protected from mining.

A large elephant reserve has been declared in part of the Hasdeo forests, preventing several coal mines from proceeding.

The second significant development occurred in March 2022, when Bhupesh Baghel’s Congress government pressed ahead with the second phase of the PEKB mine, pushing permissions through for the adjacent Parsa coal block. This followed a meeting between Baghel and his party colleague Ashok Gehlot, the then Chief Minister of the state of Rajasthan, when the latter pressed upon Baghel that his state needed an increased flow of coal from the Hasdeo mines.

This was seen as a backflip by the Congress in the state. The HABSS marchers in 2021 had met Baghel and the state’s then governor, Anusuiya Uikey, demanding the cancellation of the allegedly fabricated ‘consent’ resolutions of the village assemblies and an investigation. While the Chief Minister and the Governor had both promised action, they went back on their word and instead prioritised the development of Adani’s coal mines.

The Hasdeo tribal people arrive in the state capital in October 2021 to put their case to the governor and chief minister.

On 12 April 2022, the state government first granted final approval under the Forest Rights Act for the Parsa coal block on the basis of the allegedly fabricated resolutions instead of initiating an investigation. On 23 April, the government sent police forces to provide security for workers of the Adani Group for a round of tree felling for PEKB’s second phase. After a couple of days of tree felling, HABSS activists and local residents managed to bring it to a stop through a campaign of literal tree hugging. In June 2022, the government told the press that it had put the PEKB mine’s second phase and the opening up of the adjacent Parsa and Kente Extension coal blocks ‘on hold’.

In 2022, villagers prevented clearing of forests, literally by hugging trees.

This détente held until the end of the Baghel government and the advent of the BJP.

Tree felling, police repression and arson

Even before the new government was sworn in, a second round of tree felling was conducted. From 21-23 December 2023, leaders of the HABSS were detained by the police – illegally, they allege – while large contingents of police were deployed to prevent protesters from reaching the site of the tree-felling operations.

‘Officially, 20,000 trees were cut down, but it is a lot more,” said Alok Shukla, co-convenor of the HABSS.

‘Officially, 20,000 trees were cut down, but it is a lot more.' Alok Shukla, recipient of the Goldman Prize for his environmental work.

Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi village, one of the six villages that comes within the Parsa coal block, and one of the tribal leaders of HABSS said ‘the police came to my home before sunrise, and I was detained in my night clothes’.

Sunita Porte, another tribal leader of the HABSS described a narrow escape. ‘I was on my way to our protest site, when I got a call from a comrade warning me that police had arrived at my home. Police and the local supporters of mining – who are paid by the Adani Group – had fanned out across the forests and the roads leading to the tree-felling site. Somehow, I found a way through the forests and avoided being detained.’

'Somehow, I found a way through the forests and avoided being detained.' Sunita Porte, a village leader.

Shukla attempted to drive to Hasdeo from his home in Raipur, a four-to-five-hour journey, when he heard that the contingent of police had arrived in the area. He was stopped on the way by individuals in plain clothes who claimed to be policemen. These ‘police’ detained Shukla and an associate by the side of the road for several hours, while apparently awaiting orders.

‘They said they would take us home, but they neither took us home nor present us in court,’ Shukla told this correspondent.

Shukla’s comrade managed to make a surreptitious phone call and word got out. An urgent appeal spread and the local police started receiving calls asking after him. A few hours later, Shukla and his comrade were released. To this day, Shukla maintains that he was kidnapped, and there is no clarity on whether his captors were indeed police.

Back in Hasdeo, the locals faced three days of police repression while the company’s workers were busy cutting the trees down.

‘The police virtually locked us into our homes for three days,’ said Muneshwar Porte, a resident of Hariharpur village (which comes within the Parsa coal block). ‘There was no one on the streets apart from the police and the company’s supporters.

‘The leaders of the movement were in police custody and everyone else was too afraid to come out.’

Shukla described the town at that time as a virtual ‘garrison’.

Three months later came another intimidatory show of force. In March 2024, on the night of the Holi festival, the HABSS protest site in Hariharpur village, which is located about 200 m from the pit of the PEKB mine, was burned down in the middle of the night. It could only have been the company’s supporters, allege members of HABSS, and they have said as much in a complaint to police.

‘They hang around on the roads leading to our villages and constantly threaten and intimidate us,’ said Muneshwar Porte.

An allegation that all of the HABSS members make is that these individuals are paid Rs 10,000 (US $120) a month by the Adani Group in return for their support. Shivprasad Kusro, a member of HABSS who is a resident of now-obliterated Kete village, says that he was offered this ‘salary’ to act in support of the company and against the movement. He is still due compensation for his land that was acquired for the PEKB mine, and he was told, he alleges, that his full compensation would be paid if he agreed to ‘defect’ from the movement and speak in favour of mining.

Shivprasad Kusro was told that his delayed compensation funds would arrive if he 'defected' from the Hasdeo movement to speak in favour of the coal mine.

There have been a few takers. ‘One of our prominent leaders, who used to be one of the faces of our movement, has now sold out to the Adani Group,’ said Muneshwar Porte. ‘It is understandable; he is getting old and he must have been thinking of [the wellbeing of] his family.’

When this reporter visited Hasdeo in mid-April 2024, HABSS was rebuilding the protest site. They had been on an indefinite protest at that site since early 2022, seeking cancellation of the allegedly fabricated village-assembly consent resolutions, and an investigation. They now say that they will continue their indefinite protest as long as there is any prospect of mining in Hasdeo.

From protecting the forest to protecting their homes

For the likes of Muneshwar Porte, Sunita Porte and Ramlal Kariyam, who are among the frontline leaders of the movement now, there is a tragic irony to their present situation.

All of them joined the movement in their teens and early twenties, over a decade ago, when the entirety of the Hasdeo forest was under threat. As activists who lived adjacent to the PEKB mine, they were among the most committed, as they saw first-hand how people’s quality of life deteriorated due to the proximity of the mine.

‘We saw what happened to the villagers of Kete, whose people were displaced by the PEKB mine,’ said Muneshwar.

Ramlal Kariyam described all the ways in which the mine degraded their environment. ‘The pollution from the mine affected our crops. Elephants would frequently enter our villages as they had to walk around the mine. The Salhi River, which we all took water from, turned black and then dried up. The ground-water level dropped as all the water seeped into the PEKB’s pit.’

‘The pollution from the mine affected our crops.' Ramal Kariyam

On the night that this reporter was in Hasdeo, an elephant entered a home in Hairharpur village and a female resident was left in a critical condition

None of the Adani Group’s promises of development seemed to materialise.

‘They promised us piped water, hospitals, schools,’ said Shivprasad Kusro. ‘They did build a school but they don’t allow most of the locals to send their children there. Only their supporters’ children are allowed admission, and most of the students are their employees’ children. They never built a hospital – they have just stuck a board with their logo on the local health centre that was built by the government years ago. There is no piped water; the locals all dig borewells for water’.

Watching this scene first-hand motivated these activists to spearhead the movement that persuaded the government to declare the Lemru Elephant Reserve. After persuading the Chhattisgarh government to notify the elephant reserve, the movement pushed the government to write to the central government seeking the denotification of coal blocks. The movement prevailed and in October 2023, at the Chhattisgarh government’s request, the Union Coal Ministry announced that it had de-notified 40 coal blocks, including those inside the reserve and some outside its eastern and southern peripheries.

This victory for the movement, however, is bittersweet for the activists who live near Adani’s PEKB coal mine. Their part of the forest is still unprotected. The Parsa and Kente Extension coal blocks have been allocated to the Rajasthan government and contracted to the Adani Group to develop and operate. While they celebrate their victory in the rest of the forest, they are struggling on the brink of displacement from their homes. Further tree felling is imminent.

‘We are preparing to mobilise people to oppose tree felling after the election,’ said Sunita Porte.

The ST Commission’s ruling comes as a sliver of hope.

International recognition

In May 2024, Shukla was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize – considered the ‘Green Nobel’ prize – in recognition of his leadership of the movement that led to the protection of a large part of the Hasdeo forest.

‘This award is for all the tribal members of the movement,’ Shukla said, and hoped that it would spur on efforts to protect the remainder of the forest.

‘These mines are only for the Adani Group to profit from,’ Shukla continued, arguing that there is no need to open them. ‘The government said in an affidavit to the Supreme Court that no new mines are needed to meet Rajasthan’s coal demand.’

The result of India’s general election will likely have a significant impact on the situation in Hasdeo. The Modi government has begun its third term, albeit with a weakened position. The BJP has lost its majority in Parliament and has become reliant on coalition partners. Shares in the Adani Group’s publicly-listed companies fell sharply on India’s stock markets on 4 June in reaction.

These outcomes must surely strengthen the position of those seeking to protect the Hasdeo forests from the Adani Group’s coal mines.

The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.