India Indigenous People Coal
Forest tribal people to fight Congress backflip approving more Adani coal mining
Mar 30, 2022
Congress backflip approves Adani coal mine expansion into tribal forests. Image Vijay Ramamurthy

In a controversial decision that will benefit the Adani Group to the detriment of tribal forest-dwellers, leaders of the Indian states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have sanctioned clearance of forests to expand an Adani coal mine. In an unpleasant twist, while Gautam Adani (founder of the Adani Group) is perceived to be close to PM Narendra Modi of the BJP, this decision was made by leaders of the Indian National Congress, which opposes Modi’s party and leads India’s opposition.

On 26 March 2022, a day after a meeting between the Chief Ministers of the Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the government of Chhattisgarh announced that it had approved clearing 1130 hectares of forest land for the second phase of the Parsa East and Kente Basan (PEKB) coal mine.

Chief ministers Bhupesh Baghel (left) of Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlaut (right) of Rajasthan meet on the weekend to seal the fate of threatened forests and their tribal inhabitants for an Adani coal mine.

The PEKB coal mine is in the Hasdeo Aranya forest region in northern Chhattisgarh, the largest contiguous forest area in central India. The Rajasthan government owns the PEKB coal mine, the first phase of which has been operational for 15 years. A company in the Adani Group is the contracted Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) that develops the coal mine, mines the coal, and sells it to a power company owned by the Rajasthan government.

As AdaniWatch has described in detail, coal mining in the Hasdeo forests has been hotly contested for close to a decade, owing to opposition by the Adivasi (tribal) residents of the forest region. The organisation called Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS or the Committee for the Struggle to Save the Hasdeo Forest), which was set up by the local community, has been engaged in a drawn-out campaign to persuade the state government of Chhattisgarh and India’s central government not to expand coal mining in the forest beyond the already operational first phase of the PEKB mine. Aside from the PEKB project, a further 17 coal blocks have been identified in the forest region by the authorities, and several have already been contracted to the Adani Group.

The two chief ministers got together to approve an expansion of the Adani-run PEKB coal mine, pictured, into adjacent tribal forests. Image Vijay Ramamurthy

Is the Congress party breaking its promise?

The Indian Express reported that the decision came after Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlaut, flew to Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s capital, to ‘hold a parley with his counterpart Bhupesh Baghel,’ the chief minister of Chhattisgarh.

Both Gehlaut and Baghel are leaders of the Indian National Congress party, which leads the opposition to the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Congress controls the state governments of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, having won power in the elections of December 2018. Even though Gautam Adani, the chairman of the Adani Group is perceived as close to PM Modi, this decision has been taken by governments that are opposed to Modi.

The approval to clear more forest for coal mining appears to violate a 2015 promise made by the then Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi that no further coal mining would take place in the Hasdeo forests. In June of that year, responding to an invitation by the HABSS, Gandhi toured the Adivasi villages of Hasdeo and declared solidarity with their campaign.

'The Congress party and I stand by you,' said Rahul Gandhi to the Adivasi in 2015. But in 2022 his Congress party has backflipped, approving the expansion of an Adani-run coal mine into tribal forests. Image Wikipedia

‘The Congress party and I stand by you,’ Gandhi told villagers gathered at the HABSS’s office in the village of Madanpur. Gandhi said that the Congress party would not allow a plan that would make industrialists prosper and the tribals lose their land, the Business Standard had reported at the time.

In recent months, Gehlaut has been lobbying senior Congress leadership to impress upon Baghel to permit the expansion of the PEKB coal mine. In December 2021, Gehlaut wrote to Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress President on the subject. He also reportedly raised the issue with Rahul Gandhi in a meeting on 28 February.

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Condemnation of the decision by conservationists and Adivasi

The Gehlaut-Baghel decision was condemned by environmentalists and representatives of the Adivasi. The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA or Campaign to Save Chhattisgarh) issued a statement that said ‘the CBA vehemently protests approval meant to benefit only [the] Adani Group that...  ignores environmental concerns and tribal resistance to clear the Hasdeo mine’.

It pointed out Rahul Gandhi’s 2015 promise to the Adivasis of the Hasdeo forests not to permit mining that would destroy the forest at a cost to the Adivasi’s prospects.

Adivasi people rally in October 2021, calling on the Congress chief minister to protect their lands from Adani coal mines. They continue to fight, despite the backflip by Congress.

‘In 2015, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi had visited Hasdeo Aranya to lend solidarity to the communities’ resistance against mining. He had assured thousands of Adivasis that he and the Congress party will ensure that no injustice is done to the local communities in the name of development, and their constitutional rights are duly protected. He had argued that mining cannot continue at the cost of destruction of thousands of hectares of rich forests and the lives and livelihoods of the Adivasis residing there. Unfortunately, once in power, two Congress chief ministers, Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, have [worked] to destroy the Hasdeo forests for the benefit … of the Adani [Group],’ the statement said.

‘The phase-2 mining of Parsa East Kente Basan marks another arbitrary and unjust decision in a project that has been laden with serious irregularities since its very inception,’ the statement said.

‘When it first secured forest clearance in 2012, it was based on ignoring vital environmental considerations and violation of provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The forest clearance was cancelled by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 on grounds of serious irregularities in the clearance process. This matter is currently sub-judice in the Supreme Court,’ the statement continued.

The National Green Tribunal, India's environmental court, overturned approvals for the PEKB mine, an order that was itself suspended by the Supreme Court.

The NGT’s order not only cancelled the forest clearance but also ordered all work at the project to be stopped. However, this was stayed by India’s Supreme Court in 2014, allowing the mining work to continue but not formally restoring the forest clearance. In addition, the statement pointed out, ‘in 2016, the Community Forest Rights title of Ghatbarra village was cancelled [by the district administration] in violation of the FRA [Forest Rights Act] provisions.’ Challenges to the cancellation of the community forest rights are still pending in court.

In addition, the statement pointed out, ‘the critical importance of conserving the Hasdeo Aranya region has been regularly highlighted by several official reports and documents. Only recently, the ICFRE [Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education] along with the WII [Wildlife Institute of India] – autonomous institutes under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change – had conducted a biodiversity-impact assessment that acknowledged the crucial ecological importance of the entire region. They had warned of unmitigable and irreversible adverse impacts of expansion of mining in the region. The WII had even warned that further approval of mining projects in the region was likely to increase human-wildlife conflict to such an extent that it would be impossible for the state to manage it.’

‘The Hasdeo Aranya region are the ‘lungs’ of Chhattisgarh and central India which assume critical importance in the current age where irreversible climate change threatens our very survival and... the destruction of ecologically sensitive and rich forests like Hasdeo Aranya is a suicidal step in India’s attempts to mitigate adverse environmental impacts’.

Expanded coal mining in the Hasdeo forests will exacerbate deadly human-wildlife conflicts. Image Wikipedia

The statement concluded with demands that the decision to approve phase-2 mining in the PEKB mine be revoked and that all mining activities in the Hasdeo Aranya region be immediately halted.

Is there a need for further coal mining?

Gehlaut told reporters in Raipur on 25 March, that an ‘unimaginable (power) crisis’ is looming in his state of Rajasthan, necessitating the expansion of the PEKB coal mine. The government claims that the first phase of the PEKB coal mine, which was to mine for coal for a period of fifteen years, has exhausted the coal reserves in the mined area within just eight years, necessitating the beginning of the second phase.

This argument is contested. Sudiep Shrivastava, a Chhattisgarh-based lawyer and activist who challenged the forest clearance granted to the PEKB project before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) – India’s top environmental court – pointed out in December 2021 that the math doesn’t add up on the claim that coal in PEKB’s first phase has run out.

He pointed out that the first phase of the PEKB mine had geological reserves of 536 million tons of coal, of which 452 million tons were minable. Out of this, the first phase held a reserve of 137 million minable tons, according to approvals granted to the first phase in 2012. Initially, the mining plan was for 10 million tonnes a year, from when the mine was operationalised in 2013, which was raised to 15 million tonnes a year in August 2018. Going by this, Shrivastava pointed out, around 90 million tons of coal should have been mined up to December 2021, with the remaining 47 million yet to be mined in the first phase.

The biodiverse Hasdeo forests, inhabited by wildlife and indigenous tribal people. An Adani-run coal mine will expand into the forests, despite a promise by senior Congress figures in 2015. Image Vijay Ramamurthy

An Indian Express report states that two mining plans submitted by the Adani company responsible for mining coal declared that 52.15 million tons are ‘blocked’ and cannot be mined. The blocked coal grew to 55 million tons by September 2020, the report added, when the Rajasthan government power company in a letter to the central government’s Environment Ministry declared that the ‘earlier reserve calculation... had missed some important safety factors.’ Due to all these reductions, the calculated minable reserve now stood at 82.01 million tonnes, of which, 80.39 million tons had already been mined, the report stated.

Alok Shukla, convenor of the CBA and who works closely with HABSS, was quoted in the same report as saying ‘almost 55 million tonne of coal is being termed as blocked coal by Adani. It is clear that there have been violations of the mining plan, as the plan was for 15 years, but the coal has been extracted in just eight. If RRVUNL knew about the miscalculation of coal reserve, why did it not raise a point earlier, even when they were increasing production capacity? In fact, in 2018, they said they would mine 15.65 MT from the blocked reserve as well. It is clearly a case of hoodwinking the authorities and the general public.’

The Adani-operated PEKB mine in the forested, inhabited landscape of the Hasdeo Aranya. Image Google

Another explanation for the reserve having run out prematurely is to be found in diversion of coal in the form of ‘rejects’. The term ‘rejects’ describes coal that has been mined but found to not be of sufficient quality for use in power generation and is thus sold to other users who are willing to accept a lower-grade product. Alok Putul, a Chhattisgarh-based correspondent for the BBC’s Hindi language service, pointed out that in just February and March 2021 alone, some 200,000 metric tonnes of coal termed ‘rejects’ had been sold by Adani to a Raipur-based company named Raipur Energen Limited, which, ironically, uses the ‘rejects’ for thermal power generation!

Shrivastava, terming the coal shortage a ‘hoax’, has called for an investigation to ‘unearth where [the] coal has gone.’

Adivasis’ campaign continues

In October 2021, the HABSS carried out a 300-kilometre-long march in which hundreds of Adivasi residents of the Hasdeo forest region marched for ten days to Raipur. At the state capital, they met with Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and the state’s governor Anusuiya Uikey to present their demands that no further mining be allowed in the region and that their legal and constitutional rights be upheld.

The Adivasi of the Hasdeo forests fight on - for them, it's a matter of survival. Image Vijay Ramamurthy

With no palpable change in the government’s attitude since then, last month the HABSS launched a fresh campaign of protests in the Hasdeo forest region. This fresh permission granted for coal mining ensures that the confrontation between government authorities, the Adani Group and tribal people in the Hasdeo forests can only intensify.

(In a forthcoming article, AdaniWatch will recount in detail the legal and constitutional of Adivasi communities that have been violated by government agencies and power-generation companies to allow coal mining in the Hasdeo forests.)