Coal India Indigenous People
Indian tribal community ‘not informed’ of Adani coal project that will turn their world upside down
May 09, 2023
The tiny forest village of Basi inhabited by tribal people in central India is near the edge of the destruction zone for a planned coal mine. Image Ayaskant Das

In the heart of a forest in the Singrauli district of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, tribal people live a traditional lifestyle. The forest provides the resources they need. Yet this landscape is about to be transformed by an immense coal mine developed by the Adani Group. The Dhirauli coal block was awarded to an Adani company in November 2020. It will obliterate villages, farmlands, forests and tribal lands. When Ayaskant Das entered these forests in April 2023 to investigate the mine’s likely impacts for AdaniWatch, he made the shocking discovery that many of the tribal inhabitants of the forest had not been told about the mine that will turn their world upside down. Mandatory public hearings about the mine’s social and environmental impacts were held in 2021 and 2022 – but no one told these forest people.

Singrauli: On an unusually hot April afternoon, the household of Lanka Baiga is filled with a cacophony of laughter. Three toddlers play with domesticated animals – dogs, goats, hens – in the courtyard, their bodies grubby and their hair unkempt. Fenced with tree trunks, the simple mud-walled house with a tiled roof lies deep within the forests of central India.

A dwelling deep within the forest - a giant coal pit is proposed by Adani for near here. Image Ayaskant Das

The children’s mother has gone out to the forests to pick flowers of the mahua tree, which are used to brew a heady alcoholic liquor. The kids stare at us in awe and stupefaction, having never met outsiders before. They rush inside the house to inform their father, Lanka (29), about the arrival of strangers.

The children living in this remote part of the forest were astonished to see outsiders. Image Ayaskant Das

We talk with Lanka about the forests and the coal mine proposed for near where we are standing. When questioned, Lanka, whose ancestors have conserved these forests for generations, tells me he has never heard about the coal project, despite its proximity to his house, and despite the fact that it will obliterate forests on which his family depends for their very survival.

‘This is the first I’ve heard about a mining project in our forests,’ he says. ‘We have never been consulted or informed about it. Nor has anyone surveyed our households. We are entirely dependent on the forest and its resources for our livelihood. What will happen to our lives if the forest is razed?’

Lanka Baiga with some of his children outside the family's forest home in Singrauli district, Madhya Pradesh. Image Ayaskant Das

The Dhirauli coal block, in Singrauli district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, with estimated mineral reserves of 586 million tonnes and spread across 2672 hectares, was awarded to Adani Group subsidiary Stratatech Mineral Resources Private Limited in November 2020. At least eight villages will be severely impacted by the Dhirauli coal mining project, including some very close to the formerly isolated hamlet where Lanka and his family live. Immediately adjacent to the Dhiarauli coal-mining project is the Suliyari coal project, whose development is further advanced. Between the two of them, these two coal mines will transform the only world that thousands of farmers and indigenous tribal people have ever known.

A map showing two of the villages affected by Adani's Dhirauli coal-mining project.

Lanka’s household is amongst two dozen in a forest clearing in Basi hamlet, about two kilometres from the southern edge of the Dhirauli block. They belong to the Baiga tribal community. As the Baigas are characterised by the practice of primitive agricultural techniques, very low literacy levels and negligible population growth, the community has been identified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) by the government in Madhya Pradesh. However, due to some administrative anomaly, the Baigas in Singrauli have not been given this categorization. This makes them even more vulnerable, particularly given that, beneath their forest homes, are large deposits of coal.

‘We do not have any formal ownership over land in the forests even though we have traditionally lived here for generations,’ added Lanka. ‘Our entire sustenance comes from the forests. The government has never granted us formal rights over the forest and its resources. We have never been told what alternative sources of livelihood will be provided if the forests are taken away from us for a coal mine.’

Lanka has six children, four of them girls. They have never seen the inside of a school. The nearest school is in a hamlet called Berdah which can be reached only by walking for kilometres through the forests. Basi and Berdah are located on top of a hill that apparently contains most of the coal in the Dhirauli block.

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Earlier that morning, I had begun my journey to Basi accompanied by two locals who chose to remain anonymous for this report. We began our journey in the small marketplace of Jhalari, a village which is about to be carved up for the Dhirauli and Suliyari coal projects. A smooth stretch of road leads up the hill from the marketplace. We drive along this road passing through the villages of Amraikhoh and Aamdand whose lands are also being taken over for the Dhirauli coal mine.

Newly constructed houses that line both sides of the Jhalari road have been surveyed and numbered. I am told these buildings, which stand out prominently because of their fresh coats of white paint, were constructed not as dwellings, but in order to get compensation when the land is finally taken over for the mine.

‘It is a robust business here. Local people connive with outsiders and government officials to construct houses in mining-lease areas as soon as any project is announced. The compensation received is shared amongst people who invest in building these houses. It is a well-organized racket,’ one of my companions tells me.

The Jhalari road, which leads to the hilltop upon which the tribal-dominated hamlets of Basi and Berdah are located, has been constructed recently with public funds from a central government scheme designed to connect rural areas. The concrete-asphalt road is spick and span and cuts through hard rock on the hillside.

The new road, carved through fields and forests at public expense after Adani took on the Dhirauli coal-mining project. Image Ayaskant Das

‘Until recently, there was no road here,’ says my companion. ‘Access to these hamlets was only by walking up the steep hill through the forest. The road was built when the Dhirauli mining project was announced. It has certainly helped mineral prospecting operations even though it may not be of much help to tribal people who are set to be displaced’.

Basi and Berdah are two separate hamlets which, my sources tell me, are generally regarded as a single village by the revenue department of Madhya Pradesh. Berdah, which we reach first, is in a clearing on the top of the hill. Under the hot afternoon sun, the hamlet resembles a ghost town as we drive along the newly constructed road that snakes through clusters of equally newly constructed houses. There are no signs of human life. The only sounds in Berdah are the chirping of birds and the heavy buzz of overhead transmission lines taking electricity from the power plants of Singrauli to different parts of the country. From a vantage point, one can see hundreds of newly constructed houses.

Newly built houses near Basi Berdah. Image Ayaskant Das

When the concrete-asphalt road terminates, we continue driving along a dirt track towards the village of Basi. Soon, we notice a group of people resting under the shade of a mahua tree. Tired and haggard after several hours of collecting mahua flowers under the harsh sun, the men, women and children take turns to sip water from a plastic jerrycan. They tell us they belong to the Gond tribal community – categorized as a Scheduled Tribe by the Indian government owing to its social disadvantages – from Berdah village.

‘In a good summer season, we collect around 800 to 1000 kilograms of mahua flowers,’ says Umer Singh (37), one of the Gond men. ‘We sell the dried flowers in the market at about Rs 30 ($US 0.30) a kilogram.’

The group of Gond people, resting after harvesting Mahua flowers, did not know that Adani's Dhirauli coal mine would devastate the nearby environment. Image Ayaskant Das

Other minor forest products sold for reasonable returns in the markets include medicinal herbs, seeds, firewood, and the leaves and fruit of the tendu (East Indian Ebony) tree. The leaves of the tendu tree are used to roll tobacco in the manufacture of bidis, a form of traditional Indian cigar. The local administration regularly conducts auctions for buying tendu leaves from tribal communities in the forests of this region.

The mention of the upcoming Dhirauli coal mining project in Berdah draws a complete blank from this group of Gond folk. They have no knowledge of the project.

The Indian government guarantees rights over forest land and resources to tribal communities and other forest dwellers under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (‘the Forest Rights Act’). However, Biffaiya (55), one of the women in the group, said none of the Gond households in Berdah have had their forest rights recognised under this Act. Nor have they been consulted about the proposed Dhirauli coal mine.

‘We never had formal ownership of the land in the first place,’ she says. ‘Our families have been living in dwellings in the forests since time immemorial. We are a community that lives mostly by gathering forest produce.

‘Certain tribal families in Berdah have been allotted land-ownership deeds within the forests. But these deeds have been obtained after greasing the palms of officials,’ she alleges.

The group forbids us from driving our car any further along the dirt track when we ask for directions to Basi hamlet. They say the track becomes impassable. A few metres away, we park our car near the rocky bed of a stream that has run dry. My companions and I venture into the forests on foot in search of the Baiga households of the village of Basi. A hyena crosses the footpath leading into the forest as we begin our journey.

The terrain is undulating and littered with pebbles and dry leaves. Image Ayaskant Das

The terrain is undulating and littered with pebbles and dry leaves. The forest becomes denser. Hundreds of thousands of trees – Sal (Shorea robusta) and Chironji (Cuddapah Almond) – are interspersed with tendu and mahua. My companions rattle off the names of many other local trees and the curious nature of associated fruits and flowers. We negotiate several small hillocks and creeks that have run dry. The dry stream beds contain rocky crevices ideally suited for wild carnivorous animals to rest after heavy meals. Mobile connectivity on our phones has long since vanished.

After walking for more than an hour, the path suddenly vanishes. My companions strongly recommend that we head through the leaf litter in a southwesterly direction, supposedly towards Basi. However, after another hour, we get nowhere. We continue walking, taking short breaks, hoping to catch sight of a human being. We meticulously place our feet upon footholds etched into the sides of crags, lest we slide down the steep slopes. These footmarks upon the rocky terrain, my sources tell me, have developed over centuries through continuous use by forest-dwelling people. These etches are testament to these tribes’ stamp of authority over the forests.

Part of the rocky terrain negotiated to reach the tiny hamlet of Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

Traditional ownership of forest resources by tribal communities has been acknowledged by the government’s forest department. We notice many mahua trees with numbers etched upon their trunks. Back in Waidhan, the district headquarters of Singrauli, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Madhu V Raj, would tell me that these mahua trees have been numbered and allocated to different local forest-dwelling communities for the purpose of safeguarding the forest from fire.

The numbers on the trees identify the tribal group to which the tree has been allocated for its protection. Image Ayaskant Das

‘For the ease of collecting mahua flowers, local communities generally clear the area around the base of a tree by burning the leaf litter,’ Raj explained. ‘In the past there have been several instances of forest fires spreading from fires around mahua trees. Communities have been assigned to keep watch on these numbered trees. If a fire spreads into the forest from a particular tree, the group assigned to that tree will be held responsible’.

After walking for another half an hour, we decide to turn back in order to reach our car before dusk. But we have lost our way. As we rest upon a mound of earth in the cool shade of a tree, we notice vague signs of human movement in the distance. We quickly walk in that direction yelling at the tops of our voices. Two men busily collecting mahua flowers identify themselves as Manish Gond (30) and Babbu Gond (18) and agree to lead us to Basi after much cajoling.

This pair of Gond forest men led the way to the remote hamlet of Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

The Baiga households in Basi hamlet are not settled in clusters. The dwellings are isolated from each other within separate forest clearings. The first dwelling we find is located on the slope of a small hillock. This is the household of Lanka Baiga. A small nearby rivulet called Basi is the only source of potable water for all households of the hamlet. Most other Baiga households are situated on the other side of the Basi rivulet.

Basi rivulet - the main source of water for the people of the forest hamlet of Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

My companions tell me Lanka’s family could be an isolated instance where officials missed a particular household during the public-consultation process about the proposed coal mine. Two rounds of consultation have already been completed. We therefore decide to cross-check with households located across the rivulet.

We walk through water that has been virtually reduced almost to a trickle by the dry conditions of summer. We find terraces cut out along the slopes of the riverbank for step farming. These fields are irrigated by water from Basi rivulet. Baiga households in Basi hamlet use water from this rivulet for drinking, washing clothes and bathing. They also use the creek to water and wash their livestock. The Baiga families of Basi practice open defecation and not a single household could boast a latrine.

The small stream of Basi must suffice for all needs - drinking, cooking, washing and tending to livestock such as these buffalo. Image Ayaskant Das

‘The government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan [a pet scheme of the Narendra Modi’s government, which literally translates to Clean India Mission and aims at eradicating open defecation] is merely a chimaera in this village,’ said Amar Baiga (27), who lives in a dwelling above the slope of the Basi rivulet.

‘The only luxury we have in Basi are solar panels that were provided by the government to each Baiga household a few years ago. With these panels, we manage to get a few hours of electricity in the evenings. Prior to that, we used to live in complete darkness after nightfall.’

Terraced cultivation near the hamlet of Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

Amar is having lunch with his wife Sumitra (24) and their one-year-old son on the verandah of his house when we meet him. Food comprises rice, a watery lentil dish, stir-fried drumsticks and raw onions. He too said that his family has never been provided with ownership rights over land and forest as has been guaranteed under the Forests Rights Act.

Amar Baiga was lunching with his wide and one-year-old son on the porch of their forest home in Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

‘We have heard during our interactions with people in Berdah that a certain mining project is about to commence in this region. But no official or representative of any company has ever discussed this with us. None of the youth in Basi are educated. We cannot take up jobs if our forest is taken away,’ Amar told me.

A few feet away from Amar’s courtyard is the traditional temple of the Baiga families where they worship primitive deities under a Peepul (Sacred Fig) tree. Beyond the temple are a small farm and dwelling belonging to Sukhlal Baiga (55), an elderly man amongst the tribal community of Basi. Sukhlal ushers us into the courtyard that is strewn with mahua flowers laid out to dry in the sun. Goats, hens and dogs move about freely in the courtyard amongst the children of his household. Bows and arrows are lined up on the verandah of the inner courtyard. Strangely, the intoxicating aroma that is associated with mahua flowers is absent in this part of the world.

The home of Sukhlal Baiga (55), at right. Image Ayaskant Das

‘None of the two dozen Baiga households in Basi has been consulted about takeover of forest land for the new coal mining project,’ said Sukhlal Baiga.

‘It is true that Baiga families live segregated from the outside world. Our traditional rights over forest lands have not been formally recognised. But we have ration cards, Aadhar biometric cards and electoral photo identity cards. We cast votes in elections.’

Each Baiga household has a tale of deprivation to share. All households we interviewed claimed to have no knowledge whatsoever about the new coal-mining project and whether their forests will be razed for it. They were extraordinarily shy and reluctant to interact with us. Their status has shown little upward mobility from the status of hunter-gatherers with which they were labelled in studies by British scholars and officials in colonial India almost 200 years ago (page 1).

Produce lies drying in the sun in the courtyard of a home in Basi. Image Ayaskant Das

The community has been identified as one of three Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) by the government in Madhya Pradesh (page 16). However, strangely, they have not been accorded PVTG status in Singrauli district. As a result, the Baigas in Basi are deprived of the social welfare schemes of the government for the welfare of PVTGs. In the Union Budget of 2023-24 presented in India’s Parliament on 1 February 2023, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a welfare mission (see paragraph 37 of Budget speech) for PVTGs in India with an initial fund of Rs 15,000 crore (US $1.8 billion). The Baiga households of Basi will get no benefit from this scheme.

Undoubtedly, more social disadvantage is in store for the Baiga families of Basi once the huge parcel of forest is taken over for the Dhirauli coal mine. The government has identified dozens of coal blocks in Singrauli. More forests are set to be flattened.

At the district headquarters in Waidhan town, a senior official of the tribal welfare department tells me that there are no records available to explain why the Baiga community in Singrauli district was never recommended for PVTG status. The official boasts about Madhya Pradesh’s initiatives in settling forest rights of tribal communities.

‘It might be possible that certain families in Basi have been left out of the forest-rights settlement process,’ he said. ‘But if they are eligible they can always forward applications to the district administration.

‘The record of Singrauli district in settling claims of individual and community rights over forest land, in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, is commendable. More than 9000 individual rights have been granted. As many as 829 community rights have also been granted. Settlement of forest rights is a continuous process with applications being filed and screened almost daily.

‘The Madhya Pradesh government has even launched a web portal and mobile application for settlement of forest rights. The Baiga families that have been left out can apply through the web portal as well,’ the official tells me.

Incidentally, the app-cum-web portal, the Van Mitra, is the subject of litigation in the Madhya Pradesh high court where a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been filed challenging its very constitutionality.

The Singrauli coalfield, in which the Dhirauli is located, is spread over more than 2200 square kilometers in central India and contains some of the richest deposits of coal in the country. The coalfields have drawn many coal-power plants to the Singrauli and Sonbhadra districts, straddling the boundary between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Singrauli has earned the sobriquet of the ‘energy capital’ of India.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has even vowed to transform Singrauli into a new ‘Singapore’, notwithstanding the terrible environmental consequences that have resulted from the area’s coal-power plants. A part of Singrauli district has been categorised as a ‘critically polluted area’ by the Indian government.

From the Dhirauli coal block, Adani’s subsidiary will be free to sell coal to whomever offers it the best price, without any end-use restrictions, as per the new policies of the Indian government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Contiguous with the Dhirauli block is another large coal project. The Suliyari coal mine is operated and managed by the Adani Group on behalf of the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation. Most of the villages in the immediate area have been impacted in one way or another by the takeover of land for those two huge coal mines. The Adani Group has proposed to clear trees and vegetation from 1436 ha of forests that have been inhabited and conserved by indigenous tribal communities for generations. So far, the Adani Group has not received permission from the government to clear this forest land. It has not been able to procure an equivalent parcel of land for the purpose of compensatory afforestation, as required under Indian law, in lieu of the forests that it has proposed to flatten for the Dhirauli project.

Land for the Adani Group’s Dhirauli mining project is being acquired under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (‘the LARR Act’). In accordance with the provisions of this Act, public hearings for social-impact assessment of the Dhirauli coal mining project were completed from 11-13 November 2021, even though administration officials say that tribal families left out during the survey can file their objections later. Another public hearing for five of the eight affected villages, which was conducted on 15 September 2022 for discussing the resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected families, witnessed strong protests by local communities.

In November 2022, the district administration published the final list of the owners of land and properties in Basi Berdah that will be taken over for the Dhirauli coal mining project. As many as 1278 khasras (records of private land including crop grown, properties, etc) have been identified in this list. The document claims that no objections in writing were received from local communities against the mining project following the publication of the preliminary list of khasras earlier. In accordance with Section 15 of the LARR Act, local communities are granted a period of 60 days, following the publication of the preliminary list, to submit objections in writing. The final list of khasras to be acquired has also been issued for four other villages, that is, Aamdand, Amraikhoh, Belwar and Sirswah. In each case, the administration has claimed that no objections were received within the 60 days. Officials told me a parcel of land has been identified near the Gajrabahara railway station in Singrauli for resettlement and rehabilitation of families displaced by the Dhirauli coal mining project.

The mandatory public hearing for the Environment Impact Assessment of the Dhirauli mining project occurred on 4 May 2022. Its terms of reference were issued by the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the ministry’). At that time, the proposal did not envisage diversion of the Hurdul Nalla, a major stream of the region, for the Dhirauli coal mining project. Work is already underway to divert a major section of this stream away from the Suliyari coal-mining lease by constructing an artificial canal. The permission to divert Hurdul Nalla yet again for the Dhirauli project was included in the terms of reference only in December 2022, more than six months after the public hearing, whose purpose is to consider this kind of impact, was completed. The eight-page executive summary of the EIA report of the Dhirauli project does not mention the Basi rivulet even though it is the only source of water for Baiga households. The application submitted by the Adani company seeking environmental approval also makes no mention of the potential impacts of large-scale open-cast mining upon the only source of potable water for the Baiga households.

Sources in the government told me that plans are underway by the Adani Group to increase the proportion of underground mining in the Dhirauli project in order to avoid the contentious problems of land acquisition, deforestation and resettlement. From Waidhan, I travel to Deosar town of Singrauli, around 50 km away, to meet a sub-divisional magistrate, Vikash Singh, who holds jurisdiction over the area in which the Suliyari and Dhirauli coal blocks are located.

‘If any project-affected family, including those belonging to tribal communities, claims to have been left out of the survey process, they can contact the district administration for inclusion. We have undertaken all necessary due diligence in acquiring land for the project. We have even video-graphed all proceedings of land acquisition, including public hearings, as evidence,’ Singh told me.