India Indigenous People
Interview with Chhattisgarh minister over coal blocks, elephant reserve
Nov 10, 2020
Chhattisgarh Health Minister, TS Singh Deo. Photo courtesy Business Star

Interview: Senior Chhattisgarh minister opposes Land Takeover by New Delhi for Adani Coal Mine in Hasdeo forests

‘We oppose any action that forestalls people from exercising their better judgement and tries to take their land away’

In this interview, Tribhuvneshwar Saran Singh Deo, a senior Congress leader in the state of Chhattisgarh and the state Health Minister, speaks on New Delhi’s move to take over land for a proposed coal mine to be operated by the Adani Group. The move may impinge on the Chhattisgarh government’s plan to create a large elephant reserve in the state, also discussed in this interview.

 

Correspondent: A few days ago, it was publicised in the newspapers that the Coal Ministry has started the process of land acquisition for the Kente Extension coal block. This notice was published in the Gazette of India in May, was finally publicised in the newspapers in October, after the 30 days of the period of placing objections had already passed. Was the government of Chhattisgarh aware of this government order prior to its publication recently?

TS Singh Deo: The Chhattisgarh government was not aware of this government order. Somebody sent me the notice that had apparently appeared in May, and had its origins in January I believe. I sent it to the district collector of Surguja, he looked into it in considerable depth and got back to me – neither them, that is the district collectorate, nor the panchayat department which would have called for gram sabhas, nor the mining department, nor any other department of the state government was aware of anything. They had not been made aware of anything by the central government. Apparently these notices have been circulated recently, but the administration is completely unaware of it.

Correspondent: What do you have to say about this?

TS Singh Deo: It is not acceptable. 

No matter which case it is, our stand has been consistent and common that whatever the people decide, we are with them. We have always advised people to come to a common decision. If half the villages are saying yes and half are saying no then it becomes difficult to intervene. 

While they are the owners of the land, when they are approached by these companies - even government companies - and they deal with them directly, then it becomes difficult. There have been many examples in my experience of past decades, when people have stood together and stood firm, they have been able to withstand the pressure of administration or otherwise. My stand has always been that it is for the villagers to decide themselves.

Now when it comes to Kente Extension area, one of the four villages – that is Kente village has been entirely relocated – the entire village has shifted, only the name is there in revenue records but there is no habitation there. About 24 hectares of personal land is going to be included, and the rest is forest land. In any case when it comes to environmental clearance you have to conduct a gram sabha. We let the villagers know that you don't have to worry about any untoward pressure, and we will stand with whatever decision you take. 

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Correspondent: The notification commencing land acquisition for Kente Extension has been issued under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957. Can all the processes under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, Forest Rights Act of 2006, and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 be bypassed by invoking the Coal Bearing Areas Act?

TS Singh Deo: I don't think they can get an environmental clearance without a gram sabha. While I haven't looked into the exact legal provisions, it can not be that because you have invoked the Coal Bearing Areas Act all other provisions and protections can be avoided. We oppose any action by the government that tries to forestall the people from exercising their better judgement and tries to take their land away. 

Correspondent: This area also comes under the proposed extension to the Lemru Elephant Reserve.

TS Singh Deo: The Lemru Elephant Reserve proposal is currently being decided on by the Chhattisgarh government. The Lemru proposal had been cleared for 450-square-km when the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government of Raman Singh was in power in Chhattisgarh and the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government led by the Congress party was in power in Delhi. The proposal had come from Chhattisgarh government and had been cleared by the UPA government at the centre, but then it was put on the backburner by the Raman Singh administration. This is something we had been consistently raising while we were in the opposition in the state, and it was a part of our manifesto. Recently the cabinet has passed a 1995-square-kilometre reserve. Now there is talk of expanding it further. One of the arguments that is being given for this is that water draining into the Hasdeo-Bango area, its catchment may be affected so some additional areas should be included in the reserve - apart from the requirement for the elephants.

Now, those villages that fall in that catchment are one story, and those that do not but are proposed to be included in the expansion are another story. On the agitated outreach from villagers I have taken the stand that those villages where there is no forest, there is no reason for revenue villages to be taken into the reserve, when they are on the periphery of the forest area especially. Some such villages have been agitating about this and they are not agreeable to have their villages included in the reserve. While the government is saying it is being processed under a particular provision of the Wildlife Protection Act, under which the villages will not be shifted, and the right to sell their land, or to collect minor forest-produce such as tendu leaves and so on will not be affected, but the villagers are wary that if today this is being said, tomorrow some other government may come and say something else. This has been an issue.

Our stand is that it is not only a question of coal blocks or an elephant reserve or for that matter any other initiative or project, it is about what the people have to say.

I am aware that some people are trying to build this narrative of Lemru vs coal blocks, and that I am siding with one or the other. There is no such thing. I am only standing with the villagers. 

Correspondent: If a united voice is raised by the residents of the villages included in the Kente Extension coal block, will the Chhattisgarh government support them and intervene in the land acquisition?

TS Singh Deo: One hundred percent, without any hesitation or doubt, the Chhattisgarh government is willing to take up the issue of the villages affected by the coal block in Kente Extension. As I said, one village has already indicated by a vast majority their unwillingness to have their land acquired. If we speak politically, this is not a village in which we get votes, it is actually dominated by the Gondwana Gantantra Party, so it not a matter of votes that we are getting out of it. If the people reach out to us, we will stand with them irrespective of party affiliation. In a democracy, when the people have the wisdom to elect governments, they certainly have the right to make these decisions about what they feel is best for them.

Correspondent: Have you alerted any of your colleagues in the Chhattisgarh cabinet relating to the land acquisition order that has come to light?

TS Singh Deo: I am in touch with Mohammed Akbar (the Forest Minister), and the Chief Minister as well who is also holding the Mines portfolio, regarding this particular issue. As far this new notice that has come, I have not been a part of any discussions yet. However, even before this, when the Central government had earmarked on an ad hoc basis coal blocks in Hasdeo for auction, then the Chhattisgarh government had resisted, and the minister concerned had visited the state and held consultations with the Chief Minister, and ultimately those blocks were dropped from the auction. Ultimately the will of the people must prevail.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

 

Background to the interview:

On 16 October, newspapers in Chhattisgarh published a government order issued by the Union Coal Ministry. The order notified the public that the Central Government was beginning the process of acquiring 1760 hectares of land in the Kente Extension coal block, located in Surguja district of Northern Chhattisgarh. Over 97 percent of the land sought to be acquired is classified as ‘protected forest land’.

Surprisingly, the notice that was publicised in mid-October had been issued by the central Coal Ministry on 11 May. A supplementary notice, issuing a corrigendum to the May 11 notice, had been issued on 7 September. While both notices had been published in the central government’s official Gazette of India and posted on its website, neither had been publicised in the media nor had the Chhattisgarh state government or the district administration or the local panchayats (village councils) in the affected area been informed. Crucially, while the Coal Ministry’s notice states that affected persons may lodge their objections to the land acquisition within thirty days of its issuance, the notice effectively became public more than four months after the thirty-day period had passed.

The Kente Extension coal block is allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) – a Rajasthan state government owned power generation company. Adani Enterprises Limited, the flagship company in the Adani Group of Companies, owned by India’s second richest man, Gautam Adani, has been contracted by RRVUNL to be the Mine Developer and Operator (MDO).

Meanwhile, on 5 October representatives of 39 villages in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh resolved at a gram sabha to oppose the state government’s plan to notify parts of the Hasdeo Aranya forest region as the Lemru Elephant Reserve. On 14 October, the district unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party submitted a representation to the district collector demanding that the villages be excluded from the proposed elephant reserve.

On 20 October Mohammed Akbar, the state’s Forest Minister of the ruling Congress party, was forced to intervene – stating that “there will be no displacement of villages or reduction in forest rights due to the establishment of Lemru Elephant Reserve.”

The political tussle has further delayed the notification of the proposed elephant reserve, that has been awaiting final approval for over a year since it was announced by the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in 2019. In June the Chhattisgarh government had announced that it was considering extending the area of the proposal from an earlier draft plan that had identified a 1995-square-kilometre region for the reserve. It is this expansion that is being opposed.

Crucially, the expansion would include a part of the 170,000-hectare Hasdeo Aranya forest that is part of the catchment area for the Hasdeo-Bango reservoir, which irrigates over 430,000 hectares of agricultural land in northern Chhattisgarh. However, the same region is also the site of the Hasdeo coal field, a massive coal deposit that has been divided into 18 coal blocks, of which two are already operational and a further four have been allocated and are awaiting clearances and land acquisition. This coal mining belt had been left out of the proposed map for the 1995-square-kilometre plan.

While the coal mines are all allocated to public sector government owned companies, including power generation companies owned by the states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Adani Enterprises Limited is the contractor chosen as the “Mine Developer and Operator” for one of the two operational mines – the Parsa East Kente Basan open-cast mine – and all four of the mining developments that are still in the pipeline – Kente Extension, Parsa East, Gidhmuri and Paturia.