Interview by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, translated into English by Abir Dasgupta
This interview deals with Adani’s coal-mining and iron-ore mining operations in the Hasdeo Aranya forests of India. The Chief Minister of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh is interviewed by investigative journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. They discuss the state government’s responses to claims that local approval for one of the mines had been forged, the secrecy surrounding contracts with Adani and the government’s proposed elephant reserve.
Bhupesh Baghel has been Chief Minister for 18 months. His Congress party government replaced that of the Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2018, having made commitments to stand up to corporations such as the Adani Group. A sub-titled version of the interview is here:
The full interview was first published by NewsClick – see the link below. The section pertaining to Adani and the Hasdeo Arannya forests starts at 17:27.
17:27 Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (PGT): Before the elections [in December 2019] you had said you are afraid of no one. You once tweeted, “no matter how big someone is, even if it is Adani, rules would no longer be bent.” You have alleged that recent raids by central government authorities on bureaucrats in your government are a “political vendetta” since you have initiated investigations into past decisions. Could you elaborate?
18:14 Bhupesh Baghel (BB): As far as Adani is concerned or anyone else is concerned, all industrialists are welcome, however, no help will be given to them by the government by flouting rules. For example, we found discrepancies in the case of iron ore mines in Dantewada – owned by a joint venture between CMDC (Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation) and NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation). The Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) is an Adani group company. In that case, the local residents had alleged that their consent by means of the gram sabha (village meeting) had been forged. My government considered the various demands raised by the people and accepted them. We committed that there would be no steps taken towards opening the mine, no cutting of trees and that we would investigate the consent of the local residents obtained through the gram sabha.
The report of the district collector that was prepared after investigation showed that no meeting of the actual gram sabha had taken place, and a falsified report had been prepared, and the “consent” acquired was a forgery. On that basis, we raised a show-cause notice to NMDC. They had requested one month’s time to respond, that we granted. They have requested an extension due to the ongoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its a matter of natural justice, how can anyone answer during the lockdown? So we have granted the extension. However, NMDC will have to answer, notices sent by two departments of the government.
I bring this up to clarify that the law will prevail, whoever is the industrialist concerned.
20:20 PGT: So you are confirming that the investigation into the forged 'consent' will lead to strong action?
20:27 BB: The report of the gram sabha has been found to be falsified, it is on that basis that we issued notice to the company.
20:36 PGT: Now let us come to cases involving the Chhattisgarh Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (Chhattisgarh State Power Generation Company Limited [CSPGCL]). One is the Gare-Pelma III coal block (in the Raigarh district) where an Adani group company is the MDO. You had opposed the award of the contract when in opposition (the MDO contract was awarded in 2017). You had demanded that the MDO contract be made public. In 2019, the Chhattisgarh Information Commissioner ordered that the contract must be made public. However, now the CSPGCL has gone to the Chhattisgarh High Court and obtained a stay order on the information commissioners order, and not yet made the contract public. Doesn’t this go against your own stated position?
21:38 BB: See, I don’t know the terms of the MDO. CSPGCL is an autonomous organisation. It has its own chairman and its own rules. It must have taken this action following its own rules. I can enquire if this is the case. However, my personal stand is that unless there is some condition in the terms of the contract preventing it, it must be made public. We will have to see if there is such a condition. This contract is not from my time (as Chief Minister).
22:42 PGT: Sir, before the election you yourself had said such MDOs should be made public. But the state government company under you has obtained an order from the High Court ensuring it doesn’t have to release the MDO?
22:58 BB: This is the first I am hearing of this. You are giving me new information. I can look into it. But you must keep in mind, the coal block has been allotted to CSPGCL, not to the state government. The company is responsible for conducting the mining operations. It is the company that has signed the agreement with the MDO and put it in place. I have no information about that and cannot speak on it in such detail. This took place under the previous government and the previous chairman of the company.
23:38 PGT: There is another similar instance in the Hasdeo forest. The Gidhmuri and Paturia blocks are allotted to the CSPGCL, and the Adani group were granted the MDO contracts in 2019 after you came to power. Here too, your statement before the election would require that the MDO contracts be made public. They have not been. Now, there are rumours that you are under pressure to ensure the contracts don’t have to be made public. Is there any truth to this? Rahul Gandhi, your party president had once described the BJP government as “Adani and Ambani’s government.” These big industrialists are running projects in your state. Shouldn’t there be full transparency?
24:37 BB: I agree fully. But once again I repeat, these allotments of mines [coal blocks] have not been made to the state government. The Chhattisgarh Power Generation Company has been allotted the mines and has signed these agreements. The process of signing MDO contracts has been going on since the previous government. My personal stand is that they must be made public. What I can tell you is that, in this case, no steps have taken place towards mining of the block yet. Whenever it does occur, it will be in accordance with the law.
25:15 PGT: Another case involving the Adani group is in Raigarh district. Here the coal block is allotted to the Maharashtra Power Generation Company and an Adani group company is the MDO. Would you demand this contract be made public as well?
25:27 BB: Absolutely, but here it is a Maharashtra company that has signed the contract. It is out of the Chhattisgarh government’s hands. Even the process of acquiring the people’s consent through the Gram Sabhas and holding of public hearings, it is the Maharashtra state government company that has to conduct it. But since the project is in our state, what I can assure you is that all processes that take place we will ensure full transparency.
25:58 PGT: In the Hasdeo Aranya region, the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti demanded that the terms of the Forest Rights Act must apply, and their rights respected. Will you listen to them?
26:14 BB: Of course we will listen to them. In the Hasdeo matter, we have to see whether the Coal Bearing Areas Act will apply or the Forest Rights Act will apply. The two acts are contradictory. It is important to see which act’s terms will apply.
26:33 PGT: How about the Lemru Elephant Reserve that your government had proposed? When can we expect it to be notified?
26:41 BB: The previous (BJP) government had proposed only 400 square kilometres for the elephant reserve. My government has expanded this to 1950 square kilometres for the elephant reserve. This is the biggest in the world.