Adani’s plans for huge new coal mines in India’s Hasdeo forests have created a political stoush involving three governments. One state government has asked the national government to revoke mining permits. Another wants the coal. And the national government says the decision to destroy the forests has already been made. In the midst of all this is Rahul Gandhi, one of India’s most prominent politicians. He has supported the cause of indigenous villagers who want the forests saved. But can he prevail in a messy political environment where his political opponents, and some of his party colleagues, are focussing on ‘energy security’?
The Adani Group has three current coal-mining projects in the Hasdeo forests of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The local Adivasi (indigenous) people have fought long and hard to protect their ancestral lands from these hugely destructive mines.
The Hasdeo forests encompass 18 major coal deposits in a landscape that is home to a diverse array of mammals (including elephants), fish, reptiles, birds and over 80 species of tree. Local people have tended these forests, including sacred groves of trees, for hundreds of years.
On 4 December 2022, a representative of the Committee to Save the Hasdeo Forests met the Indian politician Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress Party. He asked Gandhi to intervene and present the case of the Hasdeo Adaivasi to the government of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which is held by his Congress party, to stop the ongoing expansion of an Adani coal mine in the Hasdeo forests.
Gandhi is about halfway through leading his supporters on a 3500-kilometre five-month march across the length of India, named the Bharat Jodo Yatra or the March to Unite India. Alok Shukla, a co-convenor of the committee, told AdaniWatch that he joined the march for a day and had a brief meeting with Gandhi.
‘I told him that the Congress government in Chhattisgarh had resumed felling trees to expand the Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine, going back on a promise made by the state’s Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel a few months ago to halt the expansion process,’ Shukla said.
‘The residents of the Hasdeo forest region have been agitating against the tree-felling for months now, but we are not getting any response from the [state] government. I reminded Mr Gandhi that the state government has the authority to cancel the approvals granted to the expansion project and urged him to intervene with his colleagues in the Chhattisgarh unit of his party.’
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Chhattisgarh government’s failing balancing act
The state government of Chhattisgarh has been attempting to walk a tight rope over the past year on the issue of coal mining in the Hasdeo forests.
On the one hand, Baghel’s administration is facing pressure from the western state of Rajasthan (which is also ruled by a Congress party government), to expand the PEKB coal mine and allow two additional proposed mines to begin operations. These additional coal projects, Kente Extension and Parsa, are adjacent to the existing PEKB mine and would result in the razing of multiple villages of Adivasi and the surrounding forests.
All three mines are contracted to the Adani Group, and all three are to supply their coal to power stations in Rajasthan. The government of Rajasthan argues that it faces an acute coal shortage, and that coal supply from the PEKB coal mine (which the Adani company has been mining since 2013) is on the verge of running out, necessitating expanding this mine, and commencing operations at the two other proposed mines as well. In March this year, Baghel met with his counterpart from Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, and agreed to facilitate the expansions of coal mining.
On the other hand, Baghel’s administration has had to respond to the growing political challenge posed by a popular movement against coal mining in the Hasdeo forests. The resistance is spearheaded by the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS – the Committee to Save the Hasdeo Forest), which enjoys the support of sections of Baghel’s party and government.
Gandhi occupies no formal position in the party but is a member of its ‘first family’ – descendants of former Indian Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He first expressed his support for the Adivasi campaign against coal mining in 2015, when he was the vice-president of the party. Closer to home, the state government’s Health Minister, Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo, who is the elected representative from the Hasdeo region in the state’s assembly, is also a public supporter of HABSS and an opponent of the coal mines.
As a result of this political pressure, Baghel’s government recently took a step seemingly in support of the Adivasi demands. In early November, the state wrote a letter to India’s Union Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, urging it to withdraw a key approval granted to the proposed Parsa coal mine. The letter asked the ministry to cancel permission to divert forest land – known as a Forest Clearance – for the mine that will obliterate six villages. The letter argued there would be ‘disruptions in law and order’ by the protesting residents that would result if the work were to begin.
The movement, however, sees this as a stalling tactic by the state government.
‘The state government itself has the authority to withdraw its consent to the forest clearance,’ Shukla said. ‘Writing to the union ministry is a way to stall for time, while giving the appearance of doing something to support the movement. If the state government truly wanted to act, it could withdraw its consent any day, but it is passing the buck to the central government.
‘Further, the letter tries to blame the residents of Hasdeo and paint them as disruptors of law and order,' Shukla added.
'There have been no disruptions in law and order or any hint of violence from this movement for over a decade of active campaigning. The state government should be taking into account the potential displacement of Adivasi residents the proposed mines would cause, and the damage that it would do to the fragile ecosystem of the Hasdeo region.
‘These harmful effects have been identified by the government’s own research institutes. The state government should consider these as the basis for cancelling any additional mining in the region, including the PEKB expansion, and the proposed Kente mine as well,’ Shukla told AdaniWatch.
Repeatedly broken promises
In May 2022, Gandhi caused a political storm when he explicitly supported the Hasdeo protesters, terming their agitation ‘justified’. He said that he was ‘internally working within the party’ on the issue, and that ‘results… would be visible in a couple of weeks.’ These statements were made in response to a question by a British climate activist when Gandhi spoke at Cambridge University in the UK.
Following his comments, the state government told the press that all expansion work on the PEKB mine would be halted immediately, and that all three mines had been ‘put on hold.’
In September 2022, however, the state government went back on its word and began felling trees again for phase two of the PEKB mine, under police protection. Twelve HABSS campaigners were arrested on 28 September for opposing the new round of forest clearing. When the press asked about the assurances made in June, the authorities said that PEKB is ‘an old mine [for which] necessary clearances had already been granted’, contradicting the earlier assurances by the state that work on all three projects (Parsa, Kente Extension and PEKB phase two) had been put ‘on hold.’
HABSS then embarked on an indefinite protest, calling for all work to be stopped and clearances revoked.
What will Rahul Gandhi do?
‘Gandhi told me that he is keeping track of the developments and will raise the issue within the party,’ Shukla said.
Gandhi, however, faces political headwinds. The Congress party recently elected a new President, MP Mallikarjun Kharge; he took over from Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, who had been serving as interim President since 2019 when Rahul resigned from the office. Nevertheless, Rahul Gandhi remains the party’s national figurehead and chief campaigner.
Once his march across India is completed, the party’s attention will turn to state elections that are due in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (and three other states) next winter. This will follow a summer where India is once again likely to experience heatwaves (as has been the case repeatedly for several years now) with renewed public attention on power shortages. The opposition BJP in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is likely to campaign on power shortages in their efforts to win back power in the states that they lost to the Congress in the elections of December 2018.
In this political matrix, the window of opportunity for HABSS to prod the Congress into acting decisively may be just a few short months. The party may well be tempted to keep stalling and kick the ball down the road for the next governments in both states to handle.
Where will that leave the Adivasis of Hasdeo? They are planning to raise the pressure on the government to keep its promises.
‘Our movement will carry on until all clearances are revoked and mining leases cancelled. There can be no more mining in the Hasdeo forest,’ Shukla said.
‘We are organising a mass public gathering in the Hasdeo region that is planned over two days, starting on 15 December, to mobilise attention to our demands.’
The author is an independent journalist.