India Coal
Rahul Gandhi’s election pledge to support struggle against Adani’s Hasdeo coal projects
Feb 14, 2024
Prominent Indian Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, pledges support for Indigenous people battling to protect their ancestral forests from the Adani Group's proposed coal mines.

The campaign to protect India’s Hasdeo forests from coal mining received a boost on 13 February 2024 when prominent Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, met with leaders of the movement and pledged the support of his party. The indigenous tribal people of the biodiverse Hasdeo forests have been struggling gamely to protect their ancestral homeland from a string of coal projects being developed by the Adani Group. A change of state government in December had disastrous consequences, with dozens of campaigners detained by police while a swathe of forest was felled. Gandhi’s pledge to tackle Adani and stop the mines promises to become a major issue in the area during the forthcoming national elections.

On Tuesday, 13 February 2024, prominent Indian Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, met with campaigners battling to save India’s Hasdeo forests from a slew of coal mines being developed by the Adani Group.

Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, meets campaigners trying to save India's Hasdeo forests from the Adani Group's coal projects.

More specifically, he met with representatives of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS) or the Committee for the Struggle to Save Hasdeo Aranya. After a detailed discussion with HABSS’s co-convenor Umeshwar Singh Armo, Gandhi assured the delegation that the Congress stands with the Adivasis (tribals) of the Hasdeo forest and will include a commitment to declare the entire forest region a ‘no-go’ area for coal mining in its election manifesto for the upcoming general election.

Gandhi, who is currently on a march from east to west across the Indian sub-continent, met the delegation at Jajga village in the Sarguja district of northern Chhattisgarh, a 90-minute drive from the Adani-operated Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine in the Hasdeo forests, which supplies coal to power stations in the state of Rajasthan.

Part of India's Hasdeo forests, threatened by Adani's huge agenda for new coal mines. Image by Vijay Ramamurthy

In a public address shortly after the meeting, Gandhi called out Adani saying, ‘I saw a huge Adani office nearby here today. Even the road signs have Adani’s logo on them. Wherever you turn in the country – be it ports, airports, infrastructure, forests, seas, rivers – wherever there is wealth in the country, the government is handing it over to Adani’.

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This is the second time in just over a year that Gandhi has met Hasdeo campaigners, having met them during a similar march in December 2022 when he walked the country from south to north. His declarations of support for the struggle against coal mining in Hasdeo reiterate a similar pledge he made in 2015, when, then as Congress vice-president, he first visited the region.

Rahul Gandhi discusses the Hasdeo forests with campaigner Alok Shukla in December 2022 during his long march across India.

Congress on the offensive against tree felling in Hasdeo

At a press conference that followed in the nearby city of Ambikapur, Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said ‘after coming to power, the BJP state government has started felling trees… Congress will not stay silent on the Hasdeo issue. We will raise the issue from the Legislative Assembly to the streets.’

Charan Das Mahant, the Congress party’s Leader of the Opposition in the Chhattisgarh state assembly, said ‘the central government is working on the instructions of industrialists. We were struggling earlier also for water, forest and land. This fight will intensify after the arrival of Rahul Gandhi.’

Local tribal people resist the felling of part of the Hasdeo forests in 2022 for an Adani-developed coal mine.

A week earlier, on 7 February, 30 elected members of the legislative assembly of Chhattisgarh belonging to the Congress party stormed the well of the house, demanding a discussion on the felling of trees in Hasdeo that commenced immediately after the BJP won the state election in December 2023, defeating the Congress government that had ruled the state for five years.

They alleged that, even before the new BJP Chief Minister Vishnu Deo Sai took his oath of office, the government ordered the felling of over 15,000 trees to clear an area of 91 hectares for an extension to the Adani-operated mine. Recalling that the Assembly had adopted a resolution in July 2022 urging the central government to cancel all proposed coal mines in Hasdeo, the party’s legislators questioned the BJP’s haste in ordering destruction of the forest as soon as it came to power.

Congress’s frequent backflips on Hasdeo mining caused Adivasi anger

While a Congress-led coalition ruled India between 2004 and 2014, the entire Hasdeo forest region was classified as a ‘no-go’ area for coal mining. However, that policy was never finalised and the PEKB mine was opened in 2012. Campaigners from HABSS have demanded ever since that the policy of declaring areas ‘no-go’ for mining be finalised and protection afforded to Hasdeo.

An indigenous inhabitant of the Hasdeo forests overlooks the Adani-operated PEKB coal mine.  Image by Vijay Ramamurthy

A 2021 report submitted to the Chhattsigarh government by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and the Wildlife Institute of India – both government-run research organisations – had recommended the same, noting that the 170,000-ha contiguous forest was critical for the water resources of the region, as the catchment area for a significant reservoir, and as the home of multiple protected species of wildlife, including elephants.

While in power from 2018-2023, the Congress enacted some piecemeal measures to protect the forest, but did not meet HABSS’s core demand, to prevent any further mining in the forest beyond the existing first phase of the PEKB mine. It declared the Lemru Elephant Reserve in parts of the forest that covered 16 proposed mines. In addition, it wrote to the BJP-led central government of Narendra Modi seeking cancellation of the mining leases awarded for additional coal blocks in Hasdeo. It also passed a political resolution in the state’s legislative assembly with the same demand.

Elephants in central India - fragmentation of the Hasdeo forests by coal mining will exacerbate deadly human-elephant conflicts in the region. Image Wikipedia

However, the Congress suffered a heavy electoral defeat in Hasdeo in the December 2023 state election, losing every legislative assembly seat in the Adivasi majority region which had long been a bastion for the party. Its measures to protect Hasdeo had been perceived as insufficient and half-hearted by the residents of Hasdeo as reported by AdaniWatch previously, and it was seen as having failed to deliver on its promises to Adivasis.

The current round of tree felling is for the extension of the PEKB mine, which was approved in March 2022 after agreement was reached between the then Congress chief ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (both of whom lost their positions to the BJP in December 2023). In April 2022, the Congress state government approved the Parsa coal block for mining – which is adjacent to the PEKB mine, and also to be operated by the Adani Group for coal-power generation in Rajasthan – and commenced tree felling. After HABSS campaigners embarked on a tree-hugging protest, the clearing of the forest was halted. In November 2022, the state government wrote to the central government seeking cancellation of the proposed Parsa coal mine due to the ‘law and order problem’ caused by protesters in Hasdeo.

The sprawling PEKB coal mine, operated by an Adani Group company, has destroyed part of India's biodiverse Hasdeo forests.

Trees felled and protest ruthlessly crushed after BJP state victory

Alok Shukla, co-convenor of HABSS, spoke to AdaniWatch while returning to the state capital Raipur after meeting with Gandhi. He described how government authorities created a climate of terror for the residents of Hasdeo while felling trees in December 2023, immediately after the BJP’s election victory, illegally detaining HABSS campaigners to prevent protest.

‘On 21 and 22 December last year, trees were felled in one section of the planned PEKB mine extension,’ Shukla said. ‘While 15,000 trees have been felled on paper, the real number may be more than twice that.

‘The police created an atmosphere of terror in the villages of Hasdeo surrounding the mines for those three days. Members of HABSS were picked up from their homes between 3 and 4 am on 21 December. They were taken away in their night clothes and held for three days without any legal grounds.

‘The police effectively held all the villagers hostage and imposed an undeclared curfew. Stores didn’t open and people were even stopped from going to their fields. Normalcy was restored only after the forest area earmarked for bulldozing had been completely cleared, fenced and handed over to the miner – that is, Adani,’ Shukla recounted.

Alok Shukla, a determined campaigner for the Hasdeo forests.

‘I was on my way with a comrade to Hasdeo from my home in Raipur to express my solidarity with the residents of Hasdeo and fellow members of HABSS when my vehicle was stopped on the highway. We were detained by a few individuals in civilian clothes who claimed to be from the police but showed us no identification.

‘Somehow, we managed to make a phone call to our colleagues back home and that led to the issue being raised in the state assembly. After that they let us go. However, it is still unclear who they were – we were basically kidnapped by some goons acting on behalf of the pro-mining interests,’ Shukla added.

‘Mining has already commenced in the forest area that was cleared. However, the Adivasis of Hasdeo are worried that more areas will be cleared for the PEKB Extension. Over 400 hectares more have been given approval by the government for tree felling.

‘The current campaign by HABSS opposing extension of the PEKB mine and an adjacent coal block that has also been approved has been going on for over 700 days. Various actions, such as large public meetings and gatherings, are regularly taking place. The agitations will continue as long as the people of Hasdeo are facing displacement due to more areas being cleared for coal mining,’ Shukla concluded.

The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.