Former Congress party president Rahul Gandhi has taken on the state governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – the only two states in India ruled by the political party to which he belongs – over a decision to allow coal mines to destroy large parts of the Hasdeo forests. The two mines have been given the green light despite opposition from indigenous tribes. Gandhi says he has a 'problem' with the mines, that the protests are 'justified', and that results of his work on the issue within the Congress should be 'visible in a couple of weeks'.
On 23 May 2022, Rahul Gandhi said that he ‘has a problem’ with his own party’s decision to expand coal mining operations in the Hasdeo Aranya forests while responding to a query during an address to students at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He termed the ongoing protests by Adivasi residents of Hasdeo ‘justified’ and said that he does not defend the decision of the Congress governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan that will lead to expansion of coal mining into adjacent forests. Gandhi added that he is ‘internally working within the party’ on the issue and that ‘results will be visible in a couple of weeks.’
In March this year the Chhattisgarh government approved the expansion of the Parsa East Kente Basen (PEKB) coal mine in the densely forested Hasdeo Aranya following a meeting between the chief ministers of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. This was reported by AdaniWatch.
The two chief ministers, Bhupesh Singh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, met in Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur. In April, final government clearances came through to begin mining another Hasdeo coal block, the Parsa block, adjacent to the PEKB mine. The mining licences are owned by a power-generation company owned by the Rajasthan government. It has contracted an Adani Group company as the Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) for both operations. The Group’s founder, Gautam Adani, is the richest man in Asia, the fifth richest in the world, and is close to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi, who was the president of the Congress until 2019, is a member of the party’s top executive body – the Congress Working Committee – and is still among its most important politicians. He made his remarks in response to a question raised by an activist of the Cambridge chapter of Extinction Rebellion Youth, an environmental campaign group. He had been asked why the Congress had reneged on his promise of prohibiting coal mining in Hasdeo Aranya after being elected to power in Chhattisgarh. A video recording of the exchange was released on Twitter by the group.
Gandhi’s commitment to the cause of the rights of local communities in Hasdeo Aranya in Chhattisgarh, and his criticisms of the Adani Group, are reminiscent of his younger days when he took on the might of another powerful conglomerate, Vedanta Group, to stand up for tribal rights in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. The Vedanta Group is owned by billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal. In 2010, Gandhi took the side of the Dongria Kondh tribal community in Odisha that was seeking to protect the Niyamgiri Hills, a mountain range that the community holds as sacred, from a Vedanta bauxite mine.
While speaking at a rally in Lanjigarh, near the Vedanta project site, Gandhi told the tribal community to think of him as their ‘soldier in Delhi.’ In 2013, Vedanta had to beat a hasty retreat from the project after stiff opposition from the Dongria Kondh community through their village councils.
At that time, the Congress was heading a coalition government in New Delhi, and the Odisha state government that Gandhi had taken on was held by a regional party outside the Congress-led coalition. This time, however, the odds seem stacked against Gandhi who has taken a stance opposed to that of state governments that are led by his own political party. His party is out of power in New Delhi.
By numbers, the Congress is the largest political party in India that opposes Modi’s right-wing, Hindu-nationalist BJP that has been in power since 2014. The Congress holds the state governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan (two out of a total of 31) and is also a part of ruling coalitions in three other states – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. It leads the opposition to the BJP in India’s national Parliament. By contrast, aside from enjoying a large majority in Parliament, the BJP holds 12 state governments and is a part of the ruling coalition in six more states.
The Hasdeo forest, often described as the ‘lungs of Chhattisgarh,’ occupy approximately 170,000 hectares. The forest sits atop a coalfield with estimated reserves of five billion tonnes of coal and is divided into over 20 coal blocks. The first coal mine in the region, the PEKB mine, has been operational since 2013. An Adani Group company has been mining coal and selling it to the Rajasthan government-owned power generation company.
Over the past decade, the Adivasi residents of the region have mounted an organised campaign against any further coal mining beyond the existing PEKB mine. They demand that all remaining mining licences for coal blocks in the Hasdeo forest be cancelled.
Before coming to power in the state in December 2018, the Congress in Chhattisgarh had supported the Adivasi protest against further mining in the Hasdeo forest. In 2015, Rahul Gandhi, then the party vice-president, had visited the headquarters of the Adivasi protest movement in the village of Madanpur and said that ‘the Congress party and I stand with you.’
He assured them then that his party would ensure that the Adivasis’ land would not be taken away without their consent if elected to power. In May 2018, the then leader of the opposition in the state, Baghel also criticised the appointment of the Adani group as the MDO for three coal mines in Hasdeo – describing it as ‘handing over’ the coal mines to the group by the ‘back door.’
The decisions to allow the expansion of the PEKB coal mine and to allow mining in the Parsa coal block constituted a back-flip by the party. The somersault in the Congress party’s position was justified on the claim that there is a looming power shortage in the state of Rajasthan because of a shortage of coal from the existing PEKB mine. Activists have called these claims dubious and challenged them on numerous grounds, as detailed in an earlier report published in Adani Watch.
Other Congress politicians, such as the state’s Health Minister Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo, have maintained their opposition to coal mining in Hasdeo even after the party came to power in the state. Deo has reiterated his opposition, including in an interview with Adani Watch. Gandhi had refrained from publicly commenting on the subject after his 2015 ‘assurance’ – that is, until 23 May. Even after a group of Adivasi protesters and activists met him in October 2021 to discuss the issue of coal mining in Hasdeo, during a 300km ‘long-march’ to the capital city of Chhattisgarh, Gandhi did not make any public comments. Therefore his comments at Cambridge assume particular significance.
A member of the Congress party’s ‘first’ family, whose great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and father (Rajiv Gandhi) have all served as India’s Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi is seen by some as the de-facto leader of the Congress despite currently holding no official position in the party. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, has been the interim party president since Rahul stepped down from the position in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi led the party’s campaigns during the the national elections that were held in 2014 and 2019, both of which the Congress lost to Modi’s BJP. While many (within and outside the Congress party) want Gandhi not to hold a leadership position – to counter Modi’s frequent jibes that India does not need to be ruled by a family – he is nevertheless expected to play an active role in his party and its election campaigns in the coming months and years. (Several state elections are scheduled to take place before the next general elections are conducted in 2024.)
Gandhi’s remarks in Cambridge came barely a week after Baghel defended his government’s decision to grant clearances for the PEKB mine to be extended into a second phase and for the Parsa coal block to be opened for mining. After these decisions announced, the agitation among the Adivasis has intensified – protesters have been putting their bodies on the line in a reprisal of the ‘Chipko’ (tree-hugging) movement that was prominent in India during the 1970s. They continue to agitate to prevent tree-felling and the clearing of forests for the extension of the PEKB mine and the opening of the Parsa mine. These protests have seen solidarity actions across the world, with protests having taken place in London, Milan, Sydney, Brisbane, Porto Alegre, Toronto, Berlin and Washington DC.
Amid this wave of protest, the impact of Rahul Gandhi’s remarks that he would not defend his party’s decision, was working within the Congress party on the issue, and that the results of his work would be visible within a couple of weeks, will be closely watched by many, notably the Adivasi residents of Hasdeo Aranya and the supporters of their campaign to preserve the ‘lungs’ of central India. Time will tell whether Gandhi will be able to prevail against his own party’s bigwigs.
The author is an independent journalist.