In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, billions of tonnes of coal lie beneath the ancestral forested lands of the Gond people. This is elephant habitat. In June, AdaniWatch reported on the state government’s proposal to establish a large elephant reserve in the area. The central government of Narendra Modi, however, is seeking to enable an expansion of coal mines run by the Adani Group. The forests’ indigenous residents are outraged over the surreptitious nature of the central government’s latest action and are calling on the Chhattisgarh state government to intervene. The relevant coal block would be mined by an Adani group company if the proposal gets the go-ahead.
‘It is not acceptable,’ said TS Singh Deo, senior minister in the state government of the Indian state of Chhatttisgarh. ‘One hundred per cent, 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.'
He was referring to a move by India’s central government – that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to take over locally-owned indigenous lands for a new coal mine. The Chhattisgarh government had not been informed of the central government’s move to acquire the land in question until after the deadline for formal objections had expired.
If the mine proceeds, it will be operated by Adani.
The central government’s move could also rip forests out of a large elephant reserve proposed by the Chhattisgarh government and worsen human-elephant conflict in the vicinity of the mine.
Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo is a member of the Chhattisgarh legislative assembly and Health Minister. He is considered the most influential member in the ruling Congress party alongside the Chief Minister. His rejection of the Modi government’s attempt to take over the land in question is the latest spat in a continuing dispute between the two governments over proposed coal mines in the Hasdeo forests, the ancestral lands of the indigenous (Adivasi) Gond people.
The conflict began in June 2020 when Prime Minister Modi announced an auction of 41 coal blocks around the country, including nine in Chhattisgarh. For the first time, private commercial players, including international companies, would be permitted to bid. Under pressure from people’s movements, the Chhattisgarh government opposed the auctioning of coal blocks in the Hasdeo forests, and managed to convince the central government to exclude five of them from the auction.
This conflict occurred against the backdrop of efforts by the Chhattisgarh government to establish a large new elephant reserve covering parts of the Hasdeo forests. In June 2020, AdaniWatch reported that the proposed boundaries of the reserve had been drawn to exclude coal blocks. Subsequently, it was reported that the government was considering extending the proposed reserve.
A local leader of the movement to protect the forests from coal mining warned that if the central government's land seizure goes ahead ‘then entire villages that have led the fight will disappear and the struggle will weaken. This is the area where the movement against coal mining in Hasdeo has been focused, and this remains the main site of our struggle.'
A shock move
The latest episode in the state-federal dispute, over the attempted takeover of land by the Modi government, arose on 16 October 2020 when newspapers in Chhattisgarh published a government order issued by the central Coal Ministry. The order notified the public that New Delhi was beginning the process of acquiring 1760 hectares of land in the Kente Extension coal block, located in Surguja district of northern Chhattisgarh. Surprisingly, the notice 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 a power company owned by the Rajasthan state government. Adani Enterprises Limited has been contracted by Rajasthan power company to be the developer and operator of the mine.
Over 97 per cent of the land area that the central government wants to take over for the coal mine is classified as ‘protected forest land’ in the government’s records, while the residents of four villages – Kente, Basen, Chakeri and Parogiya – also face loss of their lands. The area is a part of the Hasdeo Aranya, a 170,000-hectare forest in northern Chhattisgarh – one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest in central India. It is a crucial ecosystem forming habitat for thousands of elephants and the catchment area for a reservoir that irrigates over 430,000 hectares of agricultural land in the state.
Adivasi (indigenous) residents of the affected area expressed their surprise at the move of the central government and opposed it. They called it a ‘surreptitious action’ and a ‘conspiracy to acquire people’s land without their consent’. Activists also pointed out that the Chhattisgarh government has been in the process of extending the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve that is supposed to cover much of the Hasdeo region to include coal mining areas, including, potentially, the Kente Extension block.
Adani was contacted and asked whether it had been informed of the central government’s move to acquire the coal block in question but declined to comment.
‘People Not Informed’
The central government’s move took people on the ground by surprise.
‘We knew that the Kente Extension Coal Block had been identified, but we had not heard anything about the process for land acquisition having been notified. No such order had reached us in the panchayat (local government),’ said Jainandan Singh Porte, the panchayat head of Parogiya, one of the four villages whose land has been earmarked for takeover.
Porte is also a co-convenor of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS or Committee for the Struggle to Save the Hasdeo Forest). He said that the central government’s land-acquisition notice had been issued under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act of 1957 and pointed out that this legislation is dated compared with new laws aimed at protecting the rights of indigenous owners of land.
‘When the 2013 Land Acquisition Act has been brought in, the 2006 Forest Rights Act, the 1996 Panchayat Act have all been brought in, how can the central government say it will acquire land under the Coal Bearing Areas Act of 1957?
‘Doesn’t the notice render all these laws meaningless?’ he asked, adding: ‘The government in New Delhi is trying to act in secret and mislead the people. If it intends acquiring land, all orders and notices should reach the panchayat, and the people should be given the opportunity to express their views. No one here knew that this process had even been notified!’
‘This land-acquisition process cannot proceed without gram sabhas (local consultations) being conducted and the consent of the people obtained. We will write to the state government demanding that the land-acquisition process must be stopped immediately,’ he concluded.
Ramlal Kariyam, a member of the panchayat of Salhi village, located in the adjacent Parsa East coal block, and an activist of HABSS, echoed Porte’s fears, saying that ‘when the period for objections has passed without the people getting to know, it seems like a conspiracy to prevent people from protesting – the central government has tried to hide its actions from the people.'
‘If the (Coal) Ministry has issued a notice, shouldn’t the district administration and the panchayat have been informed by the central government?’ he asked, adding that ‘on these grounds alone it (the notice) should be withdrawn.’
‘Further, when the state government is in the process of notifying this area as an elephant reserve then how can you acquire land for mining in the middle of that? How can officials sitting in New Delhi simply decide this, without asking the people of the area? The people have to be consulted,’ said Kariyam.
‘People’s Rights Violated’
Alok Shukla, convenor of the Chhattsigarh Bachao Andolan (Campaign to Save Chhattisgarh), a coalition of movements and activist groups in the state, said that the central government was apparently seeking to bypass provisions of several laws that protect the people’s rights, including the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
He said: ‘This is something for the courts to decide on, that is, whether it is possible for the central government to simply acquire land under the 1957 Act, when all these laws have been passed afterwards. A public-interest litigation has been admitted on this issue. All these acts were passed to enable people to protect their rights, and it would be a violation of people’s rights if the provisions of these acts are bypassed.’
‘Unacceptable Decision, Chhattisgarh Govt Not informed’
TS Singh Deo elaborated on the objections of the Chhattisgarh government to the Modi government’s ‘unacceptable’ attempted takeover of land.
‘The Chhattisgarh government was not aware of this government order,’ he said. ‘I sent the notice to the district collector of Surguja. He looked into it in considerable depth and got back to me – neither the collector, nor the panchayat department which would have called for gram sabhas, nor the mining department, nor any other department 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.’
Singh Deo emphasised: ‘One hundred per cent, 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. The residents of one village have already indicated by a vast majority their unwillingness to have their land acquired. If we speak politically, this is not an area in which we get votes, it is actually dominated by the Gondwana Gantantra Party, so it not a matter of votes … If the people reach out to us, we will stand with them irrespective of party affiliation.’
(A full transcript of the interview with TS Singh Deo can be found here)
A questionnaire was sent by the author to the office of Bhupesh Baghel, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, who also holds the Mining portfolio. His reply came from the state government’s secretary of the mining department: ‘The Chhattisgarh government is committed to protecting forest resources and ensuring protection of the environment while promoting mining of coal and other minerals… Recently, the Union Coal Ministry had on the request of the Chhattisgarh government excluded coal blocks in the Hasdeo Aranya region from an auction in which they had earlier been included for sale. In the future, as well, the Chhattisgarh government is committed to taking all necessary steps for conservation of the environment and will brook no compromise on these issues.’
The government’s response is consistent with undertakings made by the Chief Minister in an interview published by AdaniWatch earlier this year.
Expansion of elephant reserve faces hurdles
Meanwhile, the state government’s move to extend its proposed elephant reserve over forest areas threatened by mining has hit a road hump.
On 5 October 2020, 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 BJP submitted a representation to the district collector demanding that the villages be excluded from the proposed elephant reserve. (The BJP, Narendra Modi’s party, holds India’s central government but has been in opposition in Chhattisgarh since December 2018, prior to which it ruled the state for fifteen years.)
On 20 October Mohammed Akbar, the state’s Forest Minister of the ruling Congress party, was forced to respond – stating that ‘there will be no displacement of villages or reduction in forest rights due to the establishment of Lemru Elephant Reserve.’
More than 25 elephant reserves have been established in India since the 1990s. They cover some 58,000 square kilometres and contain a population of over 20,000 elephants. The reserves do not have the status of national parks. Traditional activities of the Adivasi can continue within elephant reserves, where there is a strong emphasis on managing human-wildlife conflict. Various forms of development are allowed within the reserves. However, the explicit recognition of an endangered species is supposed to inform prescriptions applied by governments and corporations. An examination of the efficacy of elephant reserves was recently published in NewsClick.
The political tussle over the Lemru reserve has further delayed its proclamation, which has been awaiting final approval for over a year since it was announced by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in 2019. In June 2020, it was reported that the Chhattisgarh government 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 by the villages identified above. Crucially, the expansion would include the site of the Hasdeo coal field, a five-billion-tonne coal deposit that has been divided into 18 blocks, most of which had been left out of the 1995-square-kilometre plan.
Within this coal belt, two mines are already operational and a further four are awaiting approvals and land acquisition. They have been allocated to government-owned companies owned by the states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. However, it is Adani Enterprises Limited that is the chosen ‘mine developer and operator’ for the existing Parsa East Kente Basan open-cast mine (see the AdaniWatch interactive map) as well as all four of the mining developments that are still in the pipeline – Kente Extension, Parsa East, Gidhmuri and Paturia. Adani stands to gain enormously if these mines proceed. Conversely, Adani could be a big loser if coal mining is stymied by the creation of a massive elephant reserve. Community representatives are therefore warning that the opposition to the Lemru elephant reserve, and the consequent delay in its final notification, are working in favour of the Adani Group.
Sudiep Shrivastava, an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and a conservationist based in Ambikapur, asked whether the ‘opposition is being raised at the behest of the Adani group’. He pointed out that the elephant reserve has been proposed under section 36 (A) of the Wildlife Protection Act, under which the property and forest rights of land owners, scheduled tribes and other forest-dwellers are protected, and no private land would be affected.
‘An atmosphere of fear due to the elephant reserve proposal has been deliberately whipped up among villages that are at the periphery of the proposed area,’ he added. ‘Only Adani stands to benefit.’
Adani was asked whether it supports or opposes the proposed elephant reserve and whether it had measures at its mines to reduce the incidence of human-elephant conflict but declined to comment.
Alok Shukla said that the Chhattisgarh government had been repeatedly urged to widely publicise the details of the Lemru Elephant Reserve proposal among the people of the affected areas prior to beginning the formal process for notifying it, but the government had failed to do so.
‘Without any prior information, the government ordered that gram sabhas be conducted on 1 October, and on 5 October the gram sabhas passed resolutions opposing the reserve,’ he said.
‘Will people be displaced or not? Will people retain their rights over land and forest? Will they be compensated for damages due to man-elephant conflict? These are issues that should have been clarified beforehand,’ Shukla continued.
‘The opposition is not surprising. People have seen in different instances where their rights were curtailed in the name of wildlife conservation. It is up to the government to explain that the case of Lemru is different,’ he added.
‘It is about what the people have to say’
TS Singh Deo said that while his party has always demanded the notification of the elephant reserve, the government would listen to what the people have to say.
‘The Lemru Elephant Reserve proposal is currently being decided on by the Chhattisgarh government. The Lemru proposal had been approved for 450 square miles when the BJP 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 (election) 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,’ he said.
Regarding the opposition to the proposal he said ‘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 versus coal-blocks, and that I am siding with one or the other. I am only standing with the villagers,’ he added.
‘Litmus test for the state government’
HABSS says that the state government’s resolve to support their movement against coal mining in the forest will be revealed through its decisions.
HABSS member Ramlal Kariyam said ‘if the government is truly committed to Hasdeo, it has to cancel the ongoing land-acquisition processes. Allegedly forged gram sabhas were forcefully conducted in the villages in the Parsa East coal block, where the locals were not allowed to participate, and their consent was shown on paper. Our demand is that they have to be cancelled, and action be taken against the authorities who facilitated the process. It is our right to decide if we will grant permission for coal mining. The government must conduct gram sabhas afresh.
‘Before the coronavirus lockdown we had written to the Chief Minister saying that the gram sabhas were forged – and this must be investigated.’
Porte said ‘if land acquisition for Kente Extension and Parsa East goes ahead, then entire villages that have led the fight will disappear and the struggle will weaken. This is the area where the movement against coal mining in Hasdeo has been focused, and this remains the main site of our struggle.
‘The other demand, related to the elephant reserve, is also something we are expecting to hear from the government on. For the past six years since the PEKB mine has started, human-elephant conflict has increased significantly in our area. The proposed elephant reserve has excluded our areas, and our demand is that they should be included. There has been a statement on this from the government, but we are still awaiting an official notification on this front.
‘The true test of the state government's commitment to resist the company's (Adani’s) lobbying will be in the blocks that have already been allotted, where we are fighting.’
Adani was approached for comment on the assertion that the PEKB coal mine (which it operates) had worsened elephant-human conflict in the area but declined to comment.