In the central east of India, a patchwork of woodlands has become a battlefield between the massive mining operations of companies such as Adani and local people defending an ancient way of life.
The Hasdeo forests are at centre stage with some 18 major coal blocks in a landscape of high biodiversity inhabited by Adivasi, the Indian term for indigenous owners of the land. The area is home to a diverse array of mammals (including elephants), fish, reptiles, birds and over 80 species of tree. Some of these forests are protected inside national parks or by regional laws; others form the ancestral land of local villages. Local people have tended these forests, including sacred groves of trees, for hundreds of years.
Because the forests also lie on top of deposits of coal and iron ore, they are in the firing line of companies hungry for resources. One of the Adani Group’s main enterprises in India is the business of developing and operating mines, particularly coal mines. Adani’s objective is to reach a production level of 200 million tonnes of coal per annum across its mines in India, Indonesia and Australia. In the Hasdeo area, the company does not own any mines, but has established itself as the operator of choice by the mine owners. The Adani group’s operations in the Hasdeo area have subsequently caused outbreaks of protest by the Adivasi across the region.
One of the most active Adivasi groups is the Gond people. Geologists adapted the term to name Gondwana, the prehistoric supercontinent that comprised India, Australia, Antarctica and South America. The Gond are highly dependent on small-scale use of the forests. However, media reports say that the Hasdeo Arand Coalfield, as mapped by the ministry of coal, has more than a billion metric tonnes of proven coal reserves, spread over nearly 2000 square kilometres, most of it forested. Mining is currently occurring in at least two forests, with several other proposed mines at various stages of approval.
The operations of one such mine – the Parsa East and Kanta Basin (PEKB) mine – have been outsourced to Adani Enterprises Ltd. This project has had a sorry history. Originally, approval to clear the forest for the mine was rejected by the relevant government authority, a decision then overruled by the Minister. Despite rulings against the mine in various legal cases, the forests were stripped and mining is well advanced. According to Adani, the mine’s peak output will reach 15 million metric tonnes per annum.
Lack of confidence in self-regulation by Adani at the PEKB mine has prompted local villagers to take on the role of environmental watchdog. They have taken time out from their usual farming activities to ensure that streams are not illegally despoiled by coal slurry or trees illegally felled. But they can’t enter the sprawling open-cut mine site to ensure that regulations pertaining to coal dumps, coal dust and fires are adhered to; villagers complain that parts of their environment have been contaminated by coal dust. Meanwhile, the mine has destroyed great swathes of forest, leaving a sacred grove pathetically isolated by trenches and pits. Mining has also agitated elephants, leading to an increase in dangerous encounters – some fatal – between the large, wild animals and the Adivasi people.
A spokesperson for local villages lamented the situation on The Caravan website: ‘In 2010–11, the Congress government began this whole process by clearing the PEKB mine. That time, they said the rest of Hasdeo should be a no-go [zone]. Residents of the villages destroyed by the PEKB mine have still not been rehabilitated properly in five years. They are regretting giving their land. Looking at their miserable state, and how dalaals [middlemen] cheated them, the rest of the villages here became alert to how badly mining can impact us.’
Nevertheless, the Government has approved a new mine, the Parsa mine, in forests that are currently intact. The coal mine, if it proceeds, will be developed and operated by a subsidiary of the Adani Group, which says the mine will eventually produce five million metric tonnes of coal per annum. In response, villagers reiterated their demand that no fresh mining operations occur in the Hasdeo area. The stage was set for protests. A large-scale peaceful sit-in on land in the city of Ambikabur lasted over 70 days in late 2019 (and was suspended only due to the advent of local elections). Similar demonstrations have been occurring every Friday in the provincial capital, Raipur.
According to Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher for the Centre of Policy Research in Delhi, the approval is fraught with legal and procedural lapses. ‘Initiating mining will fragment one of the last remaining contiguous forest patches in central India, violate forest rights and increase human-wildlife conflict,’ he said.
In June 2019, Bob Brown Foundation mounted a protest outside the Indian High Commission in Canberra, Australia, to show solidarity with the Gond people’s resistance to Adani’s proposed Parsa mine.
‘This travesty parallels Adani’s planned mine in Queensland where Black-throated Finch woodlands will be bulldozed to make way for a coal pit bigger than Sydney Harbour’, said Bob Brown. ‘The Gond people of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh oppose the destruction, just as Wangan and Jagalingou people oppose Adani’s invasion in Queensland.
‘In both cases, the links of the native people with their land go back generations but outsiders have stacked consultations in favour of Adani,’ he said.
In response to criticisms, an Adani spokesperson said: “The Adani Group is a responsible corporate citizen and it is evident from our care for the environment and communities. Besides mining responsibly, Adani Group has interests in solar power, city gas distribution and road construction, among others, in the state of Chhattisgarh. We are committed to the people and ecology of Chhattisgarh and the country’s energy security in all our endeavours”.
About 200 km from the Hasdeo forests, in the adjacent province of Odisha, a similar controversy is unfolding. These areas, too, are inhabited by the Gond people, as well as another group of Adivasi – the Munda. They have recently embarked on a campaign to protect the Talabira forest and their rights to this land, now threatened by large-scale open-cut coal mining, where the mine owner has assigned the rights to develop and operate the mine to an Adani subsidiary. The Adani Group’s website says that the peak capacity of the Talabira II and II mines will be a massive 23 million metric tonnes per annum. According to media reports, a heavy police presence has enabled the cutting of 40,000 trees to proceed in a forest previously managed and protected by the local community. Villagers in another Odisha village managed to stop a mine last year through large and forceful community protests, a precedent that the Talabira community hopes to emulate.
Regarding its operations in the Hasdeo Arand forests, Adani says that the company is committed to ‘open and inclusive dialogue and mutual understanding with its stakeholders during all phases of the mine-life cycle’. For communities, this is said to include regular site visits and team interactions with leaders and communities, complaints and grievance mechanisms. The report concedes that ‘the sustainability reporting process is new to Adani Enterprises Limited’. The managing director, Rajesh Adani, says that the company has undertaken afforestation at the rate of ‘29 trees planted for every tree cut and had a near 85% success rate in replanting trees from impacted areas’, with over 70,000 saplings planted at the Parsa Kente site. The company, whose motto is ‘Growth with Goodness’, says that it has provided medical services, clean drinking water, and educational services to local communities.
A further 500 km to the south-east, a conflict of a different nature has broken out. In the forests of Bailadila (not part of the Hasdeo forests), confrontations between community members and authorities have turned violent. At issue is an iron-ore mine on a hill held to be sacred by the local Adivasi where the government-owned joint venture that owns the mining rights has engaged Adani Enterprises as the developer and operator. In June, thousands of Adivasi gathered in a neighbouring town to protest against the destruction of the hillside and its forests. In April 2019, two ‘militants’ and several police personnel were reported killed during a firefight. And in November 2019, mining vehicles were set on fire by ‘naxals’ (militants) described in other reports as Maoists. In June 2019, community protests succeeded in halting mining operations; local activists said that the mining operation is destroying the area’s ecology and water resources, as well as desecrating sacred sites. Campaign spokespeople have accused the local administration of forging signatures to fabricate community consent for the project; in addition, the police have been accused of violence, including killings, against those opposed to the mine. Against this backdrop, the Congress Party won local elections in 2018, pledging to investigate accusations against the police. Now, the new government has been accused of reneging on its promise and participating in disempowering local people opposed to the mine.
Meanwhile, despite widespread discontent and unrest due to its mining operations, Adani continues to profit from the exploitation of coal and other resources, and to continue destroying biodiverse forests, wildlife habitat and the ancestral homelands of the traditional custodians of the forests.