The Hasdeo Arand forests spanning north Chhattisgarh’s Korba and Surguja districts comprise some of central India’s best contiguous tracts of forests, and are home to perennial water sources, rare plants as well as wildlife species, including elephants and leopards.
But this rich eco-system is also under threat because of the vast coal reserves it holds – the Hasdeo Arand Coalfield mapped by the Ministry of Coal has over a billion metric tonnes of proven coal reserves, across an area of 1878 square kilometres. 1502 square kilometres of this consist of forests.
The threat is accentuated with the central government’s swift moves in past weeks to hasten coal mining and acquisition of rural land from individuals and communities by corporations.
After its controversial coal mining bill was not passed in Parliament by the Rajya Sabha, the government re-issued an ordinance on 24 December 2014 to auction lands and forests across over 90 coal blocks (or mines), and to permit the commercial mining of coal.
On 29 December 2014, it issued another ordinance which dilutes the public hearing, consent and social impact assessment provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 for a range of projects wanting to acquire land, including power projects.
News reports and official documents indicate the government is also looking to weaken environmental and adivasi rights protections that regulate mining in forested areas, in a bid to open up and transfer resource-rich lands to corporations.
In Hasdeo Arand, villagers, primarily adivasis from the Gond community, have been debating these moves, which will profoundly impact them.
In mid-December, across 16 villages, local residents held gram sabhas (village assemblies) and passed resolutions asking the government to not auction these forests and their lands to mining corporations.
They also demanded that the government implement the PESA and Forest Rights Acts. The two laws recognise the rights of local adivasi and forest-dwelling communities, and mandate their involvement in decision-making around natural resources, including their consent to proposals for destruction of forests.