Coal mining and community activism in India

Ecologist | Jan 21, 2020

The Gond tribe of Hasdeo Arand, the largest and oldest stretch of forest land in central India, is on the verge of losing its home in the face of coal mining.

As the bus screeches to a halt, the air is thick with the smell of imminent rain against the quiet din of a forest waking up to the first morning light. We have just arrived at Madanpur—a village in the heart of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, and some 300km from its capital, Raipur.

There are two small shops for everyday supplies that serve as bus-stops for the locals on either side of the road, cleaving the grand Hasdeo Arand Forest through the middle. A young tribal boy, Ranjit, sits there waiting for his ride out to the nearest town — Morga — where he will take his final MA exam in order to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher.

There are no hotels in Madanpur, we will be staying at the office of the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a local organisation formed to combat coal mining and save the Hasdeo Forest Reserve from its ecological impacts.

Landmark victory

Alok Shukla, convener of the movement, says that the reason Hasdeo Arand is important is not only because is it the most dense and the largest forest reserve in India, but also it provides livelihoods and sustenance to the tribes living in the region. It is also an active elephant corridor, a fact to which the forest department only recently conceded, after years of local activism on the subject.

It might be a small victory but it is a landmark one. For years, the Indian government refused to acknowledge the elephant movement in the area and declared the lush jungle as a “thicket with no wildlife,” which eventually became one of the reasons why coal mining operations were given a go ahead in the area.

Just ten years ago, in 2009, the forest advisory committee (FAC) of the environment ministry declared Hasdeo Arad as a ‘no go’ mining zone because of its rich forest cover—170,000 hectares. But two years later, the environment minister at the time, Jairam Ramesh, rejected the FAC recommendations and granted stage 1 approval to the first coal mining project in the area—Parsa East and Kete Basan (PEKB) and Chotia.

At the time, Ramesh noted that the approved coal block was on the fringe area and not in the heart of Hasdeo Arand. The stage II approval for the project came through in 2012, despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) being against it.

Shukla said: “The environmental clearance that was given to PEKB came with certain checks but those are rarely complied on the ground level while mining.”

The mining project has since been commissioned to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL), which has handed over the mining operations to Rajasthan Collieries Limited, Adani Enterprises now mine the area on their behalf.

Ecological crisis

These contradictions are what form the center of the ecological crisis in Chhattisgarh today, which is now one of the largest producers of coal in India.

In March 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended mining in the area and sent the project back to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change with directives to get fresh recommendations from FAC on the project.

The project developers subsequently challenged the NGT’s order in the Supreme Court (SC), who stayed the NGT’s direction regarding the suspension. The matter is still pending approval in the Supreme Court but the mining continues on the basis of the stay order granted by the SC.

In 2019, the FAC awarded a further clearance of mining the Parsa Coal block, located in the northern Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand’s forest. More than 2,000 acres of forest land will be stripped for further coal mining.

Parsa is only one of the 30 mapped mines in the rich Hasdeo Arad region—the largest intact forest area remaining in India. The ministry of coal has mapped more than a billion metric tonnes of coal reserves in the area, spread over, of 1,878 square kilometers, out of which, 1,502 square kilometers is forest land.

True to its ambitions, the union government of India recently approved the promulgation of Mineral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2020. This is aimed to boost foreign direct investment in mining and remove end user restrictions to attract global bidders.

Cultural heritage

Home to the Gond tribe, the Hasdeo Arad reserve has an active adivasi community that lives inside small villages scattered through the forest. There is one ‘main’ road that cuts through the forest and many muddy shortcuts that serve as a regular commutes for the local traveller to get through the vast canopy of green.

As you enter the vast wilderness, the naked eye and senses take a while to get accustomed to the lack of civilization. The only ‘noise’ is the light buzz of insects that gets louder as the evening approaches and an occasional bike whizzing by.

Hasdeo Arad is a Sal forest which means there is lots of room for shrubbery. It is this shrubbery which constitutes an important part in the livelihood of locals.

Leaves of the Tendu plant that grow here are an important component of beedi and are sold for as much as Rs.5,700 per bag. A standard bag comprises of 1000 bundles of 50 leaves each and Chattisgarh produces 20 percent of the Tendu leaves in the country. From April to the second week of June, women and children venture into the forests to get their hands on this local produce.

On the way to Gidmudi — a village known for preserving its Gond cultural heritage — scenes of children in the trees are common, as many have ventured out into the jungle to collect fruit for themselves and perhaps to kill time. It is a quiet village, lined with comfortable-looking huts at well-maintained distances from one another.

A traditional Gond house has a courtyard at the center, the rooms are made around it and the courtyard serves as the heart of the house. In this large open space, there is usually a temple towards the east for the worship of local gods.

Hard work

At one such hut, 60-year-old Jamuna Bai, sits resting against a wall at the edge of the courtyard, waiting for her husband. She spread out a hand-made jute mat that she had weaved to make herself comfortable, and is talking about the recent approval from the government to clear 2000 acres of forest land:

“It used to all seem like loose talk initially but the threat to our land is imminent now. Everybody wants fertile land and we have it, now they want to take it away from us, what can we do?”

There are goats everywhere throughout the Hasdeo Arand area, healthier and more active than cattle, this is because they are often used for meat and milk purposes when the shrubbery is dry and form an important connection with the women who use them not only for meat but also to feed malnourished children, says Jamuna Bai.

Bandhan Rao, 60, a farmer, says that the threat of losing his land and livelihood is something that plays on his mind constantly: “This idyllic life of open space and self-sustenance, where we get everything we want from the land cannot be replicated. Where will we find a place like this? They say they will give us money but we people cannot eat money.”

Bandhan’s 10-year-old grandson, Sarvan, listens intently but his mind seems elsewhere. Currently on summer vacation, he has travelled by boat, across the Hasdeo River, all the way from Banjari dand, to get to his grandparents place but is already itching to go back.

Life in the village is hard, his grandfather makes him work, his job is to herd goats in and out of the jungle and he doesn’t seem to like it very much: “I like it in the city, there are things to do there,” but his grand-father shoots him a stern glance, and replied: “If we like it here, only then the kids will like it.”

Common ground

30-year-old Bajrang Singh Pakra, a local community leader re-iterates the sentiment but also says that, even though they are self-sufficient, coal mining has affected them adversely: “Ever since the company started mining here, the water table has been adversely affected (the Adani group is ominously referred to as ‘company’ in these areas).

“We used to rely on natural irrigation through the stream running nearby but it hardly has water anymore and we now have to rely heavily on rain or come up with ingenious ways of getting our land crop ready. In times like this, in the case of a delayed monsoon, the whole crop time-table shifts, affecting us all.”

Central India, of which Chattisgarh is a part, is also known as the rice bowl of India. Water and irrigation are important components of growing rice and if the water table continues to be affected, it will in turn have an adverse effect on the farming practices in the region.

On one side of Pakra’s land there is a small stream flowing, “but you can’t drink the water, you can only use it for household purposes, it has a lot of coal in it,” Bajrang says. And if you look closely, you can see the dense black chunk of coal underneath. Chattisgarh has 16 percent of India’s total coal deposits and is the second largest contributor to the coal industry.

If the government’s plans for mining come through, then not only will people like Pakra lose their land and their livelihood, they will also lose their roots. Their common burial ground which is some 500 meters from the village and into the forest will be the first to go.

The Gond community chooses to bury its dead instead of cremating them, Pakra says: “This jungle, it is the link between the past, present and the future, between our ancestors, us and our future generations.”

Learning from experience

The Indian government’s plans to open more coal mines in the region have disrupted the pace of life and form the background to any narrative emerging from the region.

Madanpur is home to the office of the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, which has become the core of ground level resistance against mining. Local volunteers from the surrounding Hasdeo villages lead the movement and have become visible faces of the ‘andolan’ (resistance).

Jainandan Singh Porte, 40, a local who works with the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, states that even though politicians often visit, it doesn’t look like they are ever going to influence policy making: “At this point, it looks like no leader is going to stand up for our cause. On one hand, the chief minister says that he is with us, on the other hand, the No Objection Certificate that was given for Patudia and Gidmudi came from that very office, so the government is obviously complicit.”

Jainandan started his activism almost a decade ago when talk of mining first began, and has 4 police cases registered against him: “That’s because of the company. Our activism is a nuisance for them because we file Right to Information queries, write to official authorities and make sure our voices are heard,” he laughs.

Jainandan says that the Gond community is more aware of its rights now, not because of activism alone but after seeing the state of all the people affected by the PEKB mining which started almost a decade earlier: “So many of them haven’t been properly rehabilitated, once prosperous and self-sustained farmers, they have been reduced to menial jobs. Majority of them are unemployed, their children don’t know what to do,” he says, adding that mining has brought nothing but bad news to the community.

“They use our coal to generate electricity and the shame is that we only recently got it 2 and a half years ago. They say that they cannot give us a railway or telephone line because the forest is too dense, yet there is now a coal train that runs through the forest, all day, every day.”

When the talk of mining first happened in 2009 people did not understand what was going to happen. “They seduced us with big dreams—larger than life land rates, easy rehabilitation plans and muscle power.”

Activism

A group of women IN Patudia village got together and went into the forest when they heard people from the ‘company’ were coming to do a survey of the region. The villagers now look at these surveys as a preliminary step towards land grabbing.

58-year-old Ram Bai explains: “Once we heard that people were going to come in and do the survey, we went in search of them. Finding them wasn’t easy because since they met resistance, they try to be covert about their operations but we kept at it and found them after 3 days and shooed them out of the forest. There is no way we are giving in this easy.”

Seated on a small bed with three other women, eating a local fruit kosan, these women say that they attend local as well as state-wide community meetings on the mining issue: “We would rather die than give our land. What has the government ever done for us?

“We have learned to farm on our own, we are self-reliant but the government just wants to make beggars out of us. They want to take our lands, move us into tiny houses and give us money which will run out in less than a generation, this land will last forever.

“Besides, if we have to leave here, we have to say goodbyes not only to our homes but our families, our community, our way of being. How is that a fair bargain?” asks Ram Bai.

Padmavati Singh, who has been sitting quietly until then suddenly finds her voice: “shoot us all, grab our land!”

Rights

Padamavati says that the ‘company’ has realised that the best way to bring down a village is by dividing it. “Thankfully our village has unity and none of us are willing to give in. Of course, there are one or two drunks who will do anything for money in each village and try ruin the community, but we are not giving in. They tell us to take the money, you’ll be easy but we already are!”

Porte’s village, Ghatbarra received Community Forest Rights (CFR) in 2013 for 820 hectares of 2,300 hectares forest land for which they had filed a CFR claim. It meant that the Ghatbarra community had ownership rights for the said land, but in an unprecedented move in 2016, the state government revoked these rights.

The reason they gave was that the villagers were using the land to protest against mining. “The Forest Rights Act has no provision under which you can revoke CFR and we have moved the matter to the high court and are waiting for hearing on the same.

“Legally, no work can be done on the land until court orders come through, but the Adani company is still getting deforestation done for the mine expansion. Even our sacred trees are in here, they aren’t even going to spare them. Where will we worship?”

Porte is sitting in the middle of the remaining forest on neatly stacked piles of wood. In the distance, a siren pierces through the jungle, its synthetic hoot drowning out the natural buzz.

If you walk a little further down, you can see a large black hole in the earth. It used to be a thriving forest once and also an elephant corridor. It’s akin to a large wound, oozing red earth. Yellow trucks whizz on its surface like tiny lego blocks and once in a while, a white car zooms through, “that’s the company car, an official making the rounds to see if things run smoothly,” Porte says as he makes his way back to the village.

Social responsibility

On the way back to Ghatbarra signs of Adani are everywhere— there is a skill development centre with the Make in India logo, a few Adani buses standing in the middle of nowhere and even an Adani school. Jaynandan’s own children go to the school: “They have taken so much from us and if they are giving us amenities, why not use them?” he laughs.

In dynamic spaces with so many people operating, the entrance of a corporation can make a huge difference in how things play out, according to Kanchi Kohli of Center for Policy Research: “The whole corporate social responsibility (CSR) vibe of such communities is relationship building.

“In fact, the CSR money is now being used to replace government funding in the area. A school had to be made—Adani made it. Roads—Adani. Railway line—Adani, so lines are blurred over time as people start to look at the facilities that are handed out to you. Everything the government was supposed to do for you, now the company is doing.”

Standing in the middle of nowhere, fuelling his bike through a local shop that has hoarded diesel because the nearest petrol station is at least 50 kms away, 28-year-old, Ramlal is disgusted by the idea of taking any sort of assistance from ‘the company,’ but he is one of only a few people with such a strong stand.

Ramlal’s village Sahli has borne the biggest brunt of mining so far. A coal train now cuts through this erstwhile peaceful place, billowing dust and sirens at all times through the day and night. Their local river has been polluted and mining blasts shake the earth like an earthquake every once in a while: “Of course there are some people who work in the mines but that is with a heavy heart and also, all the jobs that the locals get are menial jobs.

“The high paying work is assigned to people that come from the outside. Whatever mining has taken away from us is far vaster than what it has given us as a community.

“I am very attached to my land, it is something that connects me to my ancestors and my heritage and I am not willing to give it up. ‘The company’ tries to break us from the inside, by offering money and aspirations to people, they have also formed a youth sports group to engage young people.”

Environmental disaster

The Sahli stream, a perennial water source which runs through the village, has been adversely affected because of the mining, as half of it is now under the mining area.

28-year-old Ram Prasad Porke, a Sahli resident, said: “The whole rivulet was running dry for two months because they had made a damn for the water at the back and only released it recently with rain water so that it hides their contamination.

“Environmental guidelines dictate that they don’t dirty the water but ‘the company’ does not follow guidelines. We complain a lot to the forest and environment department. Sometimes they get sick of us complaining and block our number, this is happening increasingly so.

“We used to use this stream to bathe, fish and water our fields, we cannot do any of that now as the water is toxic. We have to now use tube-wells and hand-pumps.

Personal Long Term Choices Vs. Industrialization

While the people of Hasdeo are a perfect example of an articulate, community-based opposition, there are also strains of friction.

These are most evident when talking to people who are willing to take a neutral stand. Kohli says: “The immediacy of each person’s answer is very contextual and personal. Some people want facilities while staying in the forest.

“I know people who will say we don’t need the mine to get the facilities. We do want education, some bit of urbanization, not necessarily with the mine. I have not done the ethnography work to say conclusively but people are making choices for the long term.”

For example, 70-year-old Adarsh Sahay is notorious in his village for being tolerant of change. We find him cleaning his well, using a bamboo stick to climb inside, remove all the dirt accumulated over the year and climb all the way up again.

When it rains, the well will be used for rain-water harvesting and that water will be used throughout the year for domestic purposes. Slowly he makes his way inside his house and settles on the porch, behind him there are neatly stacked empty plastic bottles, “they belong to my daughter-in-law, she works in a co-operative,” he says, pointing towards the kitchen opposite him.

Preparation

Inside the kitchen, 28-year-old Savitri Armo, is putting finishing touches to her daily chores before she heads of to work. Armo is a widow with two children—an 8 year old boy and a 5 year old daughter. She is not from the Hasdeo Arand villages but from Udaipur, a small town some 40 kms away and has a bachelor’s degree in art.

She now leads a team of 6 women making phenyl and selling it in the local villages as part of a women’s co-operative. “We started because I realised none of the people here used toilets because they said they stank, so we decided to solve the issue by making phenyl.

“I also encourage people to use it on their floors to keep insects at bay. It has been slow but the business is picking up.”

Armo says some of the villagers are offended with her and her family because they have friends in the Adani factory and people who work in their skill development centre, field workers and some people from the Adani CSR wing, plus her children also go to the Adani school:

“I am not pro-mining but I want to be prepared for what is to come. If our land has to go, my children should be prepared for it and armed with an education. It is going to get difficult as they grow up. Ideally, what I would like is rehabilitation in accordance to the same lifestyle that we have now, if not, mines or no mines, we will manage.”

Her father-in-law echoes her sentiments: “Of course the mines are a big problem but now we have to find a solution to the problem. Our way of life is already gone. When the blasting happens, the whole house trembles and the trees shake, the peace is gone, our jungle is gone, our way of life is already over.

“We would like to go from here but not into the resettlement colonies but another jungle and rehabilitate it from scratch. I will not go to the city, I will buy quiet land elsewhere, I am not ready to die here.”

Displacement

The PEKB rehabilitation colony in Basin, Sarguja is a stark place with no trees and even a lesser population. It incites a common sense of dread amongst all villagers who mention it.

There is no proper road that leads to the colony, which is basically a cramped row of two rooms (15×10) with a tiny (8×8) unattached toilet.

After seeing the expansive houses of the Gond community and the lifestyle they are used to, it is no surprise that there are only 10 families inside the compound made for 60-70 families.

25-year-old Nanoni has been living there for 3 years with her three young children. Sitting in her tiny room, where she has hand-painted windows in the back-wall, Nanoni says that ever since she moved here, her husband has been unemployed and spends most of his time drinking and driving a jeep that he bought with all the money that he got in exchange for his land.

Villagers get anywhere between 6-8 lakhs per acre, depending on the fertility and location of their land in the area, in some cases the rates can also go up to 10 lakh per acre. These are paltry sums compared to the normal market prices and profits the ‘company’ is going to make off them.

Social ostracism

Karma has come full circle for 45-year-old Sarju Ram Verma, who now works in the CSR wing of the company, and was one of the people deployed to help convince the village to pass the resolution that would give up the rights to their forest land.

Drunk, bored and borderline disorderly Sarju is visibly depressed at his fate and is one of the residents occupying the rehabilitation colony. According to Ramlal, the other villagers don’t speak to him because they hold him responsible for destroying their village and he now feels the brunt of social ostracism.

“I sometimes get the feeling that I got used. The company gives me Rs.10, 000 to sort out any disputes if there are in the area against them and maintain peace. I used to lead the resistance until I joined forces with them.

“Since we moved here, our entire family is scattered, everybody lives in different places now, my father still lives on his own in a jungle and my children are in a different place. Also, what is 10,000 rupees? It’s such a small amount for all that they have taken from us.”

Sarju says that he was initially under the impression that as soon as his children turn 18, they would be employed by the company: “That is not happening. I thought I will go and farm on my new land but now I have to keep working because children don’t have jobs and our new land is not as fertile.

“People who come from outside to work in the company are getting as much as 60,000 but we, who did so much for them now have to buy things for 10,000 whilst earlier we used to get them from free.”

Peace

Some people like, 25-year-old, Uttam Singh Sirso, were smarter and requested that they would build their own houses in the compound and ‘the company’ could take land in exchange.

Of-course they had to pull a few strings and since Sirso works there, he managed not only land in the rehabilitation colony but also Rs. 3 lakhs to build a house for himself. His own house is by no means as big as compared to the traditional Gond houses but it is not as inhumanely cramped like the company-allotted property either.

Sirso works as a driver for the company officials. He started his career there operating tree cutter machines, cutting down his tribes own forests: “I used to feel horrible, the villagers would come and take our machines, my own friends would tell me off for having a hand in destroying our land, but what choice did I have?

“When we did not have anything left and I had a family to feed, I had to take this job. I grew up dreaming of having the same life my parents had. I never thought I would have to ferry people around for 8 hours every day for Rs.15,000 but I am starting to make peace with it now.

“My children go to the Adani school and while the education is free, I feel they are discriminated against because of their background. As for living here, you can look, we have no facilities — no running water and no roads.”

Just 10 kilometers away from their old village Kete, a few people have decided to reclaim forest land and stay near the jungle, forest officers routinely come and destroy their houses for encroachment but they just make them again.

One such person is 75-year-old Jaggannath, father of Sarju Ram Verma: “I knew my village was going to get destroyed so I came to live here 3 years ago. I live here because of my animals and peace, also because I am attached to my forest.”