As part of an initiative under the Indian government’s new “Atmanirbhar Bharat”—or self-reliant India—mission, the coal ministry launched the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining on 18 June. Three days earlier, sarpanchs of nine villages in Hasdeo Arand, a contiguous stretch of dense forest land in northern Chhattisgarh, wrote to Narendra Modi opposing the auction and calling upon the prime minister to prevent commercial mining in Hasdeo Arand. The sarpanchs wrote that the villagers had already established self-reliant lives and livelihoods, which would come under attack due to the auction. The letter added, “It is unfortunate that when the communities are already grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, they are faced with this uncertainty and threat of displacement.”
The villagers protesting the proposed coal project challenged its legality. They argued that it contravened their individual and community forest rights, under the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. These laws require the informed consent from gram sabhas before any land acquisition can take place in scheduled areas with a preponderance of Adivasi populations, such as the Hasdeo forest. Meanwhile, RRVUNL has claimed that these laws are not applicable to the Parsa project, and that in any case, the concerned gram sabhas had expressed their support for it. But the protesters argued that the gram sabhas of the affected villages had passed several unanimous resolutions since 2015 opposing the project, and that the ministry of environment, forests and climate change had awarded clearances on the basis of forged documents.
That day, RRVUNL published a “general caveat” in a local newspaper announcing that it “apprehends that a writ petition … or a Public Interest Litigation may be filed in the Hon’ble High Court as the Land acquisition proceeding is being initiated” in these villages. The public notice stated that RRVUNL had appointed Shailendra Shukla, a lawyer practising in the Chhattisgarh High Court, “to appear and oppose” any challenge to the land-acquisition proceedings on behalf of the power corporation.
The Parsa block is among 30 mapped block in Hasdeo Arand and one of three in the forest awarded to RRVUNL—the power corporation is already conducting mining operations at the adjacent block, Parsa East and Kete Basan. The project is spread over 1,252 hectares of land, and requires the diversion of 841 hectares located in Surguja and Surajpur districts, in the Hasdeo forest. The majority of the people in the region are members of Scheduled Tribe communities and over ninety percent of them are dependent on agriculture and forest produce for their livelihood. The Hasdeo Arand forests form the catchment area of the Hasdeo river, which irrigates over three lack hectares of agricultural land.
Baghel also accused the Modi government of providing the Adani Group a backdoor entry into coal mining through dubious contracts. But in March 2019, three months after Baghel took charge, the Adani Group was appointed as the mine developer and operator for Chhattisgarh’s Gidmuri and Paturia coal blocks. Baghel’s government has not intervened in the coal-mining projects in Hasdeo Arand. “We would like ask this government if they want to displace us Adivasis from our land,” Topo said.
In 2014, the National Green Tribunal set aside the clearance and sent the project back to the MoEFC for seeking fresh approval from the FAC. But the Supreme Court stayed the decision shortly after, and mining operations have continued unabated at the site ever since, even while the case remains pending before the apex court. In effect, mining operations at PEKB has become a fait accompli.
But in March 2017, the Parsa coal project was accorded terms of reference, which refers to conditions laid down by the MoEFC that a project proponent—RRVUNL in this case—would have to fulfil to develop and operate the mine. In March that year, residents of Hariharpur and Salhi passed resolutions rejecting the Parsa coal-block mining project. The decisions were reiterated in subsequent meetings at the village held in July and February 2018. The residents had also repeatably pointed this out in letters sent to the MoEFC, the coal ministry, the tribal affairs ministry, and state and district administrations since 2015.
Though the coal blocks are allocated to RRVUNL, the power company follows a model in which it appoints a private company as the “mine developer cum operator.” As I reported earlier for The Caravan, the concept of an MDO is not recognised in any law governing the Indian coal industry. At Parsa, before and after the reallocation of coal blocks in 2015, the mining operations are carried out by Adani Enterprises Limited.
After the reallocation of the coal block to RRVUNL, the hearing was scheduled again in 2017. According to protesters, Adani continued the practice of eliciting consent through manipulation of public hearings for environmental clearance. The protesters said that the public hearing was conducted in way that silenced the strong opposition to the coal project. “There were people from outside villages like Salka and Udaipur, who were brought to the hearing to support the project,” Jainandan Porte, the sarpanch of Ghatbarra, told me. “Many from severely affected areas couldn’t reach there. Also, we were made to wait for three–four hours, and by the time the hearing started, people were leaving and our strength had come down.” Residents of Salhi, Fatehpur, Ghatbarra and Hariharpur also told me that the public hearing was held in Besan, which is between five to ten kilometres away from these villages, in contravention of EAC guidelines to arrange it at a place convenient to the residents.
According to Alok Shukla, a convenor with HABSS, this time, too, RRVUNL and Adani tried to influence the hearing process by offering money and other benefits to the locals. “The hearing was managed to get consent by ensuring participation of residents outside the villages directly affected by land acquisition and those who supported the project,” Shukla told me. “The mining companies have for years been adopting methods like offering money, liquor and tour packages and offering false promises to win the support of some people who are then brought to the hearing venue in buses.”
RRVUNL submitted a response on 30 May 2018. The company first argued that the PESA act was not applicable in Chhattisgarh because the state government had not passed any legislation to incorporate the provisions into the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Adhiniyam of 2003, which is the law governing panchayats in the state. RRVUNL further argued that the land acquisition would be governed by a different law altogether, the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, or the CBA act.
According to Sudeip Shrivatsava, a Chhattisgarh-based lawyer and activist, the RRVUNL’s interpretation of the law did not stand scrutiny. Shrivatsava said that the CBA act is applicable when the coal block is owned and operated by the central government and companies owned by it. “Being a state-owned company, RRVUNL should have done the land acquisition under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,” he told me. “The act mandates a social-impact assessment study and gram sabha consent. This study has not been done. The state government is also complicit in this, because it should have intervened and asked for the implementation of LARR instead of CBA.” The Chhattisgarh government is yet to amend the Panchayat Raj Adhiniyam act to ensure compliance with PESA.
This interpretation of law is not the only disputed aspect of the RRVUNL’s response. The power corporation stated to the EAC that the gram sabhas of all six villages—Salhi, Ghatbarra and Hariharpur in Surguja, and Janardhanpur and Tara in Surajpur—had issued no-objection certificates to the acquisition for the coal project. In support of this claim, RRVUNL submitted NOCs from the district collectors of Surguja and Surajpur, respectively dated 13 February and 27 March 2018. The documents claimed that the villages had issued a resolution in favour of the forest being diverted for the coal project during gram sabhas held between 24 and 27 January that year. The company further claimed that the residents of these villages had “supported the project and were convinced that the project will bring improvement to their living standard” during public consultations held the previous year.
Many residents said that they had even sent the resolutions declining their consent to the state’s tribal-welfare department. But in May 2018, the tribal-welfare department simply forwarded the NOCs that it received from the Surguja and Surajpur district collectors without making any observations about the resolutions passed by the villagers.
That month, the FAC also considered the proposal to divert the Hasdeo forest land for the Parsa coal mine, according to the minutes of the meeting. Despite recording that “the area is sensitive from erosion point of view,” the FAC did not make any recommendations against granting forest clearance for the Parsa coal project. Instead, the FAC observed that the NGT’s 2014 judgment on the PEKB did not make any observations about the Parsa block, and sought a legal opinion on whether it could grant in-principle approval to other projects in the Hasdeo forest.
Throughout these meetings, there is no reference to the FAC or the EAC considering the unanimous rejection of the proposed project by the residents who would be affected by it. By the indications from the minutes of these meetings, the fact that the gram sabhas had time and again passed resolutions declining their consent for the projects had not been a consideration for the FAC.
“Whatever is happening right now with the coal project, is being done without our consent,” Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi, told me. “The rights of gram sabhas is what protects us from being driven away from our land and forests. We will go to court to protect our rights.”
On 24 February this year, sarpanchs of 20 gram panchayats in and around the Parsa coal block area—including the six villages that RRVUNL claimed to have received NOCs from—took an oath to protect the forests from the mining projects. That day, the sarpanchs, who gathered at Tara for the protest, also sent a letter to the ministry of tribal affairs seeking to protect their rights under PESA and FRA. The letter was signed by 243 people, and one of their main demands was the cancellation of the land-acquisition process for the Parsa block. “All land acquisition processes initiated based on statements that are forged or obtained forcefully from gram sabhas should be cancelled,” the letter stated. “This is how the procedures for Para coal block has been done.”
<a data-cke-saved-href="https://caravanmagazine.in/author/925" href="https://caravanmagazine.in/author/925" style="box-sizing: inherit; color: rgb(122, 122, 122); cursor: pointer; text-decoration-line: none; font-family: Montserrat, " segoe="" ui",="" roboto,="" oxygen,="" ubuntu,="" cantarell,="" "fira="" sans",="" "droid="" "helvetica="" neue",="" helvetica,="" arial,="" sans-serif;="" font-size:="" 12.8px;="" text-align:="" center;="" text-transform:="" uppercase;="" background-color:="" rgb(255,="" 255,="" 255);"="">“They have overruled the power of our gram sabhas by forging fake documents,” Kariyam told me. “Our demand is that those fake documents should be withdrawn and the clearances given to Parsa coal block should be cancelled. We are inside our houses because of the lock down, but we are discussing these over phone and social media and the fight for our rights is going on. We will return to protest once the lockdown is lifted.” (caravanmagazine.in)