After battling the scorching heat of the summer months while protesting coal mining project permits in the Hasdeo Arand region since March this year, villagers in Surguja district of Chhattisgarh are now ready to be soaked by the monsoon rains during their continuous agitation.
The protesters said nothing could undermine their morale as they fought for the land they have lived on for generations and that they will not give up on the protest until their demands are met. The demonstration in the village of Hariharpur, located about 60 km from Ambikapur (district headquarters of Surguja), against three coal mining projects entered its 111th day on Sunday.
Although the state government has halted all proceedings regarding three upcoming coal mining projects awarded to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) in the region, the protesters are sticking to their demand for the cancellation of the projects. The state government had granted permission for non-forest use of 841,538 hectares of forest land for Parsa mine (Surguja and Surajpur districts) and 1,136,328 hectares for PEKKB phase II mine (Surguja) after the Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot met his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh. Baghel here in March this year seeking to remove impediments to the development of coal blocks allocated to the state of the first.
Another coal block – Kente extension awarded to RRVUNL in the Hasdeo Arand area is awaiting public hearing. In October last year, local villagers marched from Surguja to the capital Raipur, covering more than 300 km on foot, to register a protest against the proposed coal mines. When they did not get any help, the people of the villages affected by the projects, namely Salhi, Fatehpur, Hariharpur and Ghatbarra, set up a tent in Hariharpur and launched an indefinite protest. The village has become the epicenter of the protest where protesters bring raw rations from their respective homes and cook and eat together.
“We have been living for generations and preserving the forests. Our life depends on it. We just want the government not to destroy them for charcoal,” said Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi village. Kariyam, who is part of Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti – a group of local villagers, has nine members, including his three children, in the family and all of them take turns attending the protest. Whether it is summer or monsoon, we will not leave the protest site until our demands are met, he added.
Sarpanch (village chief) of the Jainandan Gate panchayat of Ghatbarra village echoed the same sentiments and asked why the government was playing with the environment and the lives of forest dwellers. “The government has suspended mine works but it seems that this is just an attempt to silence the protest. We want the demining to be cancelled,” he added. According to the protesters, the authorizations granted to the PEKB phase II and Parsa mines were based on false gram sabha consent documents.
The Hasdeo-Arand coal basin, which extends over an area of 1,878 km2 in the districts of Korba, Surguja and Surajpur in the northern part of the state, is located about 300 km from Raipur. The region is called ‘Lungs of Chhattsigarh’ for its rich sal forest. “The gram sabhas of the villages concerned have already opposed these mining projects and any nod towards them is a violation of the provisions of the fifth schedule of the Constitution, the PESA Act of 1996, the Recognition of Rights Act Act 2006 and the Land Acquisition Act 2013, said Alok Shukla, an activist who has been at the forefront of the agitation.
Last year, the biodiversity study conducted by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India, at Hasdeo Arand Coalfield, concluded that coalfields may not be recommended for mining to conserve dense forest that is also home to elephants, he said. The area is also a catchment area for the Hasdeo River, a tributary of the Mahanadi River, which crosses it, and the Bango Dam, which helps irrigate more than three hectares of farmland, he said. . The unrest will continue until all coal mining projects are cancelled, he added.
Currently, there are two coal mines – Chotia and PEKB phase I, operational in the Hasdeo Arand area, he said. The Forestry Department in April this year launched a tree felling exercise to pave the way for the start of the Parsa Charcoal Mining Project, triggering strong opposition from local villagers who forced the authorities to suspend their action after the cutting of 300 trees.
A similar scene was seen when tree felling began for PEKB Phase II last month. The row over the mining projects has also revealed splits in the ruling Congress after Health Minister TS Singh Deo, who represents Surguja constituency, came out in favor of the protesters. Even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to Cambridge earlier this month, said he had problems with the mining approval decision at Hasdeo Arand.