The Hasdeo Aranya is part of a large forested corridor that stretches over 1,500 kilometres through central India. The area is a traditional home of the adivasis, India’s indigenous peoples, and is a habitat for hundreds of elephants. Five billion tonnes of coal lie beneath the forests, as per estimates. Mining has become a huge business in the area, leading to huge protests by the locals in the face of corporate interests in the region.
Amid different coal blocks currently in varying stages of developmental processes, a new report by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) states that 14 out of the 23 proposed coal blocks in the region should not be given clearance given the dense forest tracks.
The study admits, “Mining related land-use changes will harm forest cover/density, forest type, and forest fragmentation. In addition, forest fragmentation will contribute to decreased patch/corridor connectivity, increased edge effect, change in microclimate and promote invasive species if not taken adequate mitigation measures."
These 14 coal blocks fall within Chornai and Ton-Teti areas in the Hasdeo Arand area, which is a total of 1879.6 square kilometres.
However, the study also states that mining in the other blocks- Kente, Parsa East, Kanta Besan and the Tara block- can take place with environmental safeguards and conservation methods. The Chhattisgarh government, led by Bhupesh Baghel, had used the issue as a poll plank, promising to safeguard the region against mining. However, it has not yet accepted the findings of the report and is maintaining silence as activists point out the inherent contradictions in the government’s stance.
Three out of the total coal blocks in which mining can be allowed as per the report are allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RVUNL).
Speaking to NewsClick, Alok Shukla of the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, said, “The ICFRE study admits that irreversible damage can be incurred by mining in the rich forest area of Hasdeo Arand which cannot be mitigated. It reveals the ecological importance of the area and its connection with the identity, culture and livelihood of tribal communities residing in Hasdeo. It has recorded impacts on displacement, geomorphology, hydrology and Human elephant conflict. It definitely has a very important observation on forest and various related aspects. However, this study still does not comply with the orders passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014.”
He adds, “This study says that additional studies are required to ascertain the surrounding impact of mining in this region. Thus, a mere green signal to four coal blocks based on the fait accompli situation cannot be a rationale every time to open this region for coal mining. The idea of this study was to find out the ecological value of this forest region. The ICFRE has no jurisdiction to recommend for allowing mining in Hasdeo.”
In July 2020, Environment and Forest Minister of Chhattisgarh, Md. Akbar wrote to the Coal Ministry regarding the ecological importance of Hasdeo and to prevent commercial coal mining in the area In 2019, there was a declaration of Lemru elephant reserve to curb the human-elephant conflict in North Chhattisgarh. In these instances, the state government acknowledged the ecological and environmental importance of the area.
Shukla adds, “However, they stepped back from their own commitments just to ensure corporate benefits. Environment and biodiversity concerns are already sidelined. The travesty is that if mining is allowed it will be infringement of constitutional rights of tribal communities of Hasdeo Arand, which is a Fifth Schedule area.”
The study was conducted in 18 months from 2019 to February 2021. The study area was the entire Hasdeo-Arand Coalfield (HAC), comprising of 23 coal blocks, which fall partly in Udaipur tehsil of Surguja district, Premnagar tehsil of Surajpur district, Pondi Uproda and Korba tehsils of Korba district in Chhattisgarh.
Speaking to NewsClick, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Kanchi Kohli, said: “The biodiversity study holds the key to how both the Centre and state governments chart the socio-ecological future of Hasdeo Arand forests. The study should not compromise the importance of the area which is why several village Gram Sabhas have used their constitutional powers to object to mining and ancillary infrastructure for close to a decade. Governments may still trade-off this future, but the ICFRE report should not be the reason the trade-off is justified.”