The green lungs of industrial Odisha’s Sambalpur are on the verge of being wiped out, owing to the expansion of Adani groups mining activity in the region. More than 40,000 trees were cut in Talabira forest on December 9 and 10 for establishing an open pit coal mine. On December 11, local authorities have reportedly moved the tree felling to Patrapali village, 3 kms away from Talabira – threatening to destroy forests that the villagers have protected for the last four decades.
The enormous tree felling comes in the backdrop of a clearance being provided by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to divert 1,038 hectares of forest land for opencast coal mining projects called Talabira II and III coal blocks in March 2019. The proposed Talabira II and III blocks coal mining project belongs to Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) India and is located in the Jharsuguda and Sambalpur districts of Odisha. Interestingly, NLC had signed a mine development and operator contract with the Adani Group in 2018.
Speaking to NewsClick, an activist on the condition of anonymity said, “The forest area is located in the mining belt, where work has been going on for several years. The felling of the trees is not an isolated incident and is only the tip of the iceberg, as the issue runs much deeper. More such activities are taking place, the number of trees which have been cut so far is also not complete as more trees are expected to be removed.”
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The area has been actively protected by villagers for the last 40-50 years. In order to do so, the village communities have formed traditional village forest committees which have been protecting the forests for decades, either through patrolling by community members or by watchmen paid through voluntary contributions by villagers.
Therefore, the destruction of forests in the region is also a grave violation of the Forest Rights Act (2006). According to the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), one of the villages, Patrapali, has already submitted Community Forest Rights claims, which are still pending. In addition to this, the villagers have stated that the district officials acquired a fake Gram Sabha consent for carrying out mining. According to a July 30, 2009, MoEF&CC circular, Gram Sabha consent has to be acquired before forest diversion. In fact, village communities have passed strong Gram Sabha resolutions rejecting the proposed diversion of forests for the coal-mine. Thus, stage II clearance of the project is illegal and contravenes not only the FRA but also the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA), 1989 as majority of the population is SC/ST.
Activists on the ground state that the forest officials failed to spread awareness about the rights given to the villagers and the Gram Sabha under the FRA, leading to the dilution of the rights of the tribal community.
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In a statement, Prafulla Samanta of NAPM said, “In a time when India needs to protect its forests to fight against climate change, forceful destruction of long standing natural forests protected by communities over decades without their consent to mine climate-killer coal is a climate crime. It is especially tragic since this verdant forest nurtured by marginalized forest communities is one of the last forests left in Sambalpur- Jharsuguda industrial belt, an area where climate change fueled temperatures tend to reach 48 degree Celsius in summer.”
Currently, the whole area remains cordoned off by the security forces, triggering anxieties among the tribals.