Hasdeo Arand forest faces threat of deforestation as mining resumes

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The Hasdeo Arand forest, one of the largest and most biodiverse forest regions in India, is facing the risk of losing its green cover as tree felling has begun to expand a coal mine in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district. The move has sparked protests from local residents, activists, and opposition parties, who have accused the state government of favouring industrial interests over environmental and tribal rights.

Tree felling begins amid protests and police presence

According to reports, tree felling for Parsa East and Kete Basan (PEKB) phase-2 extension coal mines in the Hasdeo Arand region began on Thursday, December 21, 2023, amid police security cover. The PEKB coal block, which has an estimated reserve of 450 million tonnes of coal, was allotted to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) in 2007. The mining operations are being carried out by Adani Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Adani Group, one of the largest conglomerates in India.

The tree felling was met with resistance from local residents, activists, and members of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA), a civil society group that has been campaigning against mining in the Hasdeo Arand region for over a decade. They alleged that the tree felling was done without obtaining the consent of the gram sabhas (village councils) and violating the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which grants rights to tribals and forest dwellers over their ancestral lands and resources. They also claimed that the tree felling would destroy the rich biodiversity and ecology of the region, as well as the livelihoods and culture of the tribal communities.

Hasdeo Arand forest faces

The protesters tried to stop the tree felling by forming human chains and blocking the roads leading to the mining site. They also staged demonstrations and rallies in various parts of the district, demanding the cancellation of the mining lease and the protection of the forest. However, they were confronted by the police, who allegedly used force and detained several protesters, including CBA leader Alok Shukla and activist Soni Sori. The protesters also alleged that the police did not allow them to file complaints or register FIRs against the tree felling.

Hasdeo Arand forest: A biodiversity hotspot under threat

The Hasdeo Arand forest, which spans over 1,70,000 hectares in the districts of Korba, Surguja, and Surajpur, is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India. It is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including endangered species such as sloth bears, elephants, leopards, and tigers. It is also a catchment area of the Hasdeo river, a tributary of the Mahanadi river, which provides irrigation and drinking water to millions of people.

The forest is also rich in coal deposits, which have attracted the attention of the government and the mining industry. The forest has been divided into 23 coal blocks, six of which have been approved for mining. The Adani Group has bagged the contracts to mine four of these six blocks, including the PEKB block. The mining of these blocks would entail the diversion and destruction of thousands of hectares of forest land, affecting the wildlife, water resources, and climate of the region.

The Hasdeo Arand forest has been at the centre of a long-standing conflict between the government, the mining companies, and the local communities. In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) declared the forest as a ‘no-go’ area for mining, citing its high ecological value and sensitivity. However, in 2011, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh overruled the decision and granted clearance for the PEKB coal block, stating that it was located in the fringe area and not in the biodiversity-rich core area of the forest. The clearance was challenged by the CBA and other groups in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court, but the mining was allowed to continue until further orders.

In 2018, the Chhattisgarh assembly passed a unanimous resolution, requesting the central government to cancel the coal blocks in the Hasdeo Arand region and keep the forest in its pristine form. The resolution was supported by the then opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in the state in 2023. However, the BJP government has not taken any steps to revoke the mining lease or stop the tree felling. Instead, it has approved the second phase of the PEKB coal block, as well as two other coal blocks, Parsa and Kete extension, in the Hasdeo Arand region.

Opposition parties slam the government for favouring Adani Group

The tree felling in the Hasdeo Arand region has also drawn criticism from the opposition parties, especially the Congress, which was in power in the state from 2018 to 2023. The Congress has accused the BJP government of favouring the Adani Group and ignoring the interests of the people and the environment. The Congress leaders have also joined the protests and raised the issue in the state assembly, demanding the suspension of the mining activities and the release of the detained protesters.

The Congress has also alleged that the Adani Group has violated several norms and regulations in the mining operations, such as exceeding the production limit, encroaching on forest land, dumping overburden outside the lease area, and causing air and water pollution. The Congress has also questioned the rationale behind allocating the coal blocks to RRVUNL, a Rajasthan-based company, when Chhattisgarh itself is facing a power crisis and has surplus coal reserves.

The BJP government, on the other hand, has defended the mining activities, claiming that they are being done as per the law and with the necessary clearances. The government has also argued that the mining is essential for the development of the state and the country, as it would generate revenue, employment, and electricity. The government has also dismissed the allegations of favouring the Adani Group, saying that the mining contract was awarded to RRVUNL by the central government and that the Adani Group is only a mine developer and operator.

The government has also accused the Congress of playing politics over the issue and creating hurdles in the development of the state. The government has also blamed the Congress for granting the initial clearance for the PEKB coal block in 2011, when it was in power at the centre. The government has also claimed that it has taken steps to protect the forest and the tribal rights, such as extending the Lemru elephant reserve and implementing the Forest Rights Act.

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