Elephants in Chhatisgarh, Coal mining more important than elephants and forests?

No Room for Hasdeo Elephants as Mining looms large on Lemru reserve

As elephants await settlement on the question of the proposed Lemru Elephant reserve in Chhattisgarh, a renewed push for coal mining is threatening their imminent extinction. Only last year it had seemed that the beautiful Hasdeo Aranya forests of central India would finally be able to provide a peaceful and safe home for elephants. After a sustained campaign and a decade-long struggle of the gram sabhas of Hasdeo Aranya, with widespread support from environmentalists and activists across the country, the state government of Chhattisgarh had agreed to notify the Lemru elephant reserve. It had even written to the central government about the need to conserve the entire Hasdeo Aranya forests, following which 5 coal blocks were withdrawn from the commercial coal mine auctions in August last year. However, the Adivasi communities, their ancient bountiful forests, and the rich wildlife are set to become a casualty. Chhattisgarh governments’ diffidence and Modi-Adani nexus threaten to again tilt the balance in favour of mining in Hasdeo Aranya.

Herd of wild elephants in Dharamrajgarh forest in December 2013. Photo: Subrata Biswas/Greenpeace

An elephant reserve in the making…

The need for an elephant reserve in Hasdeo Aranya to conserve and restore vital elephant corridors and mitigate human-elephant conflict has long been felt. A proposal for the 450 sq km Lemru elephant reserve project was passed by the Chhattisgarh legislative assembly in 2005 and approved by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2007. However, extensive lobbying from mining companies saw the project being shelved on account of the project proving a hurdle for exploiting large coal deposits of the region.

For the next decade, the Chhattisgarh government ignored the project. Despite the setback, the need for conserving Hasdeo Aranya forests got a shot in the arm as it was declared as a ‘No-Go’ area by a joint study of the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010. Hasdeo Aranya was the only coalfield deemed entirely ‘No-Go’ for any kind of mining or infrastructure activity, such areas comprising less than 8.5% of India’s total coal-bearing area. It was a testament to the ecological importance of the region which has dense forests, is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in central India and remains a habitat for several Schedule-1 protected species. However, under intense corporate pressure, the first mine was opened up at Parsa East Kete Besan in 2012 despite several irregularities and opposition from local communities.

With the coming to power of the Congress government in Chhattisgarh in 2019, the Lemru project was revived as a fulfilment of its manifesto promise. The Chief Minister not only stated his intention to protect the region and declare its entire area as an elephant reserve, but he also expanded the reserve boundaries. On 2nd October 2020, the gram sabhas were asked to provide their consent for the project. Since the proposal was for setting it up as a “community conservation reserve”, it involved no displacement or any threat to the existing rights of the villages. As expected, the gram sabhas of Hasdeo Aranya overwhelmingly voted in favour of it. However, there has been no further update. The Lemru proposal continues to await official notification.

….as mining threatens to destroy the pristine Hasdeo Aranya forests

The progress on notification of the elephant reserve and the withdrawal of new mines for auctions list was seen as a clear declaration of intent of both Central and State Governments to conserve Hasdeo Aranya. However, less than six months later, the proposed Lemru area is now being threatened for five other coal blocks – Parsa, Madanpur South, Gidhmudhi and Paturia. A fresh “consent to establish” has been accorded by the state government for the Parsa mining project to be operated by Adani. This permission was given despite stringent opposition and is based on a forged gram sabha consent letter for which local communities have been repeatedly complaining and protesting across all levels of administration. Recently, a public hearing has now been scheduled for the Kete Extension mine project, for 14th July. The environmental and forest clearance processes are underway for other mining projects at Gidhmudi Paturia (to be operated by Adani) and Madanpur South (to be operated by a Birla group company). It is surprising and shocking that the same gram sabhas that had given consent to elephant reserve are being asked to give way to these mining projects, despite evidently strong grounds against these projects.

There is no evident need for new coal mines

As per Coal India Limited’s own estimates, also concurred by experts, India does not need to allocate any fresh mines to meet its energy needs for the foreseeable future for at least the next 10 years. With reduced prices of renewable energy, coal-based power is already less competitive and is only likely to lose its significance beyond the short-medium term. The limited prospects for an increase in India’s coal requirements are also borne out by the tepid response to the successive coal mines auctions since 2016 where only a small portion of mines have managed to attract bidders despite very liberal rules – for example only 2 minimum bidders for a successful allocation. Even at the international level, there is no hope of increased demand for coal. According to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the serious side effects of coal mining, most countries are moving towards the phasing out of coal mining. In such a context, it is shocking to see environmentally sensitive biodiversity-rich regions like Hasdeo Aranya being threatened for a fuel that has already lost its worth. Unfortunately, it seems that the elephant project and rights of forest-dwellers have now been sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits.

The decade long struggle of Hasdeo Aranya gram sabhas offers the only hope

Year after year, villagers from Hasdeo and surrounding areas
mark their dissent with protests.

The local communities, through their gram sabhas, have been resisting mining in the region for over a decade now. They have passed several gram sabha resolutions repeatedly declaring their intention to protect their life, livelihood and identity that revolves around these forests. Since the entire area falls under Schedule 5 of the constitution, no mining is permissible without gram sabha consent. The communities have met ministers, political leaders across the spectrum, repeatedly written to governments at the centre and the state and approached the courts to protect their rights. They have also organized several protests, marches, and strikes including a famous 74-day strike in October-December 2019. With the state governments’ stand on Lemru reserve being unclear, and persistent pressure from the central government and large corporate groups like Adani and Birla; the resistance of Hasdeo Aranya gram sabhas offers the only hope for protecting this valuable forest for our future generations. They would, however, require all the support and solidarity from everyone interested in protecting our rich environment and providing a home to the elephants of central India.

– Priyanshu is a faculty member at Azim Premji University. He is a public policy specialist with an interest in public policies at the intersection of mining, conservation and Adivasi livelihoods. He has closely tracked the developments in the Hasdeo Aranya region over the last seven years.