Bharat-Jodo Nyay Yatra: Can Rahul Gandhi's Direct Engagement Spark Change in Hasdeo-Aranya Protests?

The ongoing demonstrations focus on the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) block, encompassing 17.6 sq km in Chhattisgarh's Surguja district and extending across four villages. This block is under the ownership of the state-run Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited.
Rahul Gandhi met representatives of Hasdev Bachao Andolan and assured them of getting justice.
Rahul Gandhi met representatives of Hasdev Bachao Andolan and assured them of getting justice.

Raipur- Rahul Gandhi's Bharat-Jodo Nyay Yatra took a significant turn on Monday as he made a notable stop at Morga basti in Chhattisgarh, situated a mere 15 kilometers away from the main protest site at Hariharpur. This stop holds particular significance as demonstrations have persisted at Hariharpur for over two years in support of the preservation of the Hasdeo-Aranya forests.

The Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, which commenced from the violence-stricken state of Manipur on January 14th, has traversed over 3,350 km to date. Its objective is to cover 355 Lok Sabha seats, spanning a distance of 6,713 kilometers (4,171 miles), representing approximately 65% of the total parliamentary seats in the country.

Passing through Hasdev forest area, on February 12, Rahul Gandhi met representatives of Hasdev Bachao Andolan. He heard the demands of the agitators and assured them of getting justice. Following his interaction with protestors, the Congress party leveled accusations against the BJP-led central government, alleging that its policies prioritize water, forest, and land interests at the expense of environmental conservation. They emphasized their historical advocacy for marginalized communities and pledged to fight against the deforestation of Hasdeo-Aranya forests.

According to the Congress, instructions to cut down the forest were issued long ago, and despite passing an optimistic resolution in the assembly, the Modi government allegedly approved deforestation under pressure from industrialists.

The party asserted that despite public outcry and appeals from Congress leaders, there is no indication that the government plans to reverse its decision.

The concerns raised by the Congress extend beyond Hasdeo, as they anticipate future challenges with the Kelo Dam project. The Congress team accused the central government of favoring industrial enterprises, allegedly neglecting environmental conservation and the well-being of local communities.

The party claimed that the government's actions, including facilitating forest exploitation and establishing mines, have generated discontent among the public.

The Mooknayak spoke to a few members from the demonstrating team who met the leader at his route. Umeshwar Singh Armo, president of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti spoke about the Congress Politician’s visit. He revealed, “Rahul Gandhi stopped at Morga Basti, which was only 15 km from the protest site at Hariharpur. Since he could not visit the actual site, a team of demonstrators reached out to him themselves.”

Opening up about the various issues that were put forward to Rahul Gandhi, Umeshwar claimed, “We put the issue of fake-gram sabhas in front of the leader.” “We also informed him that we had written multiple letters to the Governor of the state and had conducted a pad-yatra (march by foot) ourselves,” remarked Armo. He continued, “But our voices are not being heard because of which we are protesting since the last 700 days.”

Prathamesh Mishra from Bilaspur had also joined Umeshwar Singh Armo at the meeting. He alleged, “There is a presence of tigers at Hasdeo Aranya forest.” Mishra then explained, “If this is the case, the forest will come under Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act, demanding conservation of the habitat.”

The protestor then talked about assurance provided by the leader. According to him, Rahul Gandhi provided the details of a Wildlife photographer who would help collect evidence of tigers in the region. Apart from it; Mishra revealed, Gandhi has asked his team in Chhattisgarh to be in constant touch with the protestors. “The leader said he will take action when the party comes into power,” Mishra detailed. “But we told him that will be the easiest thing to do. What the time demands is for him to take the tougher road and stand shoulder to shoulder in our protest,” remarked Prathamesh.

History of Mining and Clearances at Hasdeo-Aranya:

The ongoing protests center on the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) block, which spans 17.6 sq km in Chhattisgarh's Surguja district across four villages and is owned by the state-run Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited.

As per a Behenbox report, the PEKB coal block, initially approved for forest clearance in March 2012 for a 15-year duration, exhausted its reserves seven years ahead of schedule. This has led to a request for an amendment to the forest clearance from the environment ministry.

In February 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union environment ministry granted Stage I clearance to the Parsa coal mining project, citing a fait accompli and bypassing the project's biodiversity impact assessment report.

Despite acknowledging the area's sensitivity to erosion and vegetation density, the FAC mentioned a precedent in the Hasdeo-Arand Coal region where approval was given for a similar case, overriding committee recommendations.

In 2020, nine sarpanches and a Janpad member of the Podi Uproda Panchayat in Korba district wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging the suspension of the auction of 16 coal blocks, asserting that Gram Sabhas had not given consent for mining in the region.

The opposition to mining operations in Hasdeo Aranya, covering 98% forested land across 170,000 hectares, stems from the past experiences of tribal communities. These communities argue that mining will adversely affect their habitat, livelihoods, and cultural identities.

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