Chhattisgarh: Unidentified Arsonists Strike Hasdeo-Aranya Forest Protest Venue, Set it Ablaze

Reduced presence during Holi celebrations may have allegedly facilitated the act, said the agitators.
Torched protest site
Torched protest siteHasdeo-Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti

New Delhi: Hasdeo-Aranya forests in Chhattisgarh’s tribal-dominated Surguja district have been in the news for many years now. The flora and fauna of the region has allegedly been threatened by rampant developmental works, which has prompted many villagers to come together and protest.

On the occasion of Holika Dahan on March 24, as the country got ready to celebrate Holi (a festival of colours), unidentified individuals allegedly set the protest site of the Hasdeo Aranya Jungle Bachao Andolan on fire. This incited widespread condemnation and distress.

“Some unidentified miscreants reached the site late at night and torched our stage at Hariharpur. We still do not know who did this, but who will it be, other than the people we are protesting against?” Ramlal Kariyam from the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti told The Mooknayak.

According to him, the incident is part of a “plan brainstormed by the corporates and state nexus, who have been trying to put a stop to their demonstrations”.

He further said the police arrived at the site and are mapping the whole area which has been burned.

“We abide by the code of conduct and democracy, and will keep on protesting accordingly,” claimed the activist, adding, “It is a fight that will continue to go on. We won’t get scared with such intimidations and threats.”

Pitambar Banjari from the Bhim Army said they will hand over a memorandum against the incident to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the state government through its district magistrates.

The site was put on flames at midnight
The site was put on flames at midnightHasdeo-Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti

Umeshwar Singh Armo of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, through a statement, equated the incident of torching with murder. He alleged those who committed such deeds may well be the same individuals conspiring to obliterate Hansdev Aranya forest.

Demonstrators used to sit at the protest site at Hariharpur every day from 10 am to 4 pm. Due to Holi celebrations, many protesters had gone back home and the protest venue was deserted when it was put on flames.

Why are Communities Protesting at Hasdeo?

The ongoing protests revolve around the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) coal block, covering an area of 17.6 square kilometers. This block spans four villages and is owned by the state-operated Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited.

Initially granted a forest clearance in March 2012 for a 15-year term, the PEKB coal block unexpectedly depleted its reserves seven years ahead of schedule. Consequently, there was 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 allegedly bypassing the project’s biodiversity impact assessment report.

Despite acknowledging the area’s vulnerability to erosion and dense vegetation, the FAC cited a precedent in the Hasdeo-Arand Coal region where approval was given for a similar case, allegedly 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. They asserted that Gram Sabhas had not given consent for mining in the region.

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

The ecological significance of the Hasdeo-Aranya site is emphasized by a 2024 report by Down to Earth, which revealed substantial deforestation activities covering 137 hectares of biodiverse forest for the PEKB coal blocks in Chhattisgarh.

Activists have raised concerns over opposition from the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), citing potential adverse effects on the Hasdeo River, increased human-elephant conflicts and biodiversity loss.

The ongoing deforestation is anticipated to displace and negatively impact the lives of 700 indigenous families residing in adjacent villages in Surguja district, northern Chhattisgarh.

The ICFRE study emphasized potential environmental and socio-cultural repercussions, recommending stringent environmental safeguards for mining in the PEKB block and surrounding areas.

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