Raipur- In a fervent display of environmental activism, the Hasdeo-Aranya forests in Chhattisgarh became the epicenter of a massive protest on Sunday, January 7, as thousands rallied against the ongoing ecological degradation caused by deforestation for coal mining. Led by locals, political leaders, and prominent farmer unions, the demonstration faced staunch opposition from law enforcement, resulting in the detainment of key figures associated with the cause.
Despite heightened security measures, including pre-emptive detentions of leaders and a significant police presence, around 5,000 individuals actively supported the cause, showcasing widespread solidarity against the environmental threats to Hasdeo-Aranya.
The Mooknayak talked to Umeshwar Singh Armo of Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti who revealed the details of the mass protest that took place at Hariharpur village in Surguja district. The protest was attended by political leaders, union members and various tribal communities to speak up against the ecological destruction at Hasdeo.
Opening up about the general atmosphere during the day, Umeshwar revealed, “the entire state of Chhattisgarh witnessed heightened security measures on the day of the protest. The area from Raipur to the designated protest site was heavily patrolled by the police, and even villages were barricaded, indicating a significant police presence. Despite the security measures, a considerable number of people actively participated in the protest.”
The activist continued, “The authorities took pre-emptive actions by detaining key leaders associated with the protest. The detention of leaders started early in the morning, and it was not limited to specific individuals, as many leaders affiliated with Chhattisgarh Kranti Sena, a political group, were reportedly taken into custody.”
“At the actual protest site, the authorities were prepared with 5-6 police buses, presumably to transport detained protestors. This suggests a proactive approach by the police to manage and control the situation, anticipating potential unrest or disturbances during the protest.”
According to the activist and other local reports, the current largest party in the state, Congress, was also present. Congress held power during the mining discussions. The state president purportedly apologized to the Adivasi people, expressing regret for not doing more for the community, and pledged continued support. Umeshwar stated, “State Congress president Deepak Baij, along with current and former MLAs from the party, attended the protest at Hariharpur to demonstrate solidarity with the Adivasis opposing forest destruction.” According to the activist, State Congress president Deepak Baij said, “We advocated for the expansion of the Elephant Reserve to thwart five coal mines. We could have won this battle by taking action against the consent obtained from fake Gram Sabhas to expand the mining area, but regrettably, we failed to do so in a timely manner. For that, we sincerely apologize.”
Local media reported that Congress supported the protesters' key demands, including cancelling the Parsa coal block and a commitment from the BJP government not to touch 2,000 sq. km of forest land. Baij drew parallels between coal mining in Surguja and iron ore mining in Bastar, emphasizing the party's intent to take the protests from the streets to the Assembly. The opposition also asked for an investigation into alleged forged Gram Sabha resolutions and warns of irreversible environmental impacts, including the depletion of water levels in Hasdeo river and the Mini Mata dam.
Umeshwar added, “Approximately 5,000 individuals actively participated in the protest, showcasing a significant turnout and widespread support for the cause, even though many were discouraged and detained by the police. Notably, the protest saw the involvement of various groups and organizations, with the state Congress playing a prominent role. Key participants included influential farmer unions such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the Johar Chhattisgarh Party, attended the protest to show solidarity with the cause.”
The Ecological Importance of Hasdeo-Aranya Site:
A 2024 report by Down to Earth claimed that a substantial number of trees, covering 137 hectares of biodiverse forest in Hasdeo, have been cut down for the Parsa East and Kanta Basan (PEKB) coal blocks in Chhattisgarh. The PEKB and Parsa coal blocks are assigned to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam, which is managed by the Adani Group.
Reports from The Wire indicate that in 2022, trees over 43 hectares were felled, and an additional 91 hectares were cleared in early 2023. Deforestation activities have continued since December 21, 2023.
Another significant concern raised by activists revolves around the strong opposition by both the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in two reports. These reports state that the project could have adverse effects on the Hasdeo River, escalate human-elephant conflicts, and negatively impact biodiversity.
Research studies released in May 2022 revealed that Chhattisgarh has a lower elephant population compared to other states, with habitat loss and forest clearing being major contributors to conflicts. Researchers argue that deforestation could exacerbate the issue by potentially increasing elephant movements in urban areas. More than 27 elephants have already been displaced from the elephant corridor, making their way to National Highway 343.
The ongoing deforestation is anticipated to displace and negatively impact the lives of 700 indigenous families residing in adjacent villages in the Surguja district of northern Chhattisgarh, including Sahli, Tara, Janardhanpur, Ghatbarra, Fatehpur, and Hariharpur.
The ICFRE study emphasized that granting mining permissions in the PEKB block could result in the loss of the natural environment, affecting the livelihoods, culture, and identity of the local population. While recognizing the PEKB block as a habitat for rare, endangered, and threatened flora and fauna, the study recommended considering mining in PEKB, Kanta Extension, Tara, and Parsa only with stringent environmental safeguards.