Stuck in the midst of bureaucracy, politicians and the courts, the biodiversity and coal-rich Hasdeo Arand forest region in Chhattisgarh, stares at a grim future.
There are 18 coal blocks in the Hasdeo Arand area and a major part of these coalfields is still in a virgin state, with huge resources of power grade coal. Out of the 18 coal blocks, mining operations are currently being carried out in two coal blocks – Parsa East and Kete Basan (PEKB) and Chotia – while proposals for mining in four other coal blocks are under consideration at different levels of the Chhattisgarh government and the central government of India.
Among these coal blocks, the PEKB coal block has had an interesting story so far. PEKB was among the first coal mines in the Hasdeo area.
According to the official documents reviewed by Mongabay-India, a proposal to mine the PEKB coal block came to the expert forest advisory committee (FAC) of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2010.
The proposal for diversion of 1,898 hectares of forest land in the Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh was considered by the FAC in its meeting on June 20-21, 2011. But the committee denied recommending forest clearance to the proposal noting that that area proposed for diversion has high ecological and forest value and the number of trees to be felled was very high, which did not justify diversion from the conservation point of view.
However, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh rejected the recommendations of the FAC and on June 23, 2011 and granted stage-I approval to the project. He noted that the coal block is located in the fringe area and not in biodiversity-rich area of Hasdeo Arand and that as a minister he has to keep the broader picture of development in mind and balance out different objectives and considerations. The final stage-II approval was given to the project on March 15, 2012, and subsequently, a case was filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against it.
In its judgement on March 24, 2014, the green tribunal set aside the clearance given to the mine project, suspended the mining work commenced by the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RRVUNL), except the work of conservation of existing flora and fauna.
It sent the project back to MoEFCC with directions to seek fresh advice of the FAC within reasonable time on all aspects of the proposal like whether the PEKB coal block is a habitat to endemic or endangered species of flora and fauna and whether the PEKB block has a significant conservation/protection value so much so that the area cannot be compromised for coal mining with appropriate conservation/management strategies.
The project developers challenged the NGT’s order in the Supreme Court which stayed the NGT’s direction regarding the suspension of all works started by the RRVUNL.Fait accompli: mining continues despite the court case
Since 2014, the matter has been pending in the Supreme Court, and the project proponent is conducting mining activities in the area based on the stay order of apex court.
The RRVUNL in the meantime approached another division of the MoEFCC seeking environment clearance for the expansion of PEKB opencast coal mine project from 10 Million Tonnes Per Annum (MTPA) to 15 MTPA. On this, the ministry observed that since the SC has stayed the part of the NGT’s order whereby the ongoing operation of mining was suspended, the matter should be placed before the FAC seeking their advice on the whole issue.
The biodiversity-rich Hasdeo Arand forests in Chhattisgarh has significant coal reserves. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.
Subsequently, the PEKB project was discussed in the FAC meeting on January 25, 2018 during which the committee analysed the area using Google images and satellite imageries among other things and observed that the “mining in the area is under process and forest has been cut as per the mining plan after the stay order granted by the Supreme Court against NGT order.”
It noted that the mining cannot be stopped now due to the stay order on the suspension of the mining operation and since the matter has become a fait accompli situation, the user agency has to comply with the mitigation measure as recommended in the stage-II granted by the environment ministry. The FAC recommended that the MoEFCC ensures compliance of all conditions referred in Stage-II clearance subject to SC’s final decision in the case.
Nandikesh Sivalingam, a campaigner with Greenpeace, said that “till few years ago, there was no mining in the Hasdeo region which was considered pristine forest area that was not to be disturbed.”
“But it is alarming what has happened at the place. Mining is happening in full scale despite challenges to the clearance issued for PEKB blocks. These particular mines would end up opening up more mines leading to severe impact on the entire region. But by the time the legal case will be over, the impact on the environment and the people living in the area would have reached a point of no return. More mines are expected to come up in the area and this is a sorry state of affairs,” Sivalingam told Mongabay-India.
Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme, said that “when areas are identified as mines, industries or commercial ports, their fate is sealed in bureaucratic records.”
“One of the key issues is the business-as-usual scenario for most of these projects even as decisions are stuck either within the executive or the courts. While legal paperwork and arguments continue, projects continue to operate making the outcome of that discussion redundant. Project authorities claim costs have been incurred when all along their operations might be subjudice. Such actions are no less than deliberately playing into the hands of creating a fait accompli situation,” Kohli said.More coal blocks to be opened up for mining
The FAC is now considering another RRVUNL proposal for diversion of about 841 hectares of the forest land for the proposed Parsa Open Cast Mine (five MTPA) in Surguja and Surajpur districts in Chhattisgarh. The diversion is proposed in the Parsa coal block which is adjacent to the PEKB coal block.
In its meeting in July 2018, the FAC noted that there is no mention of Parsa coal block in the NGT’s 2014 order and recommended that expert legal opinion may be obtained from the Additional Solicitor General (to the government of India) whether in-principle approval can be considered for this coal block/other coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand forest area pending final disposal of the case in the apex court.
The ASG told the FAC that it in his opinion there “is no bar for the FAC to consider the proposal for in-principal [sic] approval and the pending case before the Supreme Court has no bearing with the Parsa coal block as such.”
“However, it must be clarified that the FAC is competent and not restricted in any manner to take any decision in regard to the proposed conversion of land on any scientific or environmental concern which it may have,” the ASG opined.
There has been huge opposition against coal mining in the Hasdeo Arand region. Photo provided by Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.
The case was then considered by FAC in its December 2018 meeting during which the committee constituted a sub-committee to visit the site and give a report. Subsequently, the case was considered in the January 2019 meeting of the FAC.
The committee discussed the proposal and the site inspection report during its January 2019 meeting which was also attended by Chhattisgarh government’s additional chief secretary (forest) and as per the minutes of the FAC’s January 2019 meeting he wanted that the “site inspection should be taken up again with a larger committee and over a longer duration.”
However, FAC observed that “no additional information is expected to be obtained by one more site inspection” and noted that they had “decided to take up the site inspection as a matter of abundant precaution and felt that there is no further need to carry out any more site inspection.”
The committee observed that the proposal has been submitted by the Chhattisgarh government and had categorically recommended for the grant of forest clearance, and ASG has also given his considered opinion that there is no legal impediment for grant of forest clearance.
“Accordingly, based on the report of the sub-committee, all facts of the proposal and considering the inputs received … FAC decided to recommend for grant of in-principle approval,” noted the minutes of FAC’s January meeting.
It, however, stipulated that the Chhattisgarh government shall “reconfirm the presence/absence of VDF (Very Dense Forest) in the northeastern part of the proposed forest land under diversion and scope of excluding the same from the proposal.”Locals and environmentalists oppose mining activities
Meanwhile, the opposition to the project is brewing in the Hasdeo region.
“Majority of the Parsa coal block is dense and reserve forest and opening it for mining is going to impact the forests of the entire Hasdeo region and the nearby Hasdeo river,” said Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan. With the area being an important elephant corridor, Shukla maintained that disturbance of the corridor could increase elephant encounters with humans. “In the proposed coal block area, five people have been killed in the last three years due to human-elephant conflict. If these forests are destroyed and mining is allowed, the human-elephant conflict would only rise,” he said.
Shukla stressed that the local villagers are also opposing the project.
“They accuse that there is a clear case of violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 as the community and individual claims under the FRA in the area are pending. They point out that the gram sabhas (village councils) have not given their consent as well. This mining project should not go through. We have met the new Congress-led Chhattisgarh government about this project and have demanded form them to withdraw permission to the project. Villagers in the Hasdeo region recently took out a 28-kilometre long foot march to protest against it,” Shukla told Mongabay-India.
“The matter of mining in the whole Hasdeo Arand region will also be an important issue for voters during the upcoming Lok Sabha elections,” Shukla added.
Kanchi Kohli said, “Despite poor appraisals, opposition the land use change becomes inevitable as it gets tied with economic revenue energy security and other such logic.”
“The loss of all other values are justified as trade-offs. That is why the site inspection reports by the forest department for the Parsa coal mine in Chhattisgarh spin the narrative in favour of coal mining, despite the existence of mega fauna, endemic flora and livelihood dependence,” Kohli added.
(This story was first published on Mongabay)