The sun is harsh, and some leaves on the trees have turned the colour of the earth, a dry brown. It’s a brown the villagers of Fatehpur in Surguja district of north Chhattisgarh do not mind — what they fear is the earth turning black.
“As long as the ground is brown in the summer, it means our forests still exist, and the land is still ours. But they want to turn our forest into a mining pit, and the brown earth black. Until the day that happens and afterward too, we will fight,” says Jainendra Singh Porte, a resident of Fatehpur.
In March, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests gave environmental clearance to the 5 metric tonne per annum (MTPA) Parsa mine, located deep in the Hasdeo Arang forests of North Chhattisgarh. The mine is owned by Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, the Rajasthan state power distribution company (discom), and operated by Rajasthan Collieries Limited, a unit of Adani Enterprises Limited.
Political edge to the conflict
When most clearances were given during the BJP regime, tribals and the powerful NGOs rallied around the Congress. With the Congress in power, they now expect a shift in policy.
Environmental activists allege that the clearance to the mine violates several conditions set by governments previously, and that 841 hectares of the mine is in dense, ecologically sensitive forests in one of central India’s longest contiguous stretches of tree cover.
Some 330 km away from the state capital Raipur, residents of Fatehpur, Hariharpur, Salhi and Ghatbarra — four villages where land is set to be acquired — ask how the clearance process got this far. Because they allege, every step of the way, has been “based on a mistruth”.
Sitting under a tree in Fatehpur, close to 50 men and women say they first heard of the mine being considered “three to four years ago”. “People came to our villages and said there would be a public hearing for the acquisition of 1,252 hectares of our land. We opposed them, and at a public hearing in Janardhanpur, we registered our protest. In Hariharpur, the administration put up tents, but we prevented the hearing from being held. But there were hearings in Vasan and Tara, villages nearby,” Porte said.
Ramlal Kurram of Salhi village has been at the forefront of the protests. Public hearings were held on October 29 and November 12 of 2017, he said.
“But everything was managed. People from villages that were not affected were given alcohol and chicken, and brought to the spot from midnight onward. There was a huge crowd of mostly outsiders, who backed consent for the mine, without giving reasons. We, from the villages, could barely get in, and voices of those who did were drowned out. It was a sham,” Kurram said.
Much the same happened with gram sabha consent, essential for the opening of the mine, villagers allege.
“There were gram sabhas in Hariharpur on January 24, and in Salhi on January 27. The villagers who were present said nothing about consent for the mine or land acquisition was discussed. In fact, we talked about our applications for forest rights,” Kurram said. “But in August 2018, we were told by activists that in the documents submitted to the Environment Ministry, it was said that the villages agreed to diversion of land on these two days. This is false; on August 28, 2018, we sent an official complaint to the Collector about this. The signatures of the panch etc were obtained under duress. The point of the gram sabha is consensus. And if the villages ever did agree, why would we be refusing consent now?”
Approached for comment, a representative of Adani Enterprises said, “As you are aware, we are a mining contractor appointed by the enterprise of Government of Rajasthan, Rajasthan Rajya Urja Vikas Nigam Limited, through transparent competitive bidding process and its concerned officials are the appropriate authority to comment on the issues you have referred to in your query. Also, Public Hearings and Gram Sabhas are conducted as per the well defined framework of the state government of Chhattisgarh in the presence of concerned stakeholders.”
There was no response to an email sent to RRVUN.
The Haseo Arang forests, especially the area of the proposed mine, abound with wildlife. On NH 130, a kilometre before the road turns off for Fatehpur, Hariharpur and Salhi some 3 km away, signs warn of “Haathi Prabhavit Kshetra” and “Vanya Prani Prabhavit Kshetra” (elephant/wildlife affected area). Bhuvneshwar Porte, another villager, said: “In the neighbouring Ghatbarra village, elephants killed three people in January 2018. And they come and break our houses in Fatehpur.”
In all the four villages, Gond adivasis are the majority, and they say that the loss of land would also mean a loss of their tradition. 82-year-old Mayawati shouts in agitation: “The forest is everything for us. It gives us mahua and tendupatta. During the Karma tyohaar, we pray to the karmi tree, during Jyotika to the chilhi tree, and in Holika, to the semar. Our marriages are incomplete without nature. I will never leave.”
The villagers’ fears have a basis in their lived experience. Hariharpur, one of the four villages, borders the Parsa East Kete Basin coal mine, which became operational in 2013. Every afternoon, as controlled explosions take place in the mine, the ground shakes. “Our homes have cracks, and we live in fear of the ceiling or walls falling,” said a villager. “There is dust in our homes and on our crops. The elephants come because their corridor has been ruined. The Saalhi naala which used to be a perennial stream is dry and dirty. Of those who lost their lands, only a handful have got menial jobs. Others have had dalals take all their compensation money. They want to relocate people to two-room quarters in Vasan. They do not understand. An adivasi can live in one room, but he needs a baadi, a field, livestock, and the forest to survive,” the villager said.
On March 28, a district administration team arrived in Fatehpur, accompanied by several patwaris and a police force. “We did not let them survey. Why should we allow a survey when we do not want to give up our land? Every time we have seen the government, they have worked against us. It seems the Congress is doing the same as the BJP before it. We stood in the fields and said first shoot us, and then do your survey. They left,” Bhuvneshwar Porte said.
Surguja District Collector Dr Saransh Mittar said: “The teams make trips to the villages frequently. The only purpose was to get our records right so that there are no issues later. But the villagers opposed our presence and the teams returned. Nothing happened. On the other complaints, there are some issues of miscommunication. We are looking into them.”
Villagers say they may consider boycotting the Lok Sabha election if they are not given assurances soon. Voting for the Surguja seat, which has been represented by the BJP continuously since 2004, is scheduled for April 23.
Alok Shukla, convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, who has written several letters to the Union Ministries concerned, said the state government could step in even now. “We will go to the NGT against forest and environmental clearance. We have also asked the state government to take action. They have a right to step in because land acquisition and implementation of The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is in their ambit. If the previous government acquired the land fraudulently, they can cancel it. The state government can also refuse to grant the final stage 2 clearance because the earlier clearances were based on false information,” he said.
Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, Congress chief spokesperson, said, “All these decisions were taken by the previous BJP government. The Chief Minister has already said that after the Lok Sabha elections, all appropriate actions will be taken. The villagers are correct to expect the Congress to stand for them, because the BJP hasn’t done so.”
Back in Fatehpur, Bhuvneshwar Porte has his eyes fixed on a car on the road that passes through the village. “We look at every car with suspicion because we cannot afford to be caught unawares again. This land is our life. And we will protect it until brown and green turns to black,” he says.