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SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: August 8, 2020

SNIP: Over the past decade, Umeshwar Singh Amra has witnessed his homeland descend into a battleground. The war being waged in Hasdeo Arand, a rich and biodiverse Indian forest, has pitted indigenous people, ancient trees, elephants and sloths against the might of bulldozers, trucks and hydraulic jacks, fighting with a single purpose: the extraction of coal.

Yet under a new “self-reliant India” plan by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to boost the economy post-Covid-19 and reduce costly imports, 40 new coalfields in some of India’s most ecologically sensitive forests are to be opened up for commercial mining.

Among them are four huge blocks of Hasdeo Arand’s 420,000 acres of forest in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which sit above an estimated 5bn tonnes of coal.

It marks a significant shift. The coal industry in India is state-owned, but this auction of 40 new coal blocks will see the creation of a privatised, commercial coal sector in India. Among those bidding for it are India’s rich and powerful industrial giants, including the $14bn (£11bn) Adani group run by the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, who operates India’s largest coal power plants and has close ties to Modi.

The coal auction has already proved controversial at both the local and political level. At least seven of the coal blocks up for auction were previously deemed “no go” areas for mining due to their environmentally valuable status and about 80% of the blocks are home to indigenous communities and thick forest cover. Four state governments – West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh – have written to Modi in opposition or raised legal objections to the auction, and one coal block, which overlapped with the Tadoba tiger reserve in Maharashtra, has already been removed.

Amra, who is an Adivasi, a term used to describe India’s indigenous people, was one of nine local sarpanchs – village leaders – who recently wrote to Modi demanding a stop to the auction in Hasdeo Arand. He said: “If the government gave me the option to give up my life in exchange for no more mining happening in the forest, I would do it in a second.”

Amra has seen first-hand the environmental devastation wreaked by open-cast coal mines. In 2011, two vast open-cast mines were excavated on the forest’s peripheries, ripping up the fragile land and filling the surroundings with pollution, smoke, heat, noise and poison. Crime rose drastically in the area and the elephants that lived in the forest, disoriented by the new hostile conditions, became aggressive, leading to dozens of deaths.

The prospect of more significant blocks of the forest, the largest in India, being handed over to private mining operations was more than Amra could bear. Five villages will be destroyed and more than 6,000 mainly indigenous people displaced, as well as thousands of hectares of trees, torn down for mines and roads.

“If more mining happens everything will change; the natural resources will be gone, our way of life will disappear, everything will be under threat,” he said. “We are tribal people, we cannot go out and live in the cities and no amount of money can ever compensate us. There is no forest like this in the world – cut it down and it can never be replaced.”