"If you protest alone, there's still the risk of losing your lands. Stand united, and if anyone comes with a gun, I will take the first bullet," Chhattisgarh's Health Minister TS Singhdeo said while addressing protesters opposing coal mines in the state's Hasdeo Aranya forests on 6 June earlier this year.
Speaking to The Quint, Muneshwar Porte, a 27-year-old farmer and a resident of Fatehpur village in Hasdeo, said that they feel duped by politicians across party lines, but they won't give up this fight.
"We feel betrayed by all sides. We are being used and are being taken for a ride. Earlier, it was the BJP – and now it's the Congress. The moment they see us getting some media coverage and our voices being heard, they become humble and promise to listen to us. But the moment Adivasis take a step back, they start scheming and act against our interests."Muneshwar Porte
Around 43 hectares of forest land has been cut down for the second phase of mining in PEKB. In total, the Chhattisgarh government has given approval of 1,136.328 hectares of forest land for non-forestry use for the mining project. The approval came after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot met with the his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel in March this year.
Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) has been allocated three coal blocks, namely PEKB, Parsa coal block in Surguja, and Kente Extension, two of which have Adani Enterprises as their mine developer and operator. However, only the PEKB coal mine has been operational till now.
According to the officials, the first phase of mining in 762 hectares under the PEKB commenced in 2013 and the reserves, which were allocated for 15 years, exhausted in about 9 years.
Officials Claim Outside Influence, Protesting Villagers Refute
Officials of Surguja district, where the PEKB phase-II mine is located, alleged that "external elements are misguiding locals and creating obstructions," claiming that tree-felling is being done for Parsa coal mines. They say that isn't true.
"PEKB phase-II mine is an old and running mine spread over 1,136 hectares of forest land. Out of the that, tree-felling is proposed for 43 hectares of forest land. The locals are being misguided. There was no opposition from people for PEKB-2 mines."District official
However, Ramlal Kariyam, a resident of Salhi village of Hasdeo in Surguja district (which is also a Singhdeo stronghold), voiced strong objection to the claims of "outside influence." He said that the residents of Hasdeo "do not want anymore destruction of their age-old habitat, and that they will not budge an inch from their lands for corporate gains."
"It's very clear that this government is playing games with us. Many of us who stand in the front row of this fight for our rights were detained by the police and hundreds of policemen were deployed to prevent people from coming out, while government went on cutting thousands of trees a few days ago."Ramlal Kariyam
Baghel, Singhdeo's Tug of War on Hasdeo
While the bone of contention between Baghel and Singhdeo has been the post of chief minister in Chhattisgarh, Hasdeo and the mining issue have taken centre stage in the past few months.
After Singhdeo had told the protesters that he would be the first person to "take a bullet" if anyone came for Hasdeo and its people, the chief minister had responded saying that "not even a branch would be cut off without Singhdeo's consent."
However, despite the assurances by the state government that no new mines will be opened in Hasdeo, the recent steps of tree-felling has led to an intensified tribal struggle to hold onto their lands.
Speaking to The Quint, Bipasha Paul, an activist working in the Hasdeo forests, said that tree-felling being done in Hasdeo was in contravention to the resolution passed by Vidhan Sabha in July 2022, in which the Congress government had decided to cancel all the coal blocks in Hasdeo.
"The recent tree-felling in Hasdeo for the PEKB phase-II mining despite strong opposition from villagers shows the loose political commitment of the Congress party towards Adivasis and forests in Chhattisgarh. The Congress doesn't want to stay behind in the race to work for narrow corporate profits. In the monsoon sessions of Chhattisgarh Vidhan Sabha this year, Bhupesh government unanimously passed a resolution to cancel all the coal blocks in Hasdeo. However, later on, the government relied only on verbal declarations with no accountability and they played it very well to betray the people in Hasdeo."Bipasha Paul
Bipasha further claimed that the chopping of trees has been done despite Ghatbarra gram sabha passing a resolution against coal mining in June 2022.
According to reports, mining in the first phase of 762 hectares of land allocated under PEKB block began in 2013 and has been completed.
Similar tree-felling action was initiated in May 2022. It drew heavy opposition from the locals, forcing the government to halt the overall process.
Following resentment and tribal uproar, the government passed a verbal order in June this year putting mining in PEKB, Parsa, and Kente extension on hold.