Economic Growth or Adivasi Rights?
India’s Developmental Violence and the Struggle of the Indigenous People of Hasdeo
“We exist because the forest does, and the forest exists because we do.”
– Member of the Gond Adivasi people in Hasdeo Aranya
That the world is facing an unprecedented climate crisis is a fact. A major contributing factor to this is the unchecked exploitation of natural resources which significantly affects indigenous communities, who share a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Despite the fact that indigenous people encapsulate only 6% of the world’s population, they safeguard 80% of its biodiversity, according to a study conducted by the World Bank.
While India does not officially recognise the term “indigenous” it is nonetheless home to several indigenous communities, including indigenous communities of central India that identify themselves as Adivasi, meaning original inhabitant. Within the context of central India, the term Adivasi is used interchangeably with the term “tribal” people and different tribal groups form a part of the Adivasi society. This article seeks to put into perspective the struggle for land and resource rights of the Adivasi communities, particularly in the threatened, pristine Hasdeo Aranya (lit. translated: forest) of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.
Introducing Hasdeo Aranya, the “Lungs of Chhattisgarh”
The Hasdeo forest is a large stretch of contiguous forest that is home to several Adivasi communities and has been identified as an ecologically sensitive region since it is the catchment area of the Hasdeo river and home to diverse wildlife species (some of which are endangered). It also forms an important elephant corridor, the disruption of which will result in an exponential rise in human-elephant conflicts. Because of its ecological importance, the forest had been classified as a “No-Go Area for Mining” in 2009–2010 by the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Unfortunately, the Hasdeo forest is more popularly known as the Hasdeo Aranya Coal Field since the region sits on top of a large coal field that spans over 1878 sq. km, of which 1502 sq. km are situated under dense forest cover. At least 14 coal mines have been allocated within the forest region of Hasdeo. Due to this, its “No-Go” classification was overturned in 2011 to successfully start the PEKB coal mine. This mine polluted the primary source of water for the surrounding villages, disrupted the elephant corridor, displaced two villages and decimated Adivasi sacred spaces.
The Adivasi communities of this forest have inhabited the region for several generations and depend on it for their survival. Besides procuring fruits, flowers and vegetables, the forest serves as a grazing ground for the Adivasi’s cattle and as a pharmacy for their medicines. To top it all, the forest is sacred. Adivasi communities believe their deities live in the trees, rivers and hills of the forest. For them, the forest is not simply a physical space where the community temporarily resides, but a living shrine that marks their existence.
Having witnessed the destruction to the forest and their culture caused by the PEKB mine, the Adivasi communities began a peaceful resistance against any further coal mining on their lands. For more than a decade the communities have protested to secure their constitutional rights.
Adivasi Rights and Their Dilutions: The Example of Hasdeo
The three major laws that govern forest dwelling tribal communities in India are: 1) The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, 2) the Provision for the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 also known as the PESA and 3) the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 also known as the Forest Rights Act or FRA. Much like the ILO Convention 169 (not yet ratified by India, despite the country’s nearly 104 million indigenous inhabitants), these Indian laws recognise the Adivasi communities’ right to free, prior and informed consent, along with land and resource rights. The PESA and the FRA both recognise the autonomy of the Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) in making decisions about any development work proposed to take place on their lands. Land falling under the ambit of the FRA must not be sold.
In 2013, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act was passed. In Section 2(2)(b), this Act states that “…no land shall be transferred by way of acquisition, in the Scheduled Areas in contravention of any law (including any order of judgement of a court which has become final) relating to land transfer, prevailing in such Scheduled Areas.” Ideally, the Act should have superseded all previous land acquisition laws, but LARR is not being enforced, since the Supreme Court has not yet issued guidelines on its implementation.
As such, the land acquisition for coal mines (such as the Parsa and Madanpur South coal blocks) in the Hasdeo forest is being conducted under the ambit of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) (CBA) Act, 1957. This Act does not recognise the rights of forest dwelling tribal communities and therefore, the consent of indigenous communities is being effectively sidestepped through the use of this law.
Based on the FRA, members of tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers can apply for land titles as proof of ownership of both their individual and community land and resources. Until all such claims are settled, land cannot be transferred for any private or public projects. It has now been 16 years since this law was enacted, yet to this day, Adivasi villagers in the Hasdeo forest have not received their titles, despite having applied for them more than three times. Villages have yet to receive their community land right titles and, in the case of the only village that did, their community land rights were “cancelled” by district level authorities. The officials in charge claimed that thecommunities would abuse their rights to oppose coal mining operations.
The Adivasi communities of Hasdeo have approached the Chhattisgarh High Court against the cancellation of their community forest rights, however, no decision has been delivered yet. They also challenged the land acquisition process of the Parsa coal block, but the High Court of Chhattisgarh dismissed this citing “no merit in these petitions.” The case has been appealed and is at present being heard by the Supreme Court of India.
It is important to note that land and resource rights of indigenous communities have been upheld by the Supreme Court in Samatha vs State of Andhra Pradesh and Ors (1997), (popularly known as the Samatha Judgement) even before the FRA was enacted. After the law was enacted, in Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd vs Ministry of Environment and Forests and Others (popularly known as the Niyamgiri case), the Supreme Court in 2013 upheld rights of indigenous communities on their land and resources and also recognised the loss of culture that the communities face when they face displacement because of developmental projects.
However, in 2019, after the far-right Bhartiya Janata Party was re-elected to form the union government, the Supreme Court shifted its stance on the jurisprudence that it had established on indigenous rights. Based on a petition filed by wildlife conservation NGOs the Supreme Court ordered forced evictions of approximately one million indigenous people from their forests. The order was later suspended, but since then, the enforcement of indigenous rights within the country has been in a state of flux.
Grabbing Land and Digging Coal: The State-Corporate Nexus and Its Tactics
In their years of protest against further coal mining in Hasdeo, the communities have faced several hardships. They have witnessed their villages being divided on the empty promises of “development” made by corporations seeking to mine their lands, namely Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL), with Adani Mining Enterprises as the “Mine Developer and Operator” (MDO). Consent for mining has been obtained on false promises of jobs, bigger and better houses, and the overall aspiration of a better lifestyle. Allegations have been made that corporations have even invested money in supporting candidates who would be biased towards their mining agenda at village level elections.
Even more severe are the claims that corporations acquired consent for another coal mine by pressuring the Sarpanch (village head) into signing off on a no-objection certificate behind closed doors in the presence of district level authorities. When the local community tried to lodge a formal complaint against this coercion, the police refused to register it.
In October 2021, the Adivasi communities from different villages of Hasdeo walked 300 kms to the state capital to raise their concerns in person with the Chief Minister and the Governor. The latter wrote to competent authorities at the district level to immediately begin investigating the allegations, but no action has been taken in this regard to date.
At the present moment, the communities of Hasdeo are camping in the forest. Even after continuous protests and exhausting all bureaucratic means available, corporation workers have been routinely cutting down trees in the night to expand on the already operational coal mine and to start another. On 10 June 2022 mining projects were orally put on hold by the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh. This, however, has given the local communities no respite. The Adivasis of Hasdeo have had to remain in the forest because corporation workers, with the aid of government authorities, continuously attempt to cut down trees.
Going Forward: The Role of the International Community in Supporting Indigenous Rights Struggles
Since the far-right Bhartiya Janata Party has come to power in India, several attempts have been made to dilute the laws aimed at safeguarding the environment. More recently, the government has decided to remove the clause mandating consent from the FRA. Needless to say, the resistance in Hasdeo is not an isolated case in India and the road ahead for Adivasi communities is all but easy.
As is the case with most indigenous resistance movements around the world, the struggle of the people of Hasdeo will continue as long as they live. Often activists have acknowledged that if it were not for the resilience of the communities, the Hasdeo forest would have been destroyed years ago. Rather than the G7 inviting India’s prime minister Narendra Modi as a special guest and cheering at his empty pledges, governments around the world would do well to take a close look at India’s current trajectory. Laws protective of both the environment and people are already being rolled back, while rights are being cancelled and diluted.
With India’s most powerful corporation and the state against the people of Hasdeo, one might think their struggle is a lost cause. In fact, this struggle is a stand-in for our collective future: It is a decision between developmental capitalism or the survival of our planet as we know it. The Adivasi people of Hasdeo Aranya, as most indigenous peoples, fight for us all and the world we live in. Holding the Indian government and India’s mega-corporations accountable as per their international obligations, is the task of the international community – and they better live up to it for all our sakes.