India's Dwindling Forests

Photo Source: Scroll.in

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

There has been a recent allocation of forestland, in the Hasdeo Arand forest stretch, in Chhattisgarh, spanning 170,000 hectares, by the local government.

Dubbed as India’s most pristine and densest forest area, it has been made accessible for open cast coal mining purposes. This plan has again raised concerns about the future of the country’s ecology.

This is indeed alarming. There has been a 55 per cent increase in forestland diversion between 2001 to 2008. According to Committee of Land Reforms and State Agrarian Relations (CLSR), the total forestland, diverted for non-forest use, in Chhattisgarh, between 1987 to 2003, has been 1.71 lakh hectares, out of which 67 per cent has been used for mining purposes.

This committee was formed in 2008, by Government of India, and drafted its official report in 2009. It had raised concerns about India’s dwindling forest area, as a whole, and not only in Chhattisgarh. Going by the statistics, the most land diversion in the country  has taken place in the State of Madhya Pradesh, followed by Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

It has been a decade, since then, but there has been no meeting convened by Prime Ministerial Office, regarding this matter, neither has the National Council for Land Reforms, met even once. To make matters worse, in February 2019, the apex court, has ordered forced eviction of more than 1,000,000 tribals, and other forest-dwelling households, in sixteen Indian states, after a case filed by wildlife groups, questioning the validity of the Forest Rights Act. As per the research done, by C.R Bijoy, the last eviction of tribals took place between 2002-2004, triggered by a Supreme Court Order, that had resulted in violence, deaths and protests, in affected Central Indian States, where tribal dwellers lived in forest areas.

Interestingly, during 2009, Hasdeo Arand forest area, in Chhattisgarh, was declared a ‘no go zone’, for mining, based on a joint study conducted, by the Ministry of Coal and Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Its inaccessibility had greatly irked the mining entrepreneurs. As the land is now being exploited for mining purposes, it may be the biggest forest diversion in the country, in recent times, triggering an ecological disaster.

The corporate lobbying for setting up businesses, in the area, has only escalated. As per Chhattisgarh’s Ministry for Environment, Climate Change, and Forests, between 2000 to 2015, a total of 518 mining projects had been received, including coal and iron ore mining, out of which, 413 were approved, and 40 were rejected.

The hills, that form the Rowghat range, in Chhattisgarh, are believed to have the second highest deposits of iron ore in the country. It is established that the local government has expressed interest to exploit this area, since three decades. But, it was only in 2014, when construction of support infrastructure, including railway tracks to carry iron ore took place. There was also a process of land acquisition for housing, schools, hospitals for prospective labour. As this plan would require large-scale deforestation, around 2,030 hectares of forestland would get destroyed.

The Chhattisgarh State has done little to protect the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, because the State has turned a blind eye, toward Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006, which recognises that the locals have rights over their land, they have been occupying, and they have the rights to use forest resources.

In the recent past, non-governmental organisations such as Disha and Janabhivyakti have taken the task, of helping the villagers, for rights awareness, where they managed to file Community Forest Rights documents, in 20 out of 104 villages, of the Antagard district. However, many tribals, living in the villages of the Rowghat region, such as Gonds, dependent on forest produce and agriculture, will be evicted without any discussions on rehabilitation, or resettlement. They have been given monetary compensation of 30,000 per acre, despite the fact, the villagers believe that their land is worth three times more. They also believe that the dalaals, or middlemen have cheated them. These practices signify the desperation of the State, by dodging legislation, and taking matters into their own hands, gaging democratic values, for specific interests.

In between December 2014, and March 2015, a total of 18 villages, unanimously passed gram sabha resolutions, strongly opposing coal mining in Hasdeo Arand. In February 2019, 150 gram sabhas came together, in Morga village, to protest the FAC clearance, as per a press release, from the HABSS.

According to an article written in Scroll by Raksha Kumar: “In July 2015, Washington-based think tank Rights and Resources Initiative released a study that found forest rights (both individual and community) have been granted in just 1.2% of the total area that should be recorded and recognised. The Tribal Affairs Ministry’s 2015 status report meanwhile says the total area reported to be recognised under Community Forest Rights is only 73,000 hectares, which is less than one-five-hundredth of the CFR potential in the country.”

In January 2019, Stage I clearance was awarded, for mining at the Parsa coal block, located in northern Chhattisgarh, by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change. At present, there are two operational mines in the Hasdeo Arand area: Chotia and Parsa East and Kete Basen (PEKB). The approval for Chotia came in 2011, but it was soon reallocated to Bharat Aluminum Company Limited, in 2015. The approval for Kete Basen came into foray, after a negotiated agreement, between Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), and then Minister, Jairam Ramesh. Both of these mines were given clearances for capacity enhancement, in April 2018. The minister had given his approval, based on the reason, that they were located on the outer fringe of the Hasdeo Arand area, and not in biodiversity-rich Hasdeo Arand. With the result, in places such as Parsa East and Kete Basen, the farmlands belonging to villagers were stripped bare, reflecting illegal practices.

Parts of Hasdeo Arand, rich in sal forests, rare plants, wildlife species, form an elephant corridor, and the region has recorded human-elephant conflicts, involving property damage and deaths, lately. To defend its agenda, the state has refused to recognise the migratory route of this large mammal. The State, conversely, have called their movements as ‘stray movements’. Initially, the area had been proposed for an elephant reserve, but this initiative was never been developed by the state government. Moreover, mass deforestation and mining operations would impact the flow of Hasdeo river, one of the most important sources of irrigation, in the northern part of Chhattisgarh.

Despite this, several proposals for environmental and forest clearances have been coming up in Hasdeo Arand. There are around six coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand, as per inputs published by The Wire. The region is supposed to have billion metric tones of proven coal reserves. It reflects gross miscalculations and distrust by the local government. The Madanpur South Coal Mine has been issued a Terms of Reference (ToR), on the basis of Environment Impact Assessment Report. Very recently, Paturiya Gidmuri OCM has put forward an application for a forest clearance, in July 2018, and it has been considered, by the EAC, for the grant of ToR, in September 2018. The Kete Extension coal block also has been given an approval to commence prospective, for coal.

As of now, there are two cases pending in the Indian Supreme Court regarding Hasdeo Arand - a petition by Chhattisgarh-based lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava has been drafted, seeking de-allocation of RVUNL’s Parsa-Kente Extension coal block (adjoining Parsa open cast mine) in Chhattisgarh, and cancellation of the joint venture, and coal delivery agreement with Adani Enterprises Limited. The other petition is filed by RVUNL, seeking a relaxation of the National Green Tribunal’s direction, restricting mining in certain forest areas of Chhattisgarh.

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