Indian anti-mining protesters revive old resistance to protect forest

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CHENNAI, India (Oct 8): A decade after she first refused to make way for proposed coal mines in India's Hasdeo Arand forest, Santra Bai is once more fighting to save her land and livelihood from the same threat.

The 32-year-old is one of about 250 villagers walking 300km (186 miles) from their homes in central Chhattisgarh to the state capital Raipur to protest against new mining in the region, as the country grapples with a coal shortage crisis.

The protesters are demanding the cancellation of all coal mining projects in the region, stating that permissions granted were illegal and that the damage caused would be irreparable.

"I don't want coal mines near my home," Bai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Tuesday, three days into the protest march, which is expected to arrive in Raipur on Oct. 13.

"We have been protesting for years - and this time if they (the government) don't listen and open mines on our land, we will bring our families and squat outside their homes."

Hasdeo Arand, one of central India's largest intact forests, is home to indigenous people, including the Gond tribe, and has rich biodiversity with an elephant corridor cutting through it.

The forest has huge coal reserves that are causing villagers disquiet as the federal government looks to open new mines and boost coal production nationwide to meet electricity demand.

India is the world's second-biggest importer, consumer and producer of coal, and has the fourth largest reserves. Indian utilities are scrambling to secure supplies as inventories hit critical lows after a surge in power demand from industries.

Protesters and activists said recent coal block auctions had not obtained the necessary clearance from village councils, and disregarded individual and community land rights in the process.

The 250-odd villagers revived their decade-old resistance after construction began last month on what they said was a new coal mine that had not been approved by the forestry department.

Yet Sanjeev Kumar Jha, administrative head of Chhattisgarh's Sarguja district - where Bai lives - said no new mining work had been initiated recently and that the construction in question was roadworks to access an existing mine.

'NOT FOR US'

Alok Shukla of the non-profit Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan, which supports the communities in Hasdeo Arand, said land acquisition processes were being pushed through by governments without the mandated approval of village councils.

"No mining can happen here without the consent of gram sabhas (village councils)," he said. "It is worrying that the government is bypassing this permission for land acquisition."

According to a 2020 report by data research agency Land Conflict Watch, 60% of mining-related conflicts in India occur in areas that have a majority tribal population such as Sarguja.

About half of such conflicts violated the Forest Rights Act - from people being evicted from protected areas, to officials forging or ignoring consent of village councils to carry out industrial activities on their land, the research found.

"People who will be impacted (by coal mining) are being intimidated and not being allowed to attend public hearings on the issue," said Bhanumati Kalluri of the Dhaatri Resource Centre, which works with women in mining areas.

"People don't want to give up their land and are even rejecting compensation. They know from the experience of many others that if they give up their land, they lose everything."

One of Bai's fellow marchers, 28-year-old Muneswar Singh Porte, said he had grown up through the protests and witnessed how villagers from neighbouring Korba district had struggled to get by after giving up their land for coal mining in the 1970s.

"The houses they are given are very small, those who got jobs are paid very little - and most did not even get jobs," said Porte, who was walking with his mother.

"We are self-sufficient and don't want anything," he added. We cultivate our fields and sell forest produce that we gather."

Bai urged the government to listen to the villagers and said they would "lose everything" if new mines opened in the forest.

"This is not for us," she said. "Our lives will never be the same again."