Investigative research in India's tribal belt
Jal Jungle Jameen — Voices of Resistance
This work is a result of a 3-year long, collaborative investigative research in the Hasdeo Aranya region of Chhattisgarh (Central India), a large stretch of contiguous forest home to several Adivasi communities. My longterm involvement in this project, as a project leader, researcher and storyteller, has transformed an otherwise neglected struggle, into a global movement. The grassroots protests have successfully been accelerated by solidarity protests in at least 8 different countries, leading the Government of Chhattisgarh to temporarily hold the construction of new coal mines in the area. However, the stronghold of mining corporation over the region, in conjunction with the destructive ‘development’ goals of the current Indian government, means that the fight is far from over.
*interview names omitted for safety reasons
‘Our country may have obtained freedom from the British, but freedom has never been given to the Adivasi people. We do not accept this slavery, and we will give our bodies, souls and lives to resist against this’
The state of Chhattisgarh was created in the year 2000, from the erstwhile Central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, with the ‘benevolent’ ambition to protect Adivasi (indigenous) people from losing access to their land and livelihoods to development projects.
However, the creation of this new state did not result in any improvement for the Adivasi people, nor protected them from any such projects. On the contrary, it paved the way for more extractive projects, such as coal-mining.
The Hasdeo Aranya region sits on top of a large coal field spanning over 2,000 sq.km. Because of its ecological importance, the Hasdeo forest was declared as a "NO-GO ZONE" for mining by the Ministry of Environment in 2010. One year later, that status was revoked and the PEKB mine was built, displacing thousands of Adivasi from their ancestral lands.
In partnership with state governments, private companies continue to acquire several coal blocks in the region through illegitimate means. The Indian State and mega-corporations have joined forces in an enterprise that seeks to decimate biodiversity-rich forests and displace entire communities in the name of “economic development" of few.
Adivasi elders patrol their forests to keep corporate agents from illegally cutting their forest.
The Adivasi people, who did not know what a mine was, never received information about the different impacts that the coal mine would bring. They did not know how many trees were going to be cut, they did not understand the pollution that the mine would create, they were not aware that their river would completely disappear, nor they ever imagined that their ancestral villages would be uprooted and their sacred groves irreversibly destroyed.
Since the affected communities were unaware of the consequences of mining on their land, they consented to it under the condition that the corporation would follow the 33 points outlined by the Adivasi people in the agreement.
Two of those conditions referred to the provision of generational employment for displaced communities, and a small share in the coal-mining profit for the people who would not be able to get employment because of lack of education. Neither these, nor any of the other conditions have been met till today, more than a decade later.
After their self-reliance was snatched away with the construction of the coal mine, many Adivasi were left with no other choice but to get involved in the informal economy surrounding coal.
Adivasi woman brooms the coal dust off the road, a morning routine common among the residents of Korba — once a pristine jungle, now transformed into an industrial town.
After the Adivasis felt the impacts of the mine, the communities of Hasdeo Aranya organized themselves into a resistance movement. They have been fighting through constitutional means for over a decade.
Adivasi people gather in protest to stop illegal prospection of coal in their forests.
The Adivasi people, who intimately follow their animist cosmology, speak eloquently about the impacts of mining on the living creatures of the forest such as snakes, bears, elephants, and even spiders. They see themselves as spokespeople for these beings who “cannot speak for themselves”.
Entire families are forced to leave their subsistence activities behind in order to directly stop corporate agents from illegally prospecting for new coal fields in their lands.
The indigenous resistance movement is gathering together children, youth, adults, and elders. Because their fight is not only transcends the physical subsistence of the present, but their future continuation as a people.
Adivasi man returns from the forest after the praying to the Karma tree in a spirit of reciprocity.
For them, the forest is not simply a physical space where the community temporarily resides, but a living shrine that marks their existence. Besides providing them with the necessary resources for their physical subsistence, the natural environment around them is seen as a source of spiritual nourishment that feeds their continuation as a people.
Adivasi embarked on a 300 mile march to the state capital of Raipur, to bring politicians into account for the promises made during campaign elections.
"We are tired because we walk all day long. We feel like stopping, but if we get tired today, we will not have our rights tomorrow. That is why we accept the fatigue and keep walking so that we can demand our rights."
The PEKB coal mine that today replaces the ancestral forests of the Adivasi people.
"There used to be caves here. In these caves lived bears and snakes.
Now they are all gone."
"Our sacred spaces were uprooted for the coal mine. We don't have any sacred groves left. Now we can't even pray to our deities." — Meghnat, Adivasi shaman.
Adivasi man stands on the erstwhile forest path that has now been destroyed to give way for the Parsa mine, which is still being disputed in court.
"Why would I take compensation? Will that give me the same size of land that I have right now? Will that raise my entire family? I have been grazing my buffaloes here for decades but now I am being told that this is private land and I cannot graze my buffaloes here anymore."
My investigation exposed different strategies being employed by the state-corporate nexus in the region: forgery of permits and other documentation related to environmental clearances, bypassing Supreme Court judgements, falsely implicating village leaders in criminal cases, acquiring consent for mining through the use of force, and diverse tactics to manipulate the moral economy on the ground such as damaging reputation of people and labelling them as Maoist insurgents.
Adivasi women gather in protest against the illegal counting of trees — the first stage of the mining process.
Coal mining workers outside a liquor shop after their afternoon shift.
Alcohol is often used to intoxicate innocent villagers in order to obtain their consent for mining.
A villager carries a large block of coal near the Gevra mine — Asia’s largest open cast mine. The coal is either used for personal consumption or to be sold in the black market.
An Adivasi village in Hasdeo Aranya, today threatened to disappear for yet another coal mine.
The Adivasi get everything they need to survive from the forest. From food to medicines that cure anything from a headache to a broken bone.
Adivasi elder patrols her forests to keep corporate agents at bay.
“We stop them from cutting our trees during the day. But at night, when they know we are vulnerable, they come with their machines. By the morning, we find Mother Earth bleeding.”
Four thousand trees were cut overnight without the consent of the affected communities.
An Adivasi mud-house destroyed by a herd of elephants.
"We were asleep when the elephants came. It was dark and we were terrified. We think they are angry at us for allowing the mine to open".
The PEKB coal mine, which bypassed environmental clearances, has destroyed an important elephant corridor. This has given rise to an unprecedented human-elephant conflict in other villages.
"If we sell our Mother Earth, how will we breathe? Where will our children and grandchildren live? Where are going to get our food from? This is our life and we will die fighting for it."
"Even if we save our forest from further mining, our land will still be at risk. One day, it will be our children's responsibility to stand up to protect it, just like our ancestors did. That is why we take our children to our protests, so that they can learn about their constitutional rights and our ways of resistance.
Adivasi youth stand in front of a sacred tree:
"We are the