Five coal blocks up for allocation and auction in the first phase could get stuck in a land conflict. A total of 20 tribal village councils in the Hasdeo-Arand and Dharamjaigarh forest areas of Chhattisgarh have passed formal resolutions under the Forest Rights Act, vetoing the opening of coal blocks in their traditional forestlands. Overall, the move will impact 16 coal blocks in the state. Of these, the three offered for auction under the first phase are Parsa East, Kete Basan and Parsa blocks, while the Fatehpur East and Durgapur -II/Taraimar are set to be auctioned.
The other blocks are to be auctioned or allocated at a later stage.
The villages that have passed these resolutions are in the Sarguja, Korba and Raigarh districts.
Under the Forest Rights Act and its regulations, consent of tribal village councils is mandatory before cutting forests and carrying out any activity in these areas. Without an explicit resolution from the councils permitting the project, the Union environment and forests ministry cannot give a statutory forest clearance to an industry to cut the forests and mine these areas. The 20 villages have used these powers to say they are against opening of mines under the new ordinance.
The resolutions by the villages were passed around the time the coal Bill was tabled in Parliament, in October 2014. After failing to get the Bill passed in Parliament, the National Democratic Alliance government had passed the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 2014, on December 19. The ordinance was devised as a route to re-allocate and auction mines, after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allocation of 204 coal blocks, saying the allocation process fell foul of the law. Of these, 101 blocks have been put up for allocation and auction by the NDA government in the first phase.
A few days ago, leaders of these village councils came to Delhi under the aegis of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, met Union environment, forests and climate change minister Prakash Javadekar and informed him of their decision. In a release, the group said, "These forests are Schedule-V areas under the Constitution, where the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, are applicable and, therefore, the consent of gram sabhas (village councils) is required prior to any mining in the region. 20 gram sabhas of the region have passed unanimous resolutions against coal mining and any auction/allotment of mines in their area."
Under existing laws, the villages could prevent mining from being started or restarted in parts of the blocks that fall within their traditional, individual and community forests.
Since it came to power in May 2014, the NDA government has been working to do away with the need for such consent from tribal village councils. But the tribal affairs ministry has repeatedly advised such a change can only be brought about through a legislative amendment to the Forest Rights Act.
The dilution the environment ministry has been seeking in consent provisions under the Forest Rights Act would still continue to provide such a veto power to village councils in tribal-dominated Schedule-V areas, under which the 20 villages in Chhattisgarh also fall.
Under the earlier policy, the Hasdeo-Arand forest had been identified as a 'no-go' area - a forest area too good to be mined. But the policy was put on hold and revised under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. Several official reports highlighted the forest as one of the densest of its kind in the country, rich in biodiversity. But the UPA government had given clearances to some blocks in the region without the consent of the tribals and ignoring its 'no-go' policy. Initially, the state government had planned a large part of these forests, under which the coal blocks fall, would be declared an elephant reserve, which would have banned mining. But the government decided not to do so, following representation from industry bodies.
The NDA government has drafted a much diluted no-go policy, though this hasn't been formally accepted yet. Clearances to some blocks were also challenged in the National Green Tribunal on environmental grounds (not under the Forest Rights Act) and, in case of two blocks, the tribunal had rejected the clearances.
The move by some villages under the banner of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan to claim their forests has already embroiled two blocks - Parsa East and Kete Basan - in controversy and legal complications. Under the previous coal regulatory regime, these blocks were allocated to Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Nigam in a joint venture with the Adani group. In 2012, the villagers had complained the blocks had secured forest clearances from the Centre without the mandatory consent resolutions from the villagers. They added their claims to their traditional forestlands, under the Forest Rights Act, had been kept in abeyance. Based on their pleas, the environment ministry asked the state government for a status report.
The ministry is yet to receive a reply in this regard.
In March 2014, the National Green Tribunal had cancelled the forest clearances to these coal blocks due to violation of environmental laws. It asked the ministry to look at the proposal afresh. Other coal blocks, such as Mahan in Madhya Pradesh, had also been challenged on environmental grounds, but the tribunal decided to close the cases once the Supreme Court ordered cancellation of all coal block allotments.