Life in a Mining District Hangs in the Balance
Astha Rajvanshi reports for the Times on the terrible impacts Adani's coal expansions are having on communities in India.
Before mining came to Chhattisgarh, a landlocked state in central India, Hasdeo Arand was a remote forest with a dozen tribal hamlets. Spanning more than 650 square miles, the forest is often called the “lungs of central India” and is home to endangered elephants, sloth bears, and leopards, as well as valuable water reserves. Many of the local villagers are Adivasis, or “original inhabitants” hailing from the Gond tribe, who cultivate crops in their backyards and sell woven grass baskets at the market. For them, this land is sacred.
This is how Umeshwar Singh Armo remembers growing up in Jampani, a small hamlet crowned with guava trees. This is where his ancestors were buried, and where he hopes future generations of his tribe will thrive. Today, the 43-year-old is the village chief of the local district of Paturiadand, home to around 900 villagers.
The area’s nearly 250 plant and bird species aren’t the forest’s only resources. Armo remembers when, as a schoolboy, he learned about another one: a shiny substance called “coal.” But it wasn’t until 2007 that surveyors sent by the state government began roaming the forest, using satellite cameras and laser scans to look for the stuff.
“We would all gather around to watch them survey the land. We were curious, even excited, about what it all meant,” Armo recalls. “But we could not imagine they would dig the ground out like this.”
What the surveyors found was a miner’s jackpot: more than 5 billion tons of coal sitting under the pristine forest. In 2013, Chhattisgarh’s government marked out coal blocks, or designated areas for mining, and gave approval to Rajasthan, another state government, to extract the fuel. The Rajasthan government contracted the mining operations to Adani Power, India’s largest private operator and developer of coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Shortly after, a chunk of the forest roughly the size of five football fields was torn out to establish the Parsa-East Kanta Basan (PEKB) mine, named after two hamlets that once stood on the land. Today, what remains are large black craters.
Of course, the problems with coal don’t end with extraction. As a major consumer of it, India is also the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (though its per capita emissions are around seven times lower than that of the U.S.). Most developed nations are winding down coal capacity to meet climate targets, but India and China continue to account for about 80% of all active coal projects. And while the U.S. and the E.U. have set goals of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, India says it will get there by 2070—another decade behind China’s goal of 2060.
In light of the most recent IPCC report’s stark findings, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that all countries need to move faster to reach those targets. India, which previously argued that phasing out coal would be too detrimental to its economy, may be succumbing to global pressure. In May, during a committee meeting as part of this year’s G-20 Summit, India’s secretary for coal, Amrit Lal Meena, announced that the country will close around 30 coal mines over the next three to four years.
Meanwhile, the mines are already taking a toll on the health of those working in and living near them. “Every step in the generation of electricity by coalfired thermal power plants…[carries] serious risks on the health of miners, plant workers and residents in the vicinity of mines and power plant,” stated a 2017 study from New York University, which looked at the health and environmental impact of mining in Chattisgarh. A 2020 study by the Indian Council of Medical Research found that the tribal population in villages near the city of Raigarh, who live in a similar set-up to the villages of Hasdeo, saw increased health risks like acute respiratory infections and tuberculosis, as well as increased exposure to man-made harms such as road accidents after the coal mine opened.
Now, Hasdeo is a surveillance zone, with young men recruited by the Adani group keeping an eye on the protesters and the police patrolling the area to ensure the mining operations continue. Villagers fear retaliation for speaking out. But Armo is undeterred. Every sunset, he gathers under a large tarpaulin tent to talk to other villagers about the latest developments in the mine and to plan future resistance efforts. For him, the fight to save Hasdeo is also a larger fight for the Adivasi existence.
“We stand to lose so much if we don’t fight: the land, the river, the animals and plants, the sanctuaries, the livelihoods,” he says. “We are fighting for all of it.”