MAC: Mines and Communities

Adani pilloried for forestry destruction in Orissa

Published by MAC on 2020-01-06
Source: Peoples Archive of Rural India

As 2019 drew to an end, it's hardly any suprise that the huge Adani corporation left its destructive mark on another forested area, where the prime victims are indigenous people.

‘We believe 15,000 trees have already been cut’

For two weeks now, innumerable trees are being cut to make way for the
Talabira coal mine in Odisha. The villagers are heartbroken and
intimidated, allege forged consent, and plan to oppose this destruction

Chitrangada Choudhury

PARI (Peoples Archive of Rural India)

18 December 2019

“The impact of felling 130,721 trees will be negligible.”

That is what a senior forest department official, the Regional Chief
Conservator of Forests, Sambalpur Division, wrote in February 2014. He was
recommending that 2,500 acres of forestland in the villages of Talabira
and Patrapali, on the border of Odisha’s Sambalpur and Jharsuguda
districts, be handed over for a coal mine.

The residents of the two villages haven’t seen these documents in English,
drafted by forest officials, that culminated in the forest clearance for
the Talabira II and III Open Cast Coal Mine in March 2019. But the people
here could not agree less with the official’s opinion – who is,
ironically, a designated ‘conservator’.

Over the past two weeks, Adani Enterprises, the mine developer and
operator, has felled thousands of trees (how many exactly, remains
unclear) as it begins work on the Talabira mine. The villagers say no
notice was given. And many of them – in this village of 2150 people
(Census 2011) – are heartbroken, angry and intimidated that a forest they
say they have conserved for decades is being torn down before their eyes,
with the help of the police and the state armed forces personnel.

The most immediate impact on the ground at the moment is the tree felling.
The destruction began before dawn on December 5, villagers say. Manas
Salima, a young man in Mundapada, a predominantly Munda Adivasi hamlet of
Talabira, says, “We had barely woken up when they suddenly came and
started cutting trees. Word spread, and villagers rushed to stop it, but
there was heavy police deployment all around.”

“Almost 150-200 of us gathered and decided to go and meet the collector to
ask him to stop this massacre of our trees,” says another Mundapada
resident, Fakira Budhiya. “But we were told that whoever goes against the
company, or tries to stop their work, will face cases.”

Talabira and Patrapali are sprawling villages located amidst dense mixed
deciduous forests – and the green canopy provides instant relief on the
hot December afternoon when I visited. The Jharsuguda region with multiple
coal mines, sponge iron plants and other industries, records some of
Odisha’s highest temperatures each year.

In the villages here, where the major communities include Munda and Gond
Adivasis, the people mainly depend on cultivating paddy and vegetables,
and on procuring forest produce. Beneath their lands lie rich seams of

"The forest gives us mahul [mahua], sal sap, firewood, mushrooms, roots,
tubers, leaves, and grass to make and sell brooms,” says Bimla Munda. “How
can the forest department say that cutting over 1 lakh trees will have no

It is to get to this coal that the giant sal and mahua trees now lie axed
to the ground in the forests of Talabira village. In a large clearing some
distance away, hundreds of freshly logged trees are piled up. An Adani
company employee at the site, who declined to give his name, said “7,000
trees have been cut so far.” He then refused to respond to any further
questions, and only said, “it would not be right” to provide even a name
and contact for a person in the company who would speak to the media.

On the road leading to the villages, we saw a group of Odisha State Armed
Force men, and asked why they were there. One of them said, “Because trees
are being cut.” He said security personnel were deployed in sections of
the forest where tree cutting was underway. While we were speaking, one of
his colleagues called someone on his cell phone to report our presence in
the village.

The Talabira II and III coal mine was awarded to the public sector
undertaking Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited, which in 2018 gave a
contract to develop and operate the mine to Adani Enterprises Limited
(AEL). In a statement to the Press Trust of India (reported in the media
at that time), AEL said that the mine would generate revenues of over Rs.
12,000 crores. Talabira I is an adjoining open cast mine in Sambalpur
district, acquired by the GMR group in 2015, and has, their site says, 9
million tonnes of coal.

Left: While a forest department signboard in Patrapali advocates forest
protection, officials have issued a clearance for the coal mine, noting
that the effect of cutting of 1.3 lakh trees 'will be negligible'. Centre:
Bijli Munda of Mundapada, Talabira, with the brooms she makes with forest
produce, which she will sell for Rs. 20-25 each. Right: Brooms drying
outside houses here; these are just one of the many forest products from
which villagers make a livelihood

According to the forest clearance documents submitted to the central
government by the Forest and Environment Department of Odisha, the mine
(II and III) will cover a total of 4,700 acres of land, and displace 1,894
families, including 443 Scheduled Caste families and 575 Scheduled Tribe

“We believe 14,000-15,000 trees have already been cut,” says Bhakatram
Bhoi, “and it is still going on.” He is president of the Forest Rights
Committee in Talabira. (These are village-level committees constituted
under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 to plan and monitor FRA-related
activities, including conservation and the filing of forest rights
claims.) “Even I cannot tell you how many trees they have cut,” he says.
“The administration and company are doing all this, keeping us villagers
completely in the dark, since we have been opposing this from Day 1.” That
is, since 2012, when the villagers first wrote to the district
administration about their FRA rights.

Rina Munda, a resident of Mundapada, adds, “Our ancestors originally lived
in these forests and protected them. We have learnt to do the same. Every
family would contribute three kilos of rice or money for thengapalli [a
forest protection tradition in Odisha whereby community members patrol
forests to prevent timber felling and smuggling].”

“And now we are not even being allowed to go into it the very forests we
have protected and nurtured,” says Suder Munda, with a pained expression,
as villagers gather around the local school to discuss how to resist the
destruction. She adds, “We are feeling great sadness looking at how they
are cutting our trees. I feel like our loved ones are dying.”

The villagers emphasise they have been conserving the forests since
decades. “Where was the government then?” asks an elderly Suru Munda. “Now
that the company wants it, the government is saying the forest is theirs,
and we should back off.” Achyut Budhia, another elderly man, who villagers
say was among those who served on patrol duty for several years, adds, “I
had tears in my eyes when I saw the felled trees. We protected them like
our children.”

“Many of us have not been able to sleep at night since this tree cutting
began,” says Hemant Rout, a member of the Forest Rights Committee in
Talabira village.

Ranjan Panda, a Sambalpur-based environmentalist, who works on issues of
climate change and water, says the villagers' efforts to save the forests
are particularly significant because Jharsuguda and the Ib Valley region
are among the major pollution hotspots in the country. "It doesn't make
any sense to build new coal mines and power plants in an area already
suffering from severe water scarcity, heat and pollution due to excessive
concentration of mining, power and industrial activities," he says.
“Chopping off 130,721 full grown natural tree species in this location
will further aggravate the multiple stresses of the people and the
ecology, making it an inhabitable place.”

Many villagers express this view too, and refer to the rising temperatures
in the region. Vinod Munda says, “It will become impossible to live here,
if the forest is destroyed. If a villager cuts a tree, we would be put in
jail. Then how is the company cutting so many trees, with the support of
the police?”

The road to neighbouring Patrapali village winds through dense sal forest.
Here, the sawing machines are yet to reach, and residents say they will
not allow a single tree to be cut. “If the administration uses force
against us, you might see another Kalinganagar”, said Dilip Sahu, “because
this entire affair is illegal.” He is referring to the death of 13
Adivasis in 2006 in police firing during protests against the acquisition
of land by the state government for a steel plant by Tata Steel Ltd in the
state’s coastal district of Jajpur.

The Forest Rights Act states that forest clearance – that is, ‘diverting’
forestland for non-forest uses such as mining – can be awarded only after
certain procedures have been followed, including these: first, the
villages where forestland is to be diverted have to hold gram sabhas and
award or withhold their prior informed consent to the proposed diversion,
after all relevant details have been placed before them. Second, there
should be no pending individual or community forest rights claims on the
land to be diverted.

Sanjukta Sahu, sarpanch of Patrapali and president of the village Forest
Rights Committee, says the gram sabha resolutions, on the basis of which
the central Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change awarded
forest clearance to the mine, “are forgeries.” Taking out the gram sabha
register to show us, she adds, “Our village has never consented to handing
over 700 hectares for coal mining. No way. To the contrary, as far back as
2012, we filed a community forest rights claim under the Forest Rights Act
for 715 acres of land. The administration has still not processed our
claim in seven years, and now we are learning that the company has got the
forest. How can that happen?.”

Dilip Sahu of Patrapali says that over 200 households in the village are
families who were displaced by the Hirakud dam in Sambalpur district,
around 50 kilometres from Patrapali, the mid-1950s. “If this forest is
given to coal mining, we will be displaced again. Should we live our
entire lives in displacement, caught between dams and mines?.”

Residents of Talabira too allege that the gram sabha consent resolution of
their village has been forged for the forest clearance. They show their
written complaints about this sent in October to several authorities
across the state government. “It is all done through forgery. We have
never given our consent to this forest being cut,” says Sushma Patra, a
ward member. Rout said, “On the contrary, our Talabira Gramya Jungle
Committee wrote to the collector on May 28, 2012, to award recognition to
our rights to the forest under the FRA, and we have submitted a copy of
this in our written complaint to the authorities about the consent

Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi,
who has studied the Talabira forest clearance documents says, "In general,
forest diversion processes have been extremely opaque. Affected people
hardly ever have access to inspection reports and recommendations for
approval. The Talabira case is symptomatic of this problem. It is only
when tree felling activity took place that villagers got a sense of the
scale of the mine expansion on forest areas whether historical rights

A reading of the documents, Kohli adds, “clearly reveals casual site
inspection reports and piecemeal appraisals. The impact of felling 1.3
lakh trees is recorded as being negligible and never questioned. The gram
sabha resolutions have not been verified by the forest advisory committee
of the environment ministry. In all, there appear to be serious legal
lacunae in the forest diversion process."

The authorities must listen to the villagers' protests, adds Ranjan Panda.
"Coal is the biggest climate culprit and the entire world is trying to
phase out from coal fired power plants to mitigate impacts of climate

“The government does not make any effort to publicise the Forest Rights
Act among people in the villages. We filed claims with our own effort. And
we have protected this forest from before there was any law,” says Dilip
Sahu. “Today the government claims that we villagers have consented to
giving our forests to the company. I want to then ask them, ‘If you have
our consent, why do you have to deploy so much police force in our
villages for the company to cut our trees?.”

Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist, and a member of the
core group of the People’s Archive of Rural India.


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