New Delhi: Twenty gram sabhas or village councils from Chhattisgarh have passed resolutions opposing any auction of coal mines in the Hasdeo-Arand region of the state, saying an auction would violate the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.

The Hasdeo-Arand region comprises several coal blocks which are on the government’s list for distribution under the recently passed ordinance.

The villagers also appealed to parliamentarians to protect Hasdeo Arand and Dharamjaigarh forests and urged the central government “not to put up coal blocks in their region for auction or allotment". The electronic auction of coal mines is scheduled to be held in mid-February.

Hasdeo Arand and Dharamjaigarh regions of Chhattisgarh are biodiversity rich dense forests spanning over 2,000 sq. km and were earlier (in 2010) under the so-called “no-go" or prohibited zone for mining.

The resolutions opposing the coal mines are as good as veto powers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 as the law gives Gram Sabhas power to block any move diversion of their land.

The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) can provide forest clearances under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 only after ascertaining that the village councils have given their consent. The veto could therefore ensure that their land is not transferred for mining without their consent.

Last year, a similar kind of opposition from Gram Sabhas had led to the rejection of a multi-billion dollar bauxite mining project by Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Twelve such gram sabhas had decided not to allow any mining activity in the Niyamgiri hills—home to the deity of the local Dongria Kondh tribe.

According to government sources, “Hasdeo Arand block has more than a dozen coal blocks that would be either auctioned or allocated under the coal ordinance". The resolutions by the 20 villages now could impact several of these blocks.

In their resolutions, the gram sabhas have stated that they will not give their consent for mining. The resolutions could impact a few blocks which are to be distributed in the first round of allocations and auctions.

Stating that their region is rich in biodiversity and conserved by them for centuries, the Gram Sabhas in their resolutions said that “adivasis (tribals) of the region share a symbiotic relation with their forests and their entire livelihood, identity and culture is dependent on these forests" and “they are therefore determined to prevent any damage to their forests".

The villagers are also against the project because they said past experiences of mining in their area and adjacent region has been “devastating" wherein many villagers were displaced with limited rehabilitation.

Besides displacement, villagers note loss of livelihoods, destruction of forests and severe pollution of air, water and soil as their reasons for opposing mining.

Their resolutions also state that the process of “forest rights recognition in the region remains abysmally poor with consistent violations" of FRA Act.

The villagers said in the absence of such recognition, the rights of tribal communities will be severely compromised in the event of any mining in the region.

“We have consistently been trying to protect our forests and homes from coal mining in the region but the government and corporate seem to be bent upon destroying us by taking away our land and forest. This auction before taking our consent is merely a new provision to pressurize us into giving away our land and we are opposed to this," said Jaynandan Singh Porte of Ghatbarra village of Surguja.

Another such villager, Kanhai Patel of Sarasmal village in Raigarh, said, “Mining is being carried out with complete disregard to all due processes and norms."

“The consent process was severely compromised… the mining is being carried out even within 10 metres from our homes. It damages our houses, and causes serious air and water pollution. We have to live with dangers everyday," said Patel.

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