With around 40,000 trees cut down to make way for a coal mining project in Sambalpur district of Orissa, the residents of Khinda and Talabira villages have begun a Jungle Suraksha Satyagraha to prevent the mining project from progressing any further.

On December 9, 2019, the lush forest, of predominantly Sal trees, was laid to waste to make way for the coal mining project being spearheaded by Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in Sambalpur and Jharsuguda districts. The coal mines are to be developed and operated by the Adani Group as per a contract signed between NLC and the Group in 2018.

According to Prafulla Samantara, an environmental activist and National Convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), there is a dubious history to the tree felling in Talabira that involves a forged resolution and a marked disregard for the welfare of the tribal population residing in these forests.

On Thursday, hundreds of villagers staged a protest against NLC to prevent the felled trees from being transported. “The trees that were cut, the transport team came in trucks to take them. The people have stopped that. They are saying these trees are ours. You may have cut them, but the wood from these trees is also ours,” Samantara told The Citizen.

The Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) reportedly gave Stage II clearance to divert 1,038.187 hectares of forest land (that falls within Sambalpur and Jharsuguda forest divisions) for the project in March 2019. According to the site inspection report, a total of 1,30,721 trees will be cut for the open cast coal mining project.

Samantara stated that the diversion of forest land has been done in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. “In June 2012, the Gram Sabha meeting took place and it was decided that we are not going to leave the land and the tree cutting will not happen. Then in July, a manipulated Gram Sabha was done and the resolution to divert land was passed.”

“People believe that they had conducted the Gram Sabha, they don’t know about the other one. That is a forgery Gram Sabha. The actual Gram Sabha was conducted earlier at Gram Sabha headquarters,” he said. The same was reiterated by Hemanta Raut, resident of Khinda village near Talabira.

“The Gram Sabha has been a forgery. In 2012 when the meeting happened, everybody had spoken against it. After that, the regulation was made on the basis of a forgery. They got permission to cut the trees on the basis of this forgery,” Raut told The Citizen.

Dilip Sahu of Patrapali village stated, “In logon ko nahi bol ke, prashasan zabardasti police lagaake kaat diya (Without informing the local residents, the authorities cut the trees by deploying police in the area).”

According to Sahu, the Sarpanch of the village in 2015-2016 also had no knowledge of the Gram Sabha that was allegedly “forged.” “We have no record of this Gram Sabha,” he said.

“These people have nothing except the forest. They are very poor people, all are forest dwellers according to the law. That forest was grown and taken care of by the people of the community. Till 1850, there was no forest there. After 1850, the forest was grown,” Samantara stated.

The local community had formed the Talabira Gramya Jungle Committee to protect the forest. As per a tradition that has continued to this present day, the village residents would give three kilograms of rice every month to the forest guard. “Every family made a contribution. The forest was protected by these ancestors and it’s been taken care of till now,” Samantara stated.

Sahu explained that currently there is a lot of pressure on the village residents. “Humaare paas kuch bhi nahi hai, jungle se hum log chal rahe hai (We have nothing, we sustain ourselves on the basis of the forest),” he said.

What do we do? It is our land, we have treated the jungle like our children. How we keep and look after our children, our fathers and grandfathers would look after the trees in the same way. The forceful means they are employing, we are extremely saddened by this,” Sahu said. “Even if we have to go to someone, who do we go to for help?” he added.

Trees have reportedly been cut on people’s private land too. According to Samantara, the administration has conducted the entire process without following any guidelines. There have further been close to no attempts to create awareness about not only community rights and forest rights among the local population, but also very little has been told to them regarding the tree felling itself.

“In November, the collector had called to discuss with the people on the Forest Rights Act. But that was cancelled. On December 16, the collector came and discussed but he spoke about other things, leaving out the Forest Rights Act and its implementation. He did not talk about those things,” Samantara told The Citizen.

While Sahu of Patrapali village has filed claims under the Forest Rights Act for forest, community and individual rights, no definite action has been taken. “They have verified 20 people and given them rights but the others haven’t received anything. Regarding community rights, even after telling them repeatedly, they keep saying they are working on it but they aren’t doing anything about it,” he explained.

Raut added that there has been no action despite repeated reminders being sent to the DFO regarding the trees that have been felled on private land.

The site inspection report further states that 1894 families are to be displaced due to the project, out of which 575 families are of Scheduled Tribe status. Samatara believes the number of families to be displaced is 2046, spread across seven villages. “They haven't done any survey on how families have increased in the area. They don't even tell the people what they are doing… Except forests, 90 percent of people have nothing. If that is also gone, how can they lead their lives? Their livelihood depends entirely on forests,” Samantara said.

He further claimed that 300 families who were displaced by the Hirakud Dam in the 1960s have also settled in Talabira and surrounding districts of Sambalpur region. He recounted the tale told by a 74-year-old man who was one of those displaced by the Dam. When he was 10 years old, the community had filed forest rights claims. Till date, they have received no compensation in terms of land.

“They have come here because they have not been given any land, they were only given Rs. 500 at the time. Now, again they are going to be displaced without anything,” Samantara told The Citizen. Raut stated, “With displacement, the compensation is not being given according to the (Forest Rights Act) 2006 Act either.”

The lack of awareness among the local residents is creating a sense of foreboding that is hard to dispel. “At present, no one knows whose land is going, how much land is going, how much compensation they will receive, how much money they will receive, what will happen to their homes… they don't know anything!” Raut exclaimed.

Raut further added that the rich forest that has been razed to the ground was a critical resource base for the tribals and forest dwelling communities. From using the leaves to create plates to making toothbrushes and brooms from the wood and twigs, the residents utilised every bit of the forest produce while simultaneously ensuring the welfare of the forest, maintaining a sustainable balance.

However, as Samantara explained, this very balance is threatened by the large number of smelting plants and mines within a radius of 10 kilometres, which are slowly raising the temperature, making it one of the hottest regions in the country. The Talabira coal blocks and the sanctioned deforestation will only add to the plight of the local communities.

The two coal blocks, Talabira II and Talabira III, were allocated to state-owned NLC in 2016. Talabira (Odisha) Mining Pvt. Ltd. (TOMPL), a subsidiary of Adani Enterprises Limited, signed an agreement with NLC in 2018 to develop and operate the assigned blocks. Samantara questioned this move, “Why has the processing been given to Adani?”

While the local population is strongly against these government-owned-corporate-run mines, Samantara also spoke against the recent inauguration of the Adani-KISS Tribal Residential School at Baripada, terming it an attempt to “detribalise the adivasis”.

“Why should education be privatised?” Samantara asked. “They are trying to erase the tribal culture. When the government sees this (private run institutions), what they do is that they shut down the government schools.”

“The right to education is the state’s responsibility. These children should be taught in their tribal language, their mother language. Their culture should be taken into account,” Samantara stated.

In Talabira, tree felling has been stopped, though the razed trees are becoming a source of tension between the local population and authorities. As per the site inspection report, the proposed area to be diverted falling within Sambalpur forest division accounts for only 192.626 hectares of the total.

The larger area of 845.561 hectares falls under the Jharsuguda forest division. As of now, preparation for diversion has only occurred in Sambalpur division but has already resulted in tens of thousands of trees being felled.

“Patrapali comes within the Talabira II coal block in Jharsuguda district. Here, there are lakhs of trees. They have cut lakhs of trees in Talabira, will they cut trees here too? We are very scared, no one is being able to help us,” Sahu said.

While opposition to the mines has taken the form of the Jungle Suraksha Satyagraha, the local residents remain in the grip of a constant fear—of losing not only their land but also their livelihood.