CHENNAI, India – Vaibhav Bemetariha’s wedding card was a conversation starter.
The 38-year-old’s friends and family were intrigued by his decision to print “save Hasdeo” in support of a protest to protect a major forest in his state from coal mining.
“Even my wife had questions,” said the newlywed Bemetariha, who lives in Raipur, the capital of eastern Chhattisgarh state – home to one of India‘s largest coal reserves.
“I have promised to take her to the forest (Hasdeo Arand) to show her why protecting it matters so much and cutting (trees) to meet power needs is not necessary,” he said by phone.
“It is our personal contribution to a fight that the adivasis (tribes) have fought alone so far.”
Hasdeo Arand, one of central India‘s largest intact forests and the site of the country’s longest anti–coal protests by indigenous communities, is gaining growing support from people such as Bemetariha in cities and towns across Chhattisgarh.
In April, news of local authorities felling hundreds of trees in the area sparked outrage, with on-the-ground protests and the hashtag #SaveHasdeo trending on Twitter. YouTubers, artists and even students have backed the movement publicly.
The surge in solidarity comes on the heels of India‘s worst power crisis in more than six years, as a summer heatwave drove up demand for power and spurred the government to announce the opening of new and closed coal mines to bridge the energy gap.
The Hasdeo Arand coalfield, spread over 1,878 square km (725 square miles) in Korba, Surguja and Surajpur districts, has 23 new coal blocks, of which seven have so far been given approval to open by the federal government, Chhattisgarh state has said.
The forest, meanwhile, is home to indigenous people such as India‘s largest Gond tribe. It has rich biodiversity with an elephant corridor and the Hasdeo river cutting through it.
Opening up coal mines in the area will not only lead to the loss of thousands of hectares of forest land, but also affect the flow of the river, cause pollution and displace many villagers, according to anti–mining activists.
Vijendra Aznabi, an active supporter of the Adivasi Van Adhikar Manch, an indigenous peoples’ forest rights alliance, said the issue was the hot topic at the recent Hareli festival in Chhattisgarh, which celebrates farming and the environment.
“(Instead of a) generic celebration of nature, this time it was a specific discussion on saving the forest,” he said.
“Flash mobs were organised, there are songs being written and constant social media campaigns to support the adivasis,” he added. “Nobody wants the forest cut and mining to happen.”
‘SURGE OF SUPPORT’
Student Lakshya Madhukar’s grandfather was a mining engineer and his mother grew up in Korba, a Chhattisgarh mining hub.
The 16-year-old, a self-described “nature lover”, won a recent school competition on protecting the environment by focusing on the struggle of indigenous people in Hasdeo Arand.
“My mother’s family comes from a village in Korba, where mining was – and is – a way of life,” Madhukar said by phone.
“But we also know of the impact of mining. And Hasdeo Arand is in the news so much now, we wanted to make our art and theatre play relevant,” he said, referring to the competition.
Like Madhukar, many people in Raipur were moved by a 300-km (186 mile) walk by 250 villagers from their homes to the state capital to protest against new mining in the region last year.
“The long march was an eye-opener for many,” said Alok Shukla of the non-profit Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, which supports the communities in Hasdeo Arand.
“The protesting communities were tired and often wondered how long they would have to fight. But this surge of support has strengthened their resolve and given a boost to their movement,” he said, adding that there had been an increase in news reports and television debates on the issue since the march.
The protesters have been demanding the cancellation of all coal mining projects in Hasdeo Arand, stating that permissions were granted illegally and mining would cause irreparable damage.
Last month, the state’s legislative assembly passed a resolution asking the federal government to cancel all coal block allocations in the area, citing the elephant corridor.
Protesters and non-profits said they believed their movement was partly responsible, but did not think mining permissions would end up being scrapped given the growing demand for energy and pressure from companies. The protests will go on, they said.
ART AND YOUTUBE
When artist Pramod Sahu, known for his rangolis (traditional patterns drawn on the ground), decided to support the Hasdeo movement, his neighbourhood was facing long power outages.
Coal accounts for more than 70% of India‘s electricity output, but Sahu said he did not buy the argument that thermal coal power is the only way to meet rising energy needs.
In his depiction of the problem, the artist portrayed the Hasdeo Arand forest as the lungs of the state being sold to mining firms by the government.
“It was symbolic of what most people believe,” Sahu said.
In Bilaspur town, about 170 km from Hasdeo Arand, groundwater has significantly depleted, forcing residents to buy water delivered by tankers and sparking their own protest to support the communities who are resisting the opening of mines.
YouTuber Deepak Patel, 31, who highlights tourist destinations across Chhattisgarh, decided to use his channel to talk to his tens of thousands of subscribers about the issue.
His main motivation is the fact that the Hasdeo river is a key source of water for Bilaspur, where he lives.
Bhanumati Kalluri of the Dhaatri Resource Centre, which works with women in mining areas, said there was a surge in support for communities impacted by various types of mining.
“These haven’t become anti-fossil fuel movements yet, but urban Indians battling air pollution and water scarcity are worried about the indirect impacts of mining on their lives,” she said.
“It is also fuelling conversation on green energy options.”
In Raipur, the newly-married Bemetariha said an encounter he had with one of the women who walked to raise awareness about the threat of coal mining to Hasdeo Arand had deeply moved him.
“She said that she was willing to be buried on that land but would not give up an inch of the forest. That is how much saving this forest mattered to her and now it matters to me also.” – Reuters