Following rampant deforestation and loss of their habitats in Odisha and Jharkhand, elephants began migrating to the forests of Chhattisgarh in the late ‘80s. In the Raigarh, Korba, Jashpur, and Surguja districts, where a lot of forest land is being diverted for coal mining, foraging elephants often enter villages, attracted by the crops in the fields. Elephants started crossing into Chhattisgarh in 1988 from Jharkhand, then a part of undivided Bihar. From 1995 onwards, the movement became regular. Slowly, the pachyderms started to reside here permanently. Nowadays, there are around 275-320 elephants in the state. The resulting human-elephant conflict has caused many incidents of crop damage and the loss of homes and other properties. The death toll due to human-elephant conflict is increasing in Chhattisgarh. As per the government’s record, around 800 people and 157 elephants have lost their lives since 2002. Every year at least 65 people and 14 elephants get killed in the state. The loss of lives, property, and crops led to an extra burden of crores of rupees on the state government every year. In the last three years (2019-2021), the state government has spent nearly ₹58 crores in paying compensation to the victims of elephant attacks.
Chhattisgarh, located in eastern India, is a densely forested state mostly populated with almost 42 tribal communities (as per the 2011 census report). According to official data, tribals comprise 32% of Chhattisgarh’s population. The state is famous as the main source of electricity for India. Chhattisgarh has 16% of the total coal deposits of India. It has been estimated that the 12 coalfields of the State located in the Raigarh, Surguja, Koriya, and Korba districts contain approximately 44,483 million tonnes of coal. The State ranks second in coal production by contributing over 18% to the total national production. As mining companies increasingly prefer open-cast mining for operational and economic benefits, villagers, especially tribal communities are the worst hit as they lose land, and mining companies often don’t honour their promises of rehabilitation and compensation. Getting compensation for the incidents of crop loss takes time. While visiting to the victims, inspection teams demand documents like photos and land records. It is very common here that farmers have not received money for years in most cases.
In the coal-rich Chhattisgarh, Korba itself has 13 large coal mines, including India’s largest opencast mine at Gevra, with a total production capacity of about 45 MTPA (as per FY 2021-22). Korba often referred to as the industrial hub of Chhattisgarh, is home to many power plants. Among them, the thermal power plants (NTPC, BALCO & BCPP, DSPM, CSEB East, CSEB West, and KTPS) together generate 3650 MW of electricity. Chhattisgarh is capable of generating 15,945 MW of power to which Korba itself contributes a major part. The natural landscape of Korba has been changing rapidly every year since the first open-cast mine began operating here. Thousands of people have lost their residential and agricultural land and pollution levels have shot up to such levels that Korba is now ranked third among the most critically polluted areas (CPAs) in the country in 2014-15. Recently Chhattisgarh minister Jai Singh Aggarwal flagged that around 12 percent of the population in the Korba industrial area in the state suffers from asthma and bronchitis due to extreme pollution.
In the last 20 years, the landscape of Chhattisgarh (mainly in Korba and Raigarh districts) has drastically changed due to unchecked and unregulated open-cast coal mining and installation of power plants. Heaps of coal dust and fly ash cover the area which was once covered by forest. It has also impacted the livelihoods and health of the inhabitants in the state. The growth of ‘Mahua’ flowers and “Tendu patta (leaves)” has declined rapidly. Those are the primary sources of livelihood for most of the villagers, especially tribals in the coal belt regions. Madhuca Longifolia or Madhuca Indica (Mahua tree) are used for making medicines as well as ‘Mahua’ (local alcohol) from the ‘Mahua’ flower. The “Tendu patta (leaves)” or Diospyros Melanoxylon are used for making ‘Beedi’. More than 50 percent of those trees have disappeared due to deforestation.
Nowadays, the air quality in most of the adjoining areas of coal fields is exceptionally poor resulting in several health issues among the people. According to a study (published on November 16, 2017) focusing on the impact of coal mining on health and the environment, only in Sarasmal village 87% of inhabitants living near coal mines have suffered from one or more illnesses, including loss of hair, conditions affecting muscles, bones and skin, and dry cough. Medical and environmental professionals conducted the study in May 2017, in partnership with People First Collective, India, an environmental forum, and the “Adivasi Dalit Mazdoor Sangathan”, a social organization. On March 30, 2017, India Water Portal reported – “At the Kosampalli-Sarasmal panchayat area in Raigarh district, more than 100 earning members from 240 families have died from respiratory and other health diseases in the last two decades.” The surface water as well as the groundwater is polluted so much by the waste from mining that it has become unusable in most places. Out of the 116 villages in the Tamnar block of Raigarh district, at least 90 villages are facing serious groundwater depletion.
In 2005, hoping to minimize human-elephant conflict, the Chhattisgarh assembly passed a resolution seeking central approval for two elephant reserves. out of which one elephant reserve included areas of Bandalkhol and Tamor Pingla forests, and the second one was to be the Lemru elephant reserve. With an area of 450 sq. km, Lemru reserve in Korba district received clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2007 but was shelved by the state government in 2008 to facilitate coal mining in virgin forests. According to the state government then, the proposed sanctuary would block at least 40 million tons of coal production per annum. Local activists stated, “Industry lobbies have been influencing the governments at both the center and state. The Chhattisgarh government quietly sacrificed the concerns and conservation of both local people and elephants to suit the needs of companies.” Later, on August 15, 2019, the plan for the Lemru elephant reserve was revived, with the government of Chhattisgarh declaring the formation of the reserve for ensuring the conservation and protection of elephants. The final area proposed for the reserve is 1,995.48 square kilometers, significantly higher than the 450 sq. km. proposed earlier.
I was introduced to the majestic forests of Chattisgarh in the year 2013. The most striking aspect of a place connected so closely with nature is the omnipresent balance one feels in the simplest of interactions between its humans, flora, and fauna. Space and recourses are shared harmoniously, forming an inviolate inner equilibrium, and an outer ecological balance. The ruthless encroachment in the forest by coal mining activity is not an impersonal episode for the forest dwellers. It is an invasion of their homes, lifestyles, privacy, and dignity – cold-hearted poaching, without even a semblance of remorse. Home is a sacred space, and it is a basic right to be assured of its permanence. The humans and elephants of Chhattisgarh are increasingly bereft of this vital requirement with every passing day, a loving family broken by incessant promises of ‘development’ to the country.