In 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to the Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh objecting to eight mining projects proposed in Hasdeo Arand, a terrain rich in coal deposits but is also the only rich sal forest that extends through the heavily mined and polluted Korba and Sarguja districts in the state.
"The area proposed for diversion is part of a rare and compact forest block very rich in species diversity, large number of trees," said the letter, "so the Forest Advisory Committee has decided that the whole forest block should be kept intact." Early this year, however, under Jairam's vigil, three of these coal blocks were allocated mining leases in Sarguja.
Now, activists fear that five of the eight coal blocks that fall in Korba district will also face the same fate. The South Eastern Coalfields, one of the major mining companies in the district, has 13 active mines covering nearly 30,000 hectares. Proposals by eight other private companies are in the process of getting forest and environmental clearances. Around 30 kilometres south of Hasdeo Arand is Gevera, one of the 13 mines and an example of how the area's dense green forest could be completely transformed into a brown, barren desert a few years from now.
Already, most locals suffer from respiratory diseases because of the dust. "The average life expectancy in this area has reduced considerably," said a local doctor on the condition of anonymity. "The land that was given to us as compensation two decades ago is barren because there is no groundwater," says Mansuk Kumar, 53, who has now quit farming and started a grocery shop. "The people of this village feel deceived. Our only option is to leave this hell."