Chhattisgarh is home to some of the most valuable forests in India and is also rich in minerals such as iron. However, the race to acquire these resources is consuming these forests. The latest data from the Chhattisgarh Forestry Department shows that at least 4,920 hectares of forest land have been cleared for iron ore mining in the central Indian state in recent years.
There is an estimated 511 million tonnes of iron ore under the Rowghat mountains, something that Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) — an undertaking of the public sector Steel Authority of India Ltd — has been pursuing for decades.
On April 1, 2022, the villagers protesting against the Rowghat iron-ore mines project clashed with police when the former allegedly gheraoed the collectorate office campus in Bastar’s Narayanpur district on Friday.
The protesters complain that the police cane-charged them. However, Bastar police said no force was used in the incident and protestors were trying to break down the barricade at the collector’s compound.
Hundreds of villagers have been protesting against the proposed project under the banner of Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti in the Rowghat hills bordering Narayanpur and Kanker districts since last Saturday, reports Hindustan Times.
The protest began on March 26, 2022, against the permission given to the BSP by the Union Environment Ministry on January 25, 2022, to mine 3 lakh tonnes per annum of ore and transport it through roads.
Protesters claimed that the permission was granted despite the fact that, to date, no Gram Sabha of any affected village has given its consent to this mining project, thereby, making the mines illegal.
On March 15, 2022, when BSP’s contractor Dev Mining Company started iron ore transportation by attempting to evacuate two truckloads of iron ore, the villagers got angry and ensured that the Tipper truck drivers emptied out their loads in the middle of the village of Khodgaon.
The villagers declared that the mining was illegal and tried to register an FIR against the company on the charge of theft of ore, and also under the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, but the police did not register it.
Rowghat Iron-Ore Mine Causing Deforestation
According to villagers, BSP authorities have been making many false promises to the villagers for many years, but are not fulfilling any of them. After the trees were felled in the mining area on the top of the hill, the loose soil slipped down during rains and surrounded the Khodgaon camp.
Also, the people of the Rowghat region have faith in several deities located here, such as the gods Gumankal and Gadelkal, who live in the land given away on mining lease and are an important part of their culture. Important deities will be insulted by mining activities and hurt religious sentiments, say people.
All the surrounding villages are dependent on these mountains for their minor forest produce and indigenous medicines. It is said that when there was a lack of rain here a few decades ago, people had spent many years consuming honey in the mountain forest and eating wild tubers and herbs, reported Counter View.
Rajendra Kumar Mahavir of local non-profit, Sathi Samaj Sevi Sanstha, based in Narayanpur, said the locals are opposed to the mine. “Those living here in this area depend on the forests for livelihood and survival whether it is through the collection of firewood, tendu leaf or bamboo,” Mahavir said. “Mining will also impact the forest deities considered sacred by the Adivasi community. These are the primary reasons that the villagers are not in favour of the mine. Besides forests, the locals believe mining will also lead to serious environmental issues.”
Unsettled Compensation with Rowghat Iron-Ore
In Khodgaon, residents’ claims were not settled. “We were told that whoever is affected by the road would be compensated fairly, even those who live on land recorded as government land,” claimed a resident.
The assurance made people relent, but the final, written Gram Sabha resolution did not mention any such assurance.
According to the villagers, all of them — around 50 families — should be compensated. The local tehsildar, however, listed only 32 families living on ‘revenue land’ as eligible for a flat ₹2 lakh compensation, irrespective of the size of the respective holding or whether they were wooded. Eventually, only 18 received cheques. By February, the administration reneged even on the limited compensation it had paid out. Three of the 32 villagers received notices to return their ₹2 lakh as the powers that decided their names were mistakenly included in the list.
Arrest warrants followed when they did not return the money. The three, who do not want to be named, have been dodging arrests for over four months, reports Down to Earth.