Adivasi women from mining-affected forests say “no” to coal

Story highlights

  • Since the early 1990s, coal mines have sprung up around Adivasi or Indigenous communities in India’s Chhattisgarh state without their consent, affecting their livelihoods, relationship with their forests and health.
  • Savita Rath, a local human rights activist in the GAGGA network, works directly with women in mining-affected villages to strengthen their capacity and protect their natural resources, engage with media and say “no” to mining on their land.
  • Since 2008, Savita and local Adivasi women have been at the forefront of peaceful annual protests involving hundreds of villages in Raigarh to protect their lands from irresponsible mining impacts on women in the region.


“We are fire, not flower — we are the women of Chhattisgarh.”

 These are the chants of the women who have been at the forefront of annual protests in Chhattisgarh state. Since the early 1990s, coal mines, power plants, washeries and coal ash dumps have sprung up around their communities in one of the country’s most biodiverse regions, clearing the forest they depend on, turning their crops and soil black with dust, and filling their homes with pungent coal fumes.

Land once covered by forest has been carved up into sellable fractions, a gaping dark moonscape echoing with the sounds of trucks loading, dumping and transporting coal past the blackened roadside buildings of Gare Village in Raigarh, the heart of Chhattisgarh’s coal district. Some villages in the area stand just 80 meters from burning coal pits and blasting sites. This is an Adivasi [Indigenous] dominated area,” said Savita Rath, a human rights activist with the community-based organization Jan Chetna Manch, which is also in the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) network. “Adivasis here make a living mostly in three ways: farming, forest conservation and animal-rearing. All three activities are affected.” 

Nineteen districts of Chhattisgarh, including parts of Raigarh, are covered under the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), a piece of national legislation meant to extend self-rule to tribal areas and protect their rights over land, water, and forests. A raft of international human rights and domestic laws require Indian authorities to consult, and in some cases seek the consent of, Adivasi communities through general assemblies or Gram Sabhas before acquiring land or mining. However, these requirements are regularly flouted due to poor enforcement, and weak and contradictory laws. Additionally, discussions and transactions regarding resources and traditional lands exclude Adivasi women and are between the patriarchal head of the family and the state or corporate representatives.

The coal sector is a major source of revenue for India’s states and central government. One after another, large-scale government projects and private companies like the Adani Group have forcibly acquired land in Chhattisgarh; they have promised development — better livelihood opportunities, education and health facilities – but without meaningfully informing or consulting local communities. Instead the violations of Adivasi communities’ rights to consultation and consent — around land acquisition and use, environmental impacts, and Indigenous self-governance — have led to serious impacts on their lives, livelihoods and relationships with their forests.

Photo by Makarand Purohit licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In India coal is king

 About 70 percent of India’s coal is located in the central and eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, where almost a quarter of India’s Adivasi population live. Chhattisgarh accounts for 12 percent of India’s forests and its district of Raigarh is especially rich in coal reserves and has been a hub for power since the late 1990s, home to 17 coal mines and 13 thermal power stations.

Just this year, the government set in motion the biggest ever commercial auction of coal mines in the country to attract investment in its recovery from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. India is also delaying the implementation of pollution regulations for coal plants while allowing some of its oldest, most polluting plants to remain open. This helps to make India the world’s second-largest coal-producing and coal-consuming country on earth and the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases; coal still provides around 65 percent of the country’s electricity.

The impact of coal mining

As India experienced more erratic monsoon rains this year, experts say heavy rain events have increased threefold since 1950. However, total precipitation has declined and at least a billion people in the South Asian country currently face severe water scarcity for at least one month annually. 

 Savita Rath said that monsoon season had been delayed and they feared that if rain didn’t fall in time, the communities’ crops would fail. On top of these climatic stresses, more direct impacts from local coal mines have drastically reduced the yield of the crops and forest produce that communities depend on for their livelihoods and to conduct marriages and festivities. Local women play significant roles in these activities, which are largely invisible and unpaid. They have now been forced to work as daily wage laborers as they lose access to their land and resources. Alarmingly, many women have experienced sexual harassment from mine workers who have come from other parts of the country.            

Failed by local environmental bodies, one village released a report assessing their own health impacts, finding that the air, water and soil in villages near the mines were severely contaminated with toxic heavy metals, many known to be carcinogenic. Local villagers say that residents have died from respiratory diseases and have developed a host of other conditions.

Raigarh, which was once rich in water resources, is also facing a severe water crisis. The Kelo River, part of the network of rivers and streams that sustain the forests and on which 250 villages depend, is so polluted from mining waste that it has turned black. Out of the 116 villages in the Tamnar block, at least 90 villages are facing serious groundwater depletion

Photo by Makarand Purohit licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Raigarh women and their communities fight back

Savita’s organization, Jan Chetna Manch, supports Adivasi communities directly with grassroots level training; and mobilization and awareness building on constitutional rights, occupational health issues, forest rights and livelihood rights, including campaigning for women’s rights to employment, rehabilitation, and the right to say “no.” She is also a member of the Women in Action on Mining in Asia, a collaborative network of affected women and civil society organizations from Asia working on the rights of Indigenous women in mining areas (many of whom are also GAGGA partners), where she shares cases of violations in her region. 

In addition to conducting constant dialogues with the government and using social media, traditional media, public hearings and other legal advocacy tools in her activism work, Savita has also played a big role in initiating the “Koyla Satyagraha,” a peaceful annual protest involving hundreds of villagers in Raigarh for the right to make decisions about their lands and forests against unsustainable mining. Women especially travel long distances and turn up in large numbers to participate. These protests were inspired by the philosophy at the center of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement against British colonial rule.  

The “Koyla Satyagraha” in Raigarh started in January 2008 when the company Jindal Steel and Power held an obligatory public hearing regarding their proposal to acquire 1,200 acres and five nearby villages for mining, including a religious site, cremation ground, pond and main village pathway — a key requirement for getting environmental clearance. The affected communities had no prior knowledge of the hearing, and district authorities brought in outsiders in engineered proceedings that failed to follow any rules, leading local residents to protest. The police charged at the crowds, which according to different sources, left up to 22 people critically injured and up to 200 people wounded.  

The strength of their region’s movement is largely due to the leadership of women who played a key part in mobilizing their communities. The women living in villages that would be impacted by new coal auctions participated in capacity-building workshops, covering the technicalities of Environmental Impact Assessments, the Forest Rights Act, the Right to Information Act, and the District Mineral Foundations (or DMFs, meant to direct a percentage of mining revenue to affected communities). According to the PESA Act, in tribal areas everyone above the age of 18 in the village has to give consent in order for a development project to move ahead. The negative impacts of coal mining experienced by the women living closeby made them stand firm in saying “no” to new mines.  

Despite a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment report, Jindal Steel and Power received the Environmental Clearance and Jan Chetna filed a petition along with other organizations, leading the Indian Supreme Court to eventually strike down the allocation of 214 private coal mines, stating that the entire process through which coal blocks were handed out to private players was arbitrary and illegal.

Today, Savita and the women she works with are still in dialogue with the government regarding coal mining cases, but they are also turning their efforts towards regenerating their land by starting nurseries, planting trees, collecting seeds, enhancing local communities’ legal and technical knowledge, and advocating to the government on actions to address climate change — promoting local alternatives for climate action and asserting their constitutional and customary rights to their lands and forests.


Featured photo above is by Makarand Purohit licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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