According to a dossier prepared by the state’s chief conservator of forests, 36 blocks, or 38% of the Mand-Raigarh field, will be hit by the decision. Similarly, 18 blocks in the Hasdeo Arand field will be affected. Inclusion of additional catchment areas of Hasdeo and Mand rivers will affect another 10 blocks.
As a result, coal supplies to government power plants in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will be disrupted and the utilities will have to look for alternative supplies for years, assuming the Centre allots other mines which will take time to develop. Vedanta group’s BALCO also may be affected since it owns the Chotia-1 coal block in Lemru region.
The Centre had in 2007 approved the setting up of the reserve with an area of 450 sq km. But in August last year, the Bhupesh Baghel government decided to expand the area to 3,827 sq km.
State government officials said the decision was taken with the aim of protecting the regions’ rich biodiversity and preserving catchment areas of the two major rivers to ensure availability of water.
Another reason behind the decision was to end the conflict between pachyderms and humans. Elephants have killed 322 people in the last five years and cost the government more than Rs 80 crore by way of compensation to villagers for loss of life and damage to crops. There are an estimated 300 elephants in the area.
Industry analysts said spiking 64 blocks will kill the prospects of investments worth Rs 2-3 lakh crore in mining, allied and ancillary industries. This will lead to loss of 6-7 lakh direct and indirect jobs in addition to loss of royalty to the state, which depends heavily on mining revenue.
There are political ramifications for Baghel as well since it will hit fuel supply to Rajasthan, where his own Congress party is in power, and Andhra Pradesh under YSR Congress government. Both are likely to protest in case fuel supply is disrupted to their power plants.
There are also rumblings within Baghel’s government. Reports from the state said health minister and senior party leader T S Singh Deo has expressed his concerns over expanding the reserve area and is reported to have appealed affected villagers to dissent with the revised plan in Gram Sabha, or village meetings akin to public hearings, being held.
Despite assurances from the forest minister Mohammad Akbar, many villagers in natural resource-rich districts such as Katghora, Korba, Surguja and Dharamjaygarh are apprehensive of losing their farmland and livelihoods that are dependent on forests as their entry will be barred after the area becomes a reserve. Many have also questioned the logic of reserving 3,827 sq km for 300 elephants.