In a pristine forest in central India, the multibillion-dollar mining giant Adani has razed trees—and homes—to dig more coal. How does this kind of destruction get the go-ahead?
In a lined notebook, Bhole Nath Singh Armo, a lean 28-year-old man wearing a blue shirt and matching baseball cap, drew a map of his village. He pointed his pen at the middle to mark the temple where the village deity had lived. To the west, he noted a settlement of more than 200 houses where he, his father and his grandfather were born and raised. Then, to the north, another temple for a female deity. This was how his village, Kete, looked until nine years ago, when it was destroyed by a company controlled by a $260bn conglomerate. The conglomerate is named after its owner, Asia’s richest man, Gautam Adani.
The village was located in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, on the edge of the dense Hasdeo Arand forest. One of India’s few pristine and contiguous tracts of forest, Hasdeo Arand sprawls across more than 1,500 sq km. The land is home to rare plants such as epiphytic orchids and smilax, endangered animals such as sloth bears and elephants, and sal trees so tall they seem to brush against the sky.
The forest also contains an estimated 5bn tonnes of coal. This coal is located close to the surface, which makes it easy to mine. The federal government has divided the region into 23 “coal blocks”, six of which it has approved for mining. The Adani Group has bagged the contracts to mine four of those six, including the one that encompasses Kete and adjoining villages. The construction of these mines will destroy at least 1,898 hectares of forest land. The specific coal block under Kete has about 450m tonnes of coal, worth about $5bn.
India is the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of coal (after China), and Kete’s story is just like others playing out all across the country. In 1998 it was calculated that more than 2.5 million Indians had been displaced by mining projects since 1950; many, many more will have been displaced in the years since. The coal sector generates about 70% of the country’s annual electricity and employs at least 2.9 million people. While India has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, it has no plans to phase out coal.
That’s bad news for the environment—coal-fired power is one of the dirtiest fuel sources on the planet—but good news for corporations like Adani. Over the last three decades, Adani has built his mammoth conglomerate by penetrating almost every sector of India’s economy, from sewage treatment to data processing, edible oil to solar panels, transport to media. Even the apples on sale in my neighbourhood in New Delhi have Adani’s sticker on them. Among these many ventures, few are more profitable than coal. Until a few years ago, more than 90% of India’s coal has been mined by government-owned companies. However, in recent years, prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration has increasingly turned to private companies to do this work. One of the chief beneficiaries of this shift has been Adani.
As Gautam Adani continues to expand his empire, his influence at the top levels of Indian government has come under scrutiny. Adani works very closely with influential political figures, journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told me before an Indian court issued a gagging order against him for apparently defaming the billionaire. “Call it crony capitalism, call it oligarchy, call it regulatory capture, this is the story of Adani in a nutshell,” he said.
Activists, researchers and politicians have raised concerns about how Adani wins its mining contracts and how the company, working with the government, acquires mining land from indigenous communities. There are also questions about alleged preferential treatment by state governments in awarding contracts to Adani, though the company has consistently denied any such claims. “Adani is a master manipulator,” argues Alok Shukla, the coordinator of a network of human rights groups in Chhattisgarh. Shukla added that Adani’s power and money has had a powerful, negative effect on communities and local governments across India. In October 2021, hundreds of villagers from Hasdeo Arand walked 300km over 10 days to Chhattisgarh’s capital, Raipur, demanding the cancellation of all coalmining projects in the forest.
Adani is the third-richest man in the world, and his influence extends way beyond India. In Queensland, Australia, his company has developed the Carmichael open-pit coalmine, a hugely controversial project built on land that some local indigenous groups claimed was obtained without their permission, though they lost their legal bid to block the mine on this basis. More recently, Adani became the focus of protest in the UK, after the London Science Museum announced that it would be opening an Energy Revolution gallery, focusing on green energy, in 2023, with sponsorship from an Adani subsidiary.
Adani’s representatives have long denied allegations of obtaining land through underhand tactics. “As a responsible corporate citizen, the Adani Group has always conducted its operations in total compliance within the laws of the country,” a spokesperson for the Adani Group told me via email. “The Adani Group remains aligned with India’s position on sustainability,” they continued, adding that the company plans to spend more than $70bn on “the Energy Transition space” in the next decade, with huge investments in renewables such as green hydrogen, solar energy and wind. “This puts us well on track to be the world’s largest renewable power generating company by 2030.”
Although Gautam Adani is almost always in the news, he rarely grants interviews. He is ubiquitous and elusive at the same time. The company’s global headquarters is in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, but its power is felt most acutely in small villages across the country. Critics say that the methods Adani has used to acquire consent from communities for industrial development demonstrate the “quiet” ways in which large corporations now operate, in India and elsewhere, to ensure they get what they want.
I met Bhole and his elder cousin Patar Sai Armo in late 2020, at a small detergent factory they have built about a four-hour drive from their former home in Kete. The cousins are Gond, one of the 700 indigenous tribes in India, many of whom live in remote forested areas. About 9% of 1.3 billion people in India belong to these tribes, which are collectively called Adivasis. Many of them earn less than a dollar a day.
Although these communities have been living in the forests for thousands of years, it wasn’t until 2006 that a law was passed to formally recognise their rights over their land. But that was not enough to preserve Kete. In order to reconstruct what happened, I tracked down and interviewed more than a dozen families who used to live there and are now scattered across Chhattisgarh. I also interviewed local shopkeepers and journalists, and government officers who worked in the area between 2009 and 2014.
“They came with machines,” said Patar, recalling the day in 2008 when he first saw outsiders arrive in the village. The survey equipment—the machines that Patar referred to—included a big camera placed on a yellow tripod. When the men told the villagers that they had come to survey the area for a proposed coalmine, they were met with anger. A couple of weeks later, the village chiefs told locals that the company that would be mining the coal under Kete was named Adani.
Adani’s precise role in the story of this coalmine is somewhat disputed. What seems certain is that in 2007, the Indian government allotted the coal block under Kete, called Parsa East Kete Basan, to an electricity company owned by the government of Rajasthan. That same year, RVUNL, as the electricity company is known, formed a joint venture with Adani Enterprises. While RVUNL owns the mine itself, Adani owns 74% of the joint venture, which is named Parsa Kente Collieries Limited (PKCL). In July 2008, the electricity company signed a contract with the Adani-controlled joint venture to develop the coalmine. (The electricity company, RVUNL, did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Adani Group spokesperson claimed that Adani’s role in developing the mine was limited. RVUNL “appointed Adani Enterprises as a mining contractor through transparent competitive bidding”, said the spokesperson. The company’s role, they continued, was just to undertake mining operations and supply washed coal, as per the terms of the Coal Mining Delivery Agreement.
However, the agreement between RVUNL and the Adani-controlled joint-venture seems to suggest the latter had a broader role. The scope of the joint venture’s work, according to the agreement, involved obtaining the clearances and licences required for land acquisition, rehabilitation, resettlement and mining of coal. The contract also says that the joint venture will bear all expenses, including the cost of acquisition of land, and no expenses and liabilities shall be borne or shared by RVUNL. (In July 2009, the joint venture also subcontracted Adani for development and operations of the Parsa East Kete Basan coal block.)
Testimony from local villagers supports the view that Adani had a broader role in the project. They told me that Adani representatives had started to come to their villages years before the mining began, and would introduce themselves as Adani employees. They claim these employees would try to persuade the villagers to agree to give up their land for coalmining. Numerous villagers told me that it was a long time before they heard any references to entities such as RVUNL. Nor were people using the name of the Adani-owned joint venture. The name they heard most often was Adani.
In the beginning, the villagers were united against the mine, Bhole told me. Life in Kete, as in many Indian villages, was hierarchical. At the top were people who came from the oldest families in the village, or who were born into higher castes or had more money. Lower-rank Adivasis would follow their orders. But according to several villagers, locals of all social rankings were opposed to the development plans. Together, multiple villagers told me, they wrote letters to the local government stating that they didn’t want to give up their land. Those who couldn’t write added their thumbprints in support. When representatives from Adani or the government came to Kete to talk about the mine, villagers held protests.
Yet over the next four years, opposition to the mine steadily dissipated. In early 2009, Adani hired Rakesh Yadav, who had previously won the villagers’ trust through his work for an NGO that ran welfare activities, such as vaccinating cattle and helping locals improve farm yields. Two members of the local elite, Mani and Kailash, told me that Yadav would meet with them regularly to explain that it was in the villagers’ financial interest to sell their land. They were told to pass on the message to the villagers. (Mani and Kailash are not their real names. They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, as Adani hired them in the early 2010s and they continue to work there. Rakesh Yadav is also a pseudonym.)
Initially, Mani and Kailash didn’t want the coalmine in the village, and for a while they resisted. But after about a year, they told me that Yadav started giving them 5,000 rupees (around £50) each in cash every month, the equivalent of a local Adivasi family’s monthly income. At first, Yadav said he didn’t want anything in return, recalled Mani, but over time, he started asking them to use the money to organise “parties” before crucial village meetings about the coalmine. At the parties, between 15 and 20 men would gather to drink and feast. Mani alleges that the idea behind these parties was to get these men drunk and ask them to give their consent in the village meetings. Although they were not Adani employees at this stage, Mani and Kailash began to be seen as Adani’s representatives, or brokers, in the village. (The villagers told me about two other locals who performed a similar role to Mani and Kailash, but when I met these two individuals, they were reluctant to comment because, like Mani and Kailash, they were now employed by Adani.)
According to numerous former Kete residents, as time passed, Adani inserted itself into the town’s social fabric, organising community meals and football tournaments, and paying for cultural festivals. Many villagers told me that Yadav, Mani and Kailash let them know that if they needed financial assistance for weddings or funerals, they could just ask Adani. “Suddenly there was this sense in the village that there is lots of money around us and we could get it, if we wanted,” said Bhole. “The whole atmosphere had changed.” Yadav said that Adani organised football tournaments, but when I asked him whether the company paid for those tournaments and other local festivals, he declined to comment. But Adani’s website says that as part of the welfare activities in relation to this coalmine, the company has built a school and a football academy in a nearby city to “nurture and nourish the aspiration of tribal youth.” (Since we first spoke in late 2020, I have tried to contact Yadav for further clarification, but he has not responded to my requests.)
Having started out protesting against the mine, from around 2010 many locals stopped resisting. Some Adivasis started approaching Yadav and other representatives from Adani whenever they needed money. “People thought that their land is going to go, so it is better to take whatever they can from the company,” said Bhole.
But when I visited the area, many displaced Adivasis told me that they now felt they had been played by Adani and the local government. “It was a set-up,” said Patar, “which fooled us into giving our land.”
If violent struggles over land were once central to the business of large-scale industrial mining, in recent years a new pattern has emerged. According to Matthew Himley, professor of geography at Illinois State University, who researches extractive industries’ activity in Peru, over the past couple of decades mining companies have adopted subtler strategies. This kind of approach—which some researchers call the “social engineering of extraction”—has played out across the world from Zambia to Peru and Canada.
The process is gradual. According to a number of academics I spoke to, when a mining company encounters resistance to their plans, they seek out people from within the community who could become the company’s eyes, ears and voice in the village. These people are paid, or given other perks, to persuade—or, in the view of critics of this strategy, manipulate—locals to support the project. Sometimes this can involve exploiting existing divisions in the community, such as the caste hierarchy in Indian villages. Some companies even hire social scientists to study community dynamics for them. Local governments are often aware of these strategies, but remain silent. Through the brokers, the mining company starts supporting local community initiatives. It also begins to plug the gaps in services such as health and schooling, at least at first. Gradually, a sufficient number of people are won over to the industrial project that the village’s unity begins to break.
The “social engineering of extraction” sounds sinister, but some argue that what is being described is just persuasion. After all, funding local initiatives, health and education sounds like a good thing. Kamalpreet Singh, who, between mid-2009 and early 2011, held the highest administrative post in the district where the Parsa East Kete Basan coalmine is located, denies that the methods used in Kete were manipulative. “What you may define as manipulation,” he said, “somebody else can say, ‘I am trying to convince the public.’”
Leah Horowitz, a cultural geographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, takes a different view. “It stops being persuasion and becomes manipulation when you’re offering someone something they don’t feel that they can refuse,” she said. This kind of process, Horowitz added, is shaped by massively unequal power dynamics between the corporations, local elites and villagers. In many cases, the latter are very poor and have not been empowered to make informed choices. Shukla, the Chhattisgarh-based activist, put it like this: “How can you even expect villagers to give a free and informed consent in such compromised situations?”
Gautam Adani, a college dropout, made his fortune in the late 1980s trading plastic granules. The following decade, he built what is now India’s largest port, at Mundra on the Gujarati coast. Adani has always had the gift of good timing. He started trading coal just as India’s energy sector was booming. When Narendra Modi became Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, and was eager to brand himself as a business-friendly leader after sectarian riots in 2002 had scared off investors, Adani quickly became one of the leading investors in the state. By 2006, Adani had entered natural gas distribution, oil exploration and real estate. Then, around 2007, he started building coal-fired power plants—first in Gujarat, then beyond.
Over the next few years, as Adani’s company continued to grow at breakneck speed, some observers began to suspect that it was being given preferential treatment by the Gujarat state government, led by Modi, though Adani has denied this. It was later revealed by India’s national auditor that, between 2006 and 2009, the Gujarat government sold natural gas to Adani at below-market rates. According to a 2013 report in the Economic Times, several senior Gujarat government officers had been given jobs at Adani following their retirement from public service. In the same report, a Gujarat-based lawyer, Anand Yagnik, claimed that “[more than] 20 lawyers who fought cases against the Adani Group are now on its retainership”. Today, Yagnik told me, there are now only two lawyers in the Gujarat high court who will take on cases against Adani—and he is one of them. (Adani denies that its dealings in Gujarat were in any way improper or unusual. “The Adani Group has a successful track record of implementing and operating large projects across India with support from the state governments governed by different political parties,” said a spokesperson.)
Criminal and journalistic investigations into alleged corruption seemed to have little impact on Adani’s growth. In 2011, an anti-corruption office in the southern state of Karnataka found Adani to be one of a number of companies involved in a scam to trade iron illegally—though Adani denied that this finding was accurate. Apparently untroubled by these findings, in early 2014 Modi used Adani’s private jet while campaigning to become India’s prime minister. He won the election in May. Two months later, Adani was given environmental clearance to continue running a Special Economic Zone—where companies can enjoy perks such as tax exemptions and duty free imports—near Mundra port, putting an end to almost a decade of legal disputes surrounding the project.
Adani, now 60, is one of the leading beneficiaries of the Modi government’s stated agenda of promoting “ease of doing business”. In practice, this has often involved weakening environmental laws and democratic decision-making structures. Since Modi became prime minister, industrial and infrastructure projects have generally received quicker approval, certain polluting industries have been exempted from routine inspections, and emissions standards have been relaxed. Some policy changes, such as amendments to India’s Forest Conservation Act, have taken power out of the hands of the Adivasis and given it to local governments.
For Adani, during the Modi years, it seems doing business has indeed become easier. But in a 2014 interview with Reuters, he rejected any suggestion that his personal closeness with Modi had brought him commercial advantages. “Crony capitalism should not be there. I definitely agree with that. But how you define crony capitalism is another issue,” said Adani. “If you are, basically, working closely with the government, that doesn’t mean it’s crony capitalism.”
Before any development project can be undertaken in a forested area in India, permission must be granted for clearance, a process overseen by the federal environment ministry. Every application must include letters stating that at least half of all adult members of a village that depend on the forest give their consent to the project. The application also requires proof that villagers have been provided with the full details of the proposal, including its environmental and social impact, and the relocation plan for displaced communities. It is also necessary to demonstrate that the communities understood the information.
Former residents of Kete, who are now scattered across Chhattisgarh, say that these standards were not met. They allege that local elected officials, working with Adani representatives, forged documents, failed to inform the villagers about crucial meetings and withheld important information about the coal project. Some told me that the officials leading the meetings mostly talked about the benefits of coalmining in the area, and the jobs it would bring, rather than about the pollution and environmental destruction involved. Some villagers said that they were often asked to sign or put their thumbprint on plain registers without any matter written on them. In at least one instance, a Kete villager told a local journalist, who was working with me on this story, that he was shocked to see that someone had printed his name and signature in a letter supporting the coalmine, even though he had been opposed to it.
The villagers’ allegations are partly supported by a May 2011 inspection of coalmining projects in Hasdeo Arand commissioned by the national environment minister. The subsequent report concluded that the Adivasis in the Kete area earmarked for clearance did not fully understand their rights, and had not been fully informed about their relocation. It recommended that the project should not be approved.
Yet less than a year later, in March 2012, overlooking these discrepancies and disagreeing with its own ministry’s inspection report, the environment ministry gave clearance to raze the forest. In a statement published around the same time, the environment minister explained why he had not followed the recommendations of the inspection report. Among other reasons, he said that he had to take into account India’s energy requirements and broader development. He also stated that he had received a stream of letters from the Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan governments asking him to give permission for developing Parsa East Kete Basan.
When Kete residents learned that the deal was done, they were told their compensation cheques were ready to be collected. Some of the villagers told me that they were confused because they couldn’t recall consenting to the coalmine. But now the money was there, and there was a lot of it.
Patar’s family received 7m rupees (around £70,000), and Bhole’s family received 8.6m rupees (around £85,000)—about 40 times the annual income they made by selling forest produce such as flowers and mushrooms. In no time, almost every house in Kete had cars or motorbikes or tractors. Some had all three. Villagers had been told that Kete would be destroyed, and a new settlement would be created nearby, in Basen village, where they could move if they wanted. In February 2013, Adani workers began mining the land around Kete.
While Bhole and Patar acknowledged that the compensation money has helped them restart their life—they have used some of that money to build their detergent factory—their life in Kete was good the way it was, they said. Many former residents of Kete later told me that they had felt powerless to resist the development of the mine because they were convinced the local government was not on their side. Between 2009 and 2010, government officers and Adani representatives would often travel to the village together, they said. On one occasion in 2009, they said, a government officer, who was accompanied by police, threatened to have the villagers arrested if they obstructed the mine development work. One former resident, Kanwal Sai Warkade, claimed that an officer asked Kete villagers, “Do you want to eat your meals in jail?” When the villagers requested the officers’ support because they didn’t want to sell their land, they say they were ignored. And while villagers were repeatedly told their lives would improve if they gave up their land, they claim that they were not told that they had the legal right to veto the project. “For generations we lived our lives without knowing or caring whether we even had rights and what we could do with them. And nobody told us,” said Patar. “This is what companies take advantage of.”
Allegations of similar tactics have been made in relation to Ghatbarra, a village of about 300 families near Kete, where 32 residents handed over their individual forest titles—documents that prove Adivasi ownership of the forest land they have been using to live and earn a living—to Adani in 2019. The cheques some of them received in return mention Adani Enterprises as the purchaser. Ghatbarra has been marked for elimination in the next phase of coal block mining in the area, which is expected to begin in 2028. One of those 32 villagers is an elderly man I met in October 2020. I am not revealing his name in the story to protect his identity. He told me that he had sold his forest title because he’d been warned by a member of the village elite, who is employed by Adani, that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get the compensation that other villagers would receive. His nephew, who lives nearby, told me that the family felt that they had no choice. “Most people from my community don’t want to give their land,” he said. But he belongs to a lower Adivasi tribe that has less power to negotiate such matters. “We fear speaking up” in front of the village elites, he told me.
However, Amresh Prasad Markam, who was Ghatbarra’s chief between 2010 and early 2020, said that Adivasis “were eager to sell” their titles to get money. Markam said that, as in Kete, Adani provided money for weddings and other rituals in Ghatbarra.
One night, in a village close to Ghatbarra, Adivasis were celebrating Karma, a local festival. Men wore big anklets and peacock feathers on their backs as they sang and danced around a tree branch they had brought from Hasedo Arand that morning. They had stuck the branch into the ground to worship it. As they danced under the moonlight, they prayed for protection from evil.
The festival travels from village to village. Next it was going to Ghatbarra, where the tide may be turning against Adani. In the local elections in early 2020, the village elected Jainandan Porte as its chief. Porte has been campaigning against the coalmine in Ghatbarra for almost a decade. He claims that the consent letter from a 2019 village assembly meeting, on the basis of which the government has approved the second phase of mining that will consume Ghatbarra, contained fake signatures. “The document has signatures of three people who had died years before 2019,” he told me. He claimed that some signatures on the document bore the names of villagers who cannot write. He has asked the Chhattisgarh government to investigate how the consent was taken, but the government has taken no action so far.
Porte acknowledged that Ghatbarra is divided on the coalmining issue, but he believes his election victory shows that people “in their heart don’t want the coalmine”. He is determined to reunite the Ghatbarra’s community, which is the only way he thinks he can save the village from Adani’s bulldozers.
But based on their experience, Adivasis who once lived in Kete, now divided and scattered, have little faith that Porte will succeed. Ultimately Ghatbarra will meet the same fate as Kete, Bhole told me: “It is guaranteed.” In September this year, the local government, in the presence of the police, began tree-cutting in Ghatbarra forest to prepare the area for coalmining, while some villagers continue to protest. Giving ongoing protests against coalmines in Hasdeo Arand as the reason, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister, Bhupesh Baghel, wrote to the federal environment ministry in November, asking it to cancel the clearance given to Parsa coal block. (Like Parsa East Kete Basan, the Parsa coal block is owned by RVUNL with mining operations contracted to Adani.)
During my time in the area, I visited Bhole’s parents in Mohanpur, the village where they moved after their home in Kete was destroyed. In the middle of sprawling rice fields, which had turned greenish-brown in October’s harvesting season, they were using sickles to cut rice stalks. Their bare feet were covered with the slushy mud. “Living here feels like punishment,” said Bhole’s father, Kalyan Ram, when we sat down in a nearby field to talk. “My heart is not here.”
Kalyan and his wife, Teejmati, said that they felt very lonely in Mohanpur. They hesitated to ask other villagers for help, so they spent most of their time working in their rice field. “I won’t be able to forget Kete until I die,” Kalyan said as his eyes glistened under the strong sun. “I feel as if I am looking at it right now.” Teejmati looked away, blinking, and then down at the orange and golden bangles that partly covered her tattooed hands.
Every Kete family I met expressed similar feelings of longing. They missed their community and the forest that was destroyed by Adani’s bulldozers in the years after 2012. “My house comes into my dreams,” one told me. Another, Dharam Sai Kusro, now lives in a village about 7km from the mine. He avoids the road that leads to the mine. Seeing what became of his old home is too painful. “I tear up,” he said.
When I visited, just nine Kete families were living in the Basen resettlement, which is about 2km from the mine and contains around 60 houses. Most Kete villagers instead used their compensation money to build houses in other villages and towns. Some described the resettlement as a “joke”, because the houses had just two tiny rooms, much too small for their multi-generational families. The Adivasis I spoke to told me about other promises that they say had not been kept. As recently as 2016, Kete villagers were writing to the local government to complain that many local Adivasis were still waiting for jobs that had been promised to them.
As I wandered through Basen, most houses were vacant. The health centre was shut. Outside it, garbage was piling up. Streetlights didn’t turn on. One woman I met, Gangawati, was living in one of Basen’s tiny houses with her two children and her husband. All four share one room; the other is used as a kitchen. They’ve chosen to live here, rather than with Gangawati’s in-laws, because of the short commute it gives her husband, an electrician who works for Adani. “I feel embarrassed when guests visit us. We have no place to seat them,” Gangawati said. Her old house in Kete had 18 rooms. She set up plastic chairs outside her house. “Think where would I seat you if it were raining?”
The people of Kete who I spoke to were mourning the loss of something hard to measure: the feeling of community. The resettlement with a few tiny houses is nowhere close to what a village means to them. After being displaced, Kete’s villagers have found it hard to integrate themselves in the community and rituals of their new village or town. “The thing is you can never build a village by uprooting a village,” said Shukla, the Chhattisgarh-based activist. You cannot restore the relationships Adivasis had with each other and their forest. “A village has a culture. A soul of its own.”