HomeEnvironmentAlok Shukla: Organizer Of People, Lover Of Nature, Fearless In The Face Of Power

Alok Shukla: Organizer Of People, Lover Of Nature, Fearless In The Face Of Power

Alok Shukla: Organizer Of People, Lover Of Nature, Fearless In The Face Of Power

Alok Shukla: Organizer Of People, Lover Of Nature, Fearless In The Face Of Power

Photo: Goldman Environment Prize

India-West News Desk

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The 2024 Goldman Prize winners were celebrated at live ceremonies following Earth Week: in San Francisco on April 29, and in Washington, DC, on May 1.

India’s Alok Shukla was among the winners of what is often referred to as the Green Nobel.

The Goldman Environmental Prize detailed why Shukla was picked and honored:

Alok Shukla led a successful community campaign that saved 445,000 acres of biodiversity-rich forests from 21 planned coal mines in Chhattisgarh. In July 2022, the government canceled the 21 proposed coal mines in Hasdeo Aranya, whose pristine forests—popularly known as the lungs of Chhattisgarh—are one of the largest intact forest areas in India.


Spread across 657 square miles, the dense, biodiverse Hasdeo Aranya forests form one of India’s most extensive contiguous forest tracts. The ancient forests provide a critical tiger corridor linking neighboring sanctuaries and habitat for approximately 50 endangered Asian elephants. They are also home to 25 endangered species, including leopards, sloth bears, grey wolves, striped hyenas; 92 bird species, such as white-eyed buzzard; and 167 rare and medicinal plant species. The forests are also a catchment area for the Hasdeo River, which flows into the Mahanadi River and serves as the watershed for the Hasdeo Bango reservoir, irrigating 741,000 acres of farmland. The state of Chhattisgarh, 44% of which is forested, has India’s third-largest concentration of forests. Additionally, nearly 15,000 Adivasi—Indigenous peoples—depend on the Hasdeo Aranya forests for their livelihood, cultural identity, and sustenance.

Meanwhile, the region contains one of India’s largest coal reserves—some 5.6 billion tons, located just beneath the Hasdeo forests. Today, India is the world’s second-largest coal consumer and producer, with 761 million tons generated in 2022-2023, providing nearly 70% of the country’s electricity. More than 21% of India’s coal comes from Chhattisgarh.

In 2010, India’s environment ministry declared the Hasdeo Aranya forests a “no-go” zone in recognition of their vast biodiversity, but the declaration was never formalized into law and successive governments have attempted to jumpstart mining operations. Between 2011 and 2015, India’s Adani Enterprises—a powerful multinational mining corporation—received permission to develop five coal mines in the forests.

A Natural Leader

Shukla, 43, is a convenor with Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an informal alliance of grassroots movements across Chhattisgarh. The alliance is member-driven, without any paid employees. Alok is also a founding member of the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a grassroots movement uniting forest-dwelling villagers across the region.

Growing up in the mineral-rich state, Alok witnessed the profound environmental and social devastation wrought by extractive industries. Acutely aware of unsustainable resource extraction, he decided to dedicate his life to protecting the water, forests, and land of central India, as well as supporting Adivasi tribes, which are the traditional stewards of the land.

On a visit to the rivers of Hasdeo in late 2011, Alok learned of the government’s plan to auction off coal blocks in the Hasdeo Aranya forests. He realized that the affected communities had little information about the mining process or awareness of their existing legal rights and began advising them on potential legal strategies and tactics. Previous Adivasi opposition to mining projects was somewhat disorganized and, as a result, two mines were brought online around 2010. Alok’s leadership had brought villages and local communities together in a unified movement that emerged in 2012 with the creation of the Save Hasdeo Aranya Resistance Committee.

In June 2020, several more coal auctions were announced, but fierce opposition from local communities stalled the process. In a major coal auction in December 2020, the central government invoked emergency provisions to move 21 coal blocks forward. Madhuresh Kumar, a national convener at the National Alliance of People’s Movements, noted: “The land acquisition law says that if a project is deemed to be of national importance, certain provisions can be bypassed, including community consent or requirements to hold a public hearing, and forest and land clearances can be fast tracked.”

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, in June 2020 Alok began organizing the villages in protest the 21 proposed coal mines. In October 2020, he led local villagers to lobby the village legislative councils to designate 945,000 acres as the Lemru elephant reserve, protecting the elephant corridor and its boundaries from planned coal mines. Sustained community protest led the government to withdraw three mines from public auction in September 2020, and, after a 10-day, 166-mile protest march to the state capital of Raipur in October 2021 alongside 500 villagers, an additional 14 mines were canceled.

Alok garnered widespread support on social media and digital platforms by using the hashtag #SaveHasdeo. The campaign inspired creative acts around the country, including bike rallies and couples using the hashtag in their wedding invitations. In the spring of 2022, villagers began an indefinite sit-in and launched tree-hugging protests against the felling of 300 trees that had been cleared for the proposed mines. Alok met with local government officials and senior state leaders, held press conferences in New Delhi, gave interviews to radio and television outlets, wrote letters and petitions, organized protests, and held village assemblies with affected Adivasi communities.

In July 2022, the state legislature adopted a resolution against mining in the entire Hasdeo Aranya region and demanded cancellation of any existing allocations. Alok’s adept organizing of local communities and sustained strategy led the state government to cancel 21 coal blocks by July 2022, preserving the unfragmented, biodiverse Hasdeo Aranya forests from destruction by some of India’s most powerful corporations. Determined to save the lungs of Chhattisgarh from destruction, the Hasdeo movement’s ability to successfully influence policy has made it a model for environmental justice in India and generated an unprecedented amount of national and regional solidarity.

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