In the village it is pitch dark by 7.30 pm. At the designated spot for the meeting, there are about 15 or 20 villagers holding solar lanterns. The meeting lasts over two hours and throughout that time, people keep coming and joining the conversation. Halfway into the meeting, I turn around to steal a quick look at the crowd and I am surprised at how large the group has become! It’s about a 100 people sitting, standing, leaning against their houses and trees, listening intently and waiting for their turn to speak.
The meeting was held by Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) — the people’s organisation which is fighting a proposed coal mine in the forests of Mahan. The MSS started small, much like its meeting and today has more than 800 people active in more than 15 villages in the district of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. Greenpeace has been helping MSS with this fight to ensure that their rights are recognised and their forests and livelihoods are protected.
What's at stake
In 2006, the mining proposal was floated without considering the fact that there are 54 adjacent villages and 50,000 villagers who depend on the forests for their livelihoods. Mahan Coal Limited, the joint venture between Essar and Hindalco intends to use the coal for firing two thermal power plants in the area. For the mining to commence, the company will need to chop 500,000 trees and acquire the land nearby. The forests of Mahan are home to hundreds of migratory bird species and tigers and elephants are known to frequent it.
This is why, in 2011, the former Environment Minister recommended that the proposal of mining in Mahan coal block should be rejected because “it is an undoubtedly biodiversity rich area. It will destroy good natural forest cover and interfere with wildlife habitats”. He added that by the companies’ own admission, the coal mined from this area will only last for the next 14 years and therefore he does not find the proposal reasonable. He was removed from his job shortly afterwards, and a group of pro-business ministers pressured his successor into ignoring this recommendation and granting clearance to the project since the company had already invested heavily.
In theory, any such projects require comprehensive social and environmental impact assessment and need explicit consent from the villagers before the work on the ground gets started. The Forest Right Act of India recognises the relationship that local communities have with the forest and makes provisions for protecting their rights. Under the act, a village assembly (called a Gram Sabha) must be held to pass a resolution agreeing to felling of trees, acceptance of compensation in lieu of their land to be paid by the company and approval for the commencement of the project. Each of the gram sabha resolutions has to be passed with a 50% quorum.
In 2013, a Gram Sabha did take place in one of the villages, and a resolution accepting the proposal to mine the forests was passed. Trouble is, on closer inspection MSS found that the vast majority of the signatures were added after the event, many of them forged, while others belonged to people who had died years ago. MSS filed a police complaint against the forgery and declared the resolution null and void.
The minister for Tribal Affairs rubbished the forged resolution too and wrote to the central government about it. This resulted in the local administration agreeing to conduct a fresh Gram Sabha in the village. A new Gram Sabha was to take place in August but it now seems to have been postponed indefinitely.
Arrests and raids
For MSS, it has been a bumpy ride. Over the last four years the villagers who have become a part of MSS have seen it all—use of force and intimidation, violence against activists, arrests, raids, offers of money, alcohol and gadgets.
As we count the days to the Gram Sabha, there is no doubt that this juncture is crucial for the fight to the forests and livelihoods in Mahan. So crucial in fact, that a new round of scare tactics has been unleashed to ensure that the villagers vote in Essar’s favour.
On July 30th, two Greenpeace activists who work with MSS were arrested after a ‘raid’ at the guest house where they were staying. The police came at midnight after having seized the solar panel and batteries at the village. Allegations flew thick and fast and after having denied bail for two days, our activists were finally let go. This is not the first time such arrests happened.
I ask Vijendra at the meeting if MSS and villagers are feeling intimidated by these arrests. He says without pausing to think,”we are not scared of them, they are scared of us” and that this scaremongering is only making the movement stronger. He knows that things will get tougher as we inch closer to the Gram Sabha and that it only makes the villagers more determined to stand up for their rights.
When it comes to saving Mahan, it really does take a village. And then some.
UPDATE 26 August 2014. In a landmark judgement India's Supreme Court declared all coal mines allocated between 1993 and 2010 illegal on grounds of arbitrariness, legal flaws, lack of transparency and fairness.
This includes the Mahan coal block that was allocated to Essar in 2006. The court will now decide whether to cancel all these licenses or impose penalties. The people of Mahan continue to seek recognition of their rights to the forests in the meanwhile.