This month, millions of Indians are celebrating Raksha Bandhan – an ancient festival that celebrates the loving bond between brothers and sisters. The sister ties a sacred thread called ‘Rakhi’ on her brother’s wrist as to protect him against any adversity and in return, the brother takes a lifelong vow of protect his sister.
This year, more than 8000 Rakhis, made by Greenpeace volunteers, have found their way to the remote forests of Mahan in Central India where they will be tied to the sacred trees of the forests symbolising protection against evil.
The evil in this case, is the massive coal mine proposed in the region that will destroy 1,200 hectares of forest land; annihilating with it, the only source of livelihood of over 50,000 villagers and threatening the national tiger reserve located a few km away. All this, for coal reserves that are estimated to last for only 14 years. This photo essay illustrates the story of Mahan and its people fighting for their rights:
An estimated 100 million tonnes of coal is buried under the forest, which is today under attack by two of India’s corporate giants – Essar and Hindalco. The Mahan Coal block, allocated to Mahan Coal Ltd was given Stage II forest clearance on February 12, 2014 by India’s interim Environment Minister, Mr. Veerappa Moily, in a desperate bid to please the industry before the country’s national elections in April this year. The coal block was initially rejected for environmental clearance by Moily’s predecessors, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natrajan citing grounds for serious environmental damage in the ancient forests.
Saving Mahan is critical because of its status as the last remaining patch of dense, fragmented forest in the central Indian landscape. Wiping out this ancient forest, rich in biodiversity, will pave the way for the surrounding forests in the region to be axed in the name of mindless development and corporate profits. The coal mining project also flouts a number of rules under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). According to the latter the consent for a village council vote, also known as Gram Sabha cannot be sought without recognising the Community Forest Right (CFR) claims. This has not happened in the case of Mahan coal block clearance.
Greenpeace has documented evidence that the Gram Sabha held on March 6, 2013 was rigged when the approval process involving the affected communities with signatures was forged. The people of Mahan want the Forest Rights Act to be effectively implemented in the region. Last year in July, KC Deo, union minister of tribal affairs had spoken up against the violations of tribal rights in Mahan. His voice has been conveniently ignored. The villagers have come together to form a local people’s rights group – Mahan Sangharsh Samiti- that is working towards saving Mahan forests and the livelihoods of its people.
As opposition builds up, local authorities and company officials have resorted to intimidation of villagers, harassing them with illegal arrests. The mining project is also highly controversial because the mining license for this area was part of permits released by the government as part of what became known internationally as the ‘coal scam’. An official investigation is still ongoing.
The forest clearance will have an impact on the 50,000-plus people from 54 villages depending on it for their livelihoods, and two whole villages are facing being razed to the ground and their inhabitants being relocated to the infamous ‘resettlement colonies’ – grim concrete blocks where villagers often live in squalid conditions. A report released by Greenpeace, this month, pointed out that a major chunk of the household income for the villagers comes from the non-timber fibre produce from the forests in Mahan. Hence, the poorest of these poor would not be eligible for compensation if their land got taken away for mining.
On July 29, 2014 the police seized a mobile phone booster and solar panels that Greenpeace had set up in Amelia village. The same day two Greenpeace activists were arrested in the middle of the night, without a warrant. No one had access to the FIR, despite Greenpeace executive director Samit Aich writing to the Superintendent of Police extending full cooperation.
Residents of Amelia also allege that new names are being included in the electoral list to inflate it before the new Gram Sabha that is to be held in late August, this year. According to the voter list of 2013, Amelia village has a population of 2,050. But reportedly, Mahan Vikas Manch, Essar’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing, claims that the population of Amelia is over 4,000. Such claims of the population doubling overnight heighten fears of another rigged Gram Sabha. The residents also claim that beneficiaries of the mining company are showering villagers with free goodies money to bribe them.
Thus, the villagers have demanded that the central government revoke Mining licence given to Essar and protect the Rights of Forest dwellers in Mahan.
Written by: Pari Trivedi
Photocredits: Greenpeace India
Pari Trivedi is currently working as a Media Officer for Greenpeace India. She has done her MA in Transnational Communications Global Media from Goldsmiths and her BA in Journalism from Mumbai University. Previously, she has worked as a journalist and a media researcher.