THE FIGHT FOR FORESTS
Wearing a weathered dhoti, a thin cream-coloured cotton shirt and a white gamcha wrapped around his neck, Bechanlalji made for an unusual portrait of an activist. His smile was warm and genuine and I immediately felt connected and welcomed into a community that I had gone to document in August 2013. His was a community of farmers but what set him apart? Bechanlalji and his brethren in 54 villages have been waging a battle to protect their ancestral homeland and the Mahan forests of eastern Madhya Pradesh with which they have lived in peaceful co-existence since centuries. They were fighting to save not just their homes, but also their livelihood and cultural identity from the looming shadows of the big corporate conglomerates who want to rip apart their land because of its rich reserves of coal.
On May 8th, 2014 Bechanlalji and three others were arrested for peacefully protesting against the proposed coal mines.
MAHAN AND ITS PEOPLE
Central India contributes to 11.6% of the country’s forests and is home to approximately 450 of the entire tiger population of India (that’s 37%), which is a sign of its rich ecological diversity. Mahan forms an integral and unfragmented wildlife corridor supporting an extensive variety of flora and fauna including sloth bears, leopards and elephants that are listed as scheduled 1 wildlife species. It also forms one of the largest and oldest sanctuaries of native Sal, a tree that is both economically rich and sacred to its people. The coal mines threaten to destroy about 12,000 hectares of these forests, which are the only perennial source of water for the local communities and wildlife.
The forest is also an important source of income to the indigenous communities like Bechanlalji’s, who go into the jungles to harvest the mahua flowers and the tendu leaves. Every year, in the month of April, the villagers head into the forests to collect mahua flowers that are used in food preparations, medicines, cosmetics and a popular alcoholic drink – a kilo of these flowers can fetch up to Rs 25 in the local market. The tendu leaves are hand-rolled into beedies. The income generated from the two see through the difficult times the families may face during the year. And hence the gathered produce is often stored and sold only in times of need. The coal mines threaten the livelihoods of about 14000 such people.
WHAT IS MAHAN COAL LIMITED?
MCL is a 50:50 joint venture of Hindalco (Aditya Birla Group) and the Ruia-owned Essar Power being setup to mine coal for their thermal power plants. Undergoing trials at the moment, the Essar power plant near Amelia village was setup even before the required environmental clearances were obtained. In 2010, the then Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, admitted that he was he was “unable to agree” to consider forest clearance for Mahan coal block since it came under the ‘no-go’ area. He pointed out that granting forest clearance on the basis of 65 per cent completion of the project was not acceptable and that the project should have started only after the required forest clearances were granted. Ramesh said that fait accompli has become far too common and questioned why such a good quality forest area should be broken up for such a partial requirement. By the industries’ own admission, Mahan coal block would meet requirements of the power plants for around 15 years.
That’s right. For coal reserves that would last a mere 15 years the coal company is ready to bring down an entire ecosystem that has probably taken millions of years to evolve.
Although Jairam Ramesh’s successor Jayanthi Natarajan was forced to give stage 1 clearance in 2012, she laid down 36 conditions that the company had to fulfil before going ahead with the project. This included the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) by conducting grama sabhas (grass root level democratic institution in each village panchayat) in the villages seeking people’s approval. During once such that was held in Amelia village in March 2013, many of the signatures supposedly favouring the project were forged – including of those who were no longer alive.
POLLUTION LEVELS ARE ALARMINGLY HIGH
In January 2011, a survey done by the Central Pollution Control Board and IIT Delhi counted Singrauli coalfield region (of which Mahan is a part of) as the seventh most critically polluted area in the country. The region scored 81.73 on the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index that led to a moratorium being imposed on further expansion of mining in the area. But soon, the Madhya Pradesh State Pollution Control Board submitted a remedial plan and lifted the moratorium only to result in continuation of mining.
Amelia and other villages are also facing threat from growing fly ash pond. Fly ash, dumped in huge open mounds and in toxic ponds, is likely to displace colonies and cause large-scale air, land and water pollution in the area, adversely affecting the health of the people and the environment. In 2013, the Essar power plant faced closure action from Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board for not following the norms related to the disposal of fly ash. Residents of Amelia and others say that fly ash has already contaminated their fields. Amelia residents even say that the company is yet to construct a fly ash pond.
The Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) was set up in March 2013 as an independent organisation to assert the rights of the local communities and protect them against the corporate high handedness.
VALUABLE LESSONS FROM THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
The MCL has been making many promises to convince people to part with their land, by offering jobs at the power plants and assuring them of better shelter and access to healthcare. I wanted to see the state of rehabilitations that had taken place in the Singrauli region and hence drove down to the nearest Amlohri power plant set up by Reliance Power, around 30 km away. I am shocked, to say the least, to witness what the displaced villagers had bargained for. The so-called ‘houses’ were a thoughtlessly designed, concrete structures with glass panes that showed utter disregard to their traditional dwellings which have aesthetic, functional and well ventilated spaces.
A version of this story appeared in The Caravan's Vantage section, February 2015.
Three of Bechanlalji’s compatriots who were arrested along with him were released on bail just after 40 hours in jail. Bechanlalji was finally released on June 2nd, after having spent almost a month in jail.
The Madhya Pradesh government has said that they won’t axe trees in the Mahan forests till October this year. On May 20, members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) had filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), challenging the forest clearance granted to the Mahan coal block in March that led to the state government’s announcement. The case is still in progress.
Indian Express Report, (May 10th, 2014)
NGT cancels forest approval for Essar-Hindalco’s Mahan plant (Sept 26th, 2014)
Five coal blocks in Chhattisgarh might see land conflict, (Jan 15th, 2015)