• The people of Mahan have won; Long live the fight – Zindabad!

    Blogpost by Vinuta Gopal - May 21, 2015 at 9:26 Add comment

    I was returning to Mahan and Singrauli after more than two years. I had wanted more than anything to be back in Mahan to see what the people felt on knowing they had won. The Mahan coal block was not going to be auctioned as the forests were recognised as ‘inviolate’ – the information was still sinking in for us in Greenpeace and I wondered what the mood was on the ground. The people had won over powerful interests to ensure their forests remained standing – 400000 trees saved and thousands assured that the forests they depended on for everything in their life would continue to provide for them. The Essar – Hindalco joint venture had been first de-allocated by the Supreme Court and now the coal ministry had been forced to keep it from being auctioned.


    02 April 2015

    More than 20 villages came together to celebrate the victory for Mahan's forests on March 30, 2015. © Sudhanshu Malhotra/ Greenpeace India

    I hadn’t been to Mahan ever since I discovered I was pregnant and now I had my little one year old girl in tow on the journey back. She seemed eager for the adventure – ‘there’ is her favourite word and that’s where we were headed – a far away ‘there’ from our home in Bangalore.

    The road to Singrauli from Varanasi was as bad as I remembered it, except this time they were building fly overs and four lane highways. Clearly this government was going to do all it could to exploit the coal reserves in the central Indian region. There were dust clouds to drive through, with visibility as poor as the smog in Delhi winters. Roadside hutments and establishments covered in dust, not unlike the future in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Things were changing rapidly and the tide of ‘growth’ was swamping people and habitats in its wake. Yet Mahan had survived against massive odds. Truly a win for people power in Mahan and around the country; it gave me goose bumps and hope that indeed another future was possible.

    On 31st March, we were all up early in the morning to be greeted with ‘zindabad!’ instead of the usual ‘good morning’. This was a different face of Greenpeace. One that worked on the ground as ‘saathis’; Akshay, Avinash and Vivek, Greenpeace activists, had stayed the night at the village and helped with the preparations for the celebration – 1 quintal of boondi had been made to distribute at the celebrations. The morning was cloudy and there was a light drizzle. The team was telling us how it was now a given that the rain gods attend every big public meeting in Mahan. A good sign they say.

    As we drove from Waidhan, where we stayed, to Amelia in Mahan, Priya, our senior campaigner narrated stories of the intimidation the team had faced. From being followed by goons, to being threatened, verbally abused, midnight raids and arrests and even having the local MLA urge villagers to physically assault any Greenpeace activist they found entering the village. None of this had dissuaded them or Mahan Sangharsh Samiti from continuing to fight for their legal rights and for the forest. As we turned into Amelia, children spotted our car and raised their hand in gleeful ‘Zindabads’. It seemed like all of Amelia were now part of the struggle, especially the women and children.

    This was a long way from my initial trips to Mahan where people viewed us with suspicion. They asked us bluntly what we wanted? Who was paying us to be there? What would we get from saving the forests? Valid questions indeed that we answered and slowly and painstakingly built the trust of the people. We were there to stay and every time the villagers saw us stand by them against the intimidation, their trust grew and their support for the fight did as well. Every win built confidence that together we could fight for what was right – for the ‘truth’ as Kripanath would put it in his inspiring speech at the gathering.


    02 April 2015

    Activists, villagers and members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti tore up the proposed land acquisition bill to mark their protest. © Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace India

    The pandal was up and core members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti getting things set up. A diesel generator roared to life and with it songs were now blaring to get people into a celebratory mood. We headed to Ujraj ji’s home to make pooris for the saathis. There was an air of easy camaraderie and warmth. Stories continued to be exchanged. Of how the children had formed a Bal Sabha to discuss the impacts the forest being cut. A young boy was fondly called neta – for his speeches and sloganeering abilities. How women had gone in to the forests to stop the trees from being numbered and searched out company officials to stop them from attempting to set off the process which would end with tree felling. As my daughter sat by me, and played happily with the children, and the speeches and songs filled the air, I had a lump in my throat – it was indeed a special moment and I felt that maybe our future had a fighting chance in the changes that we had collectively seeded in Mahan.

    The celebrations were a success – hundreds had come to join the meeting. Not only did MSS choose to celebrate, but they also joined their fellow movements in challenging the draconian Land Acquisition Bill. They tore it and planted a mango sapling over it. Hoping for a different future. Slogans of Zindabad rent the air and I knew the fight had only started. But I also knew that people would rise – we had won – but we would fight! We all knew, standing there in Mahan having driven through the massive overburdens and mines in Singrauli that our futures depended on it. It didn’t matter if we lived in Singrauli or in Bangalore – we were all in it together.

    Vinuta Gopal is a Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace India.