29 May 2014
Photo Credit: Vinit
They call this part of northern India the Badlands because it's renowned for its lawlessness. It certainly feels like the wild west and instead of the gold rush, it's a coal rush with companies like British-listed Essar making this area feel like a new frontier. There's no mistaking that you're in a coal field because the smog of coal dust hits you as you arrive at Singrauli station.
A huge sign declares that you are in 'The Northern Coal Fields'. The coal industry aims to bulldoze everything and anyone who stands in its way: the thousands of people who live on top of the coal or the forests that those people rely on for their livelihood. The people living in the villages surrounding the proposed Mahan coal mine make a living collecting leaves and flowers from the forest. The mahua flower collecting season has just finished (the flowers are used in medicines) and the tendu leaf collecting season is in full flow. Tendu leaves are used for making Indian cigarettes called beedis.
Greenpeace India describes the campaign to save this area from coal development as 'the big fight'. I can tell you that it's a dirty fight with local goons and the police colluding every day to find new and creative ways of intimidating the local villagers and Greenpeace into giving up, to make way for the mine.
Two weeks ago 2 Greenpeace employees and 2 local villagers were arrested in the middle of the night on completely trumped up charges and taken to the police station where one of them was beaten up when he refused to sign false confessions. People identified by the locals as Essar company employees were in the police station for the entire time.
Three of the four activists have since been released on bail and the fourth person, Bechanlal remains in custody supposedly because he has a previous criminal conviction from 30 years ago. In reality he's there because he's one of the leaders of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti or MSS (translates as 'Mahan Struggle committee') and his continued incarceration is designed to intimidate the community into backing down so that they don't meet the same fate.
I had an opportunity to meet Bechanlal while he has in a holding cell during a court appearance this week. He cried when he saw faces that he recognised but repeatedly assured us that he was strong, well and unbowed. He was really pleased when I told him that I would tell people in the UK about his situation. Greenpeace and 400 villagers protested on May 19 for his release and this has prompted a new wave of intimidation.
I'm having my every movement followed by the police (on the grounds that as I am a foreigner they need to protect me from being kidnapped by maoist rebels) and Greenpeace were called this week to come and listen to some villagers who had just set up a tendu leaf co-operative and who had been intimidated by officials all day, telling them to shut it down on the grounds that it was illegal. The truth is that by setting up a co-operative, they cut out the middleman who normally brokers the sale of the leaves and this middleman is a supporter of the mine.
29 May 2014
Photo Credit: Vinit
Priya Pillai who leads the Greenpeace team here is used to threats of violence and even death but by far the worst was the call she received threatening to publish a photo of her wearing a bikini! She told the caller to go ahead and print it but so far it hasn't emerged.
The most powerful symbol of the relationship between Essar and the police is the fact that the local police station is actually situated inside the compound of the brand spanking new Essar power station next to the proposed mine. To access it, Essar employees have to open the gates and let you in.
One result of this is that because local people can't trust the police, they ask Greenpeace to help them sort out some of their problems. Priya is part social worker, part campaigner, taking on sexism, caste and class politics in her bid to empower the villagers to stand up for their rights and protect the forest which they own, from being destroyed. When Priya started talking to people round here, more than 3 years ago, they didn't even know that they owned the forest, had little appetite for a fight and were hugely suspicious of Greenpeace. Now, when we drive down the dirt road in the villages, old men and children raise their fist and shout 'Zindabad'! at us (Long live the fight!). It's hugely moving.
This week, Mahan Coal Ltd (a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco) stepped up their campaign of psychological warfare and sent a 'Corporate Social Responsibility' woman, Vijaylaxmi into the villages. (I thought those CSR types just wrote the annual greenwash reports and set up sponsorship deals to de-toxify their bad deeds). Vijaylaxmi however is different. She's been talking to Bechanlal's son and telling him that Greenpeace aren't doing anything to get him bail. 'I can help you to get your dad released,' she told him. 'I'm a social worker just like you,' she told Priya at Monday's protest.
This fight is only going to get dirtier with more spurious arrests of its leaders and ultimately violence anticipated. But on our side it will be completely non-violent. Because that is the only way that you win.
Emma works for our sister organisation Greenpeace-UK and is currently visiting India.