The MSS public meeting on the Forests Rights Act © Vivek Muthuramalingam
As we drive to various villages located in Mahan, Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, with members of the Mahan Sangarsh Samiti (MSS) for publicising the August 4, MSS public meeting being organised on the Forest Rights Act (FRA), my colleague says to me, "Woh peecha kar rahe hain." (They are following us.) "Kaun?" (Who?), I ask.
"Company waale, aur kaun." (The company people, who else?). By now they have gotten used to a car following them wherever they go, as a tactic of intimidation.
It's just two days before one of our public meetings and we get a call from the wife of a MSS member. She tells us that her husband was called to the Mahan Coal Limited office and that they have been pestering him for days to talk to them.
He returns only after four hours. "Mujhe bas samjhna tha, woh kya dene ke liye tayaar hai ," he says. (I just wanted to understand what they were ready to offer us to come to their side).
He tells us that they offered him a job at the factory, payment for the children's education at a school and hospital treatment. "Unhone kaha ki jo bhi mere mann mein aaye mein maang sakta hoon, lekin mein company ka gulaam kabhi nahi ban sakta hoon." (They said I should ask for whatever comes to my mind, but I said no, because I can't live like the company's slave).
Bribery turns into a veiled threat when he is then told that other key members and he will be taken for a "drive" on the day before the public meeting and hence they will not be able to make it in time for the meeting. We also learn that his brother is offered Rs 20,000 from someone to switch loyalties.
As the MSS travels from village to village, expanding in size, the coal companies strike back too. Rumours are spread that the public meeting organised by the MSS has been cancelled. In fact, we are told that the company dalals (brokers) have spread the word that a meeting of those who believe in "development by mining" is being organised on the same day and at the same time by a newly formed entity called the Mahan Vikas Manch. A goat will be killed, poori-aloo, kheer and Aadhaar cards will be distributed, we are told. It also comes to our attention that people are being threatened and told not to attend the MSS's public meetings.
Pamphlets were also distributed slandering Greenpeace India, saying that the organisation is preventing the "development" that will come with the mining. In fact, a letter is sent to Shivraj Singh Chauhan saying that the residents are impatiently waiting for coal mining to begin. Many people who we met, who signed the letter, stated that they were just made to sign on a blank piece of paper. Some claimed that they were told that by signing they would get pattas for their land.
This begs the question, if the people really wanted mining in this area, why is such intimidation being used? The President of the Essar Worker's Union in Bandhaura in Singrauli says that the people who lost their land over seven years ago are still fighting for compensation and that even the small housekeeping jobs at the factory are not being given to locals here.
Anita, another member of the MSS, felt the need to join the struggle when she first visited a displacement colony in Anpara, Singrauli, located near a fly-ash pond. She says, " Company aaj mujhe khaana isliye de rahi hai, taki kal woh hamare jungal ko kaat kar, aur hamari rozi-roti cheen kar, zindagi bhar hamein bhooka chor de". (The company is offering me food today so that tomorrow they can destroy the forests that we are dependent on for our food and livelihood and leave us hungry for the rest of our lives.)
Gopika Nangia works with the Coal Campaign team at Greenpeace India.