There is a lot of hustle and bustle under the mango tree in Hardayal Singh Gond’s house. The local women are chatting in a group, and not too far away, on the large ‘dari’, the men are also in discussion. There is positivity in the air and we are greeted with a loud ‘Zindabad’!
We are celebrating our victory today. One that will go into the history of the Amelia Gram Sabhas gram sabhas are village council meetings where decisions impacting the local community are taken. For the first time, around 422 people not only attended the gram sabha, but members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) were also able to record their community forest rights claim in the resolutions register! This is the first step in formally initiating the process of recognising their rights.
This gram sabha is historic for another reason. Continuing its attempt to crush the growing support for protecting the Mahan forests, the administration tried to pass two problematic resolutions. The members of Mahan Vikas Manch, a local group that proactively supports Mahan Coal Limited, managed to push in two resolutions- one saying that the village unanimously decides to take a compensation of 1.5 lakhs per family and another saying that Greenpeace members would be banned from entering the village! However, the MSS members thwarted this attempt by being alert and insisting on the reopening of the register and demanding an open vote on all matters.
06 May 2014
Peaceful protest in Mahan © Greenpeace India
Due to the pressure of the majority, the secretary and the sarpanch reopened the register. MSS members were able to enter their counter resolutions in the register stating that they will not talk about compensation and want their forest rights recognised. They also stated that they welcome any national or international groups who come to the village to raise awareness and do community work.
Members of MSS describe this to us as the first round of victory for them, and a historic moment in the village because the will of the majority stood above the manipulation of the powerful minority for the first time! With a childlike excitement in his voice, Kamla Prasad Kahairwar, MSS member says, “We are sure to win this fight.” He tells us about two people belonging to families who sold their land to Mahan Coal Limited approaching him after the gram sabha and wanting to add their names to the resolution favouring the forests. Why now? They tell him that they only sold their land to the company, not their forests!
The discussions take a serious turn, as a few members raise concern on the fact that the notice for the special gram sabha on the Forest Rights Act has still not been served. On 21st July, the district collector had acknowledged that there were irregularities in the earlier resolution and a fresh gram sabha will be help at Amelia. There is evidence that the gram sabha on the basis of which Stage II clearance was given to Mahan Coal Limited was actually forged and hence, invalid.
Since making the announcement, the district collector has been transferred to Bhopal and a new collector has taken charge.
We are yet to hear about the dates of the proposed gram sabha, and it seems to have been deferred for now. There are also rumours doing rounds in the village stating that there will be no gram sabha and the forest will be cut down!
As I listen to their conversation, my mind drifts to the gram sabha that happened a year ago where more than 250 MSS members, demotivated and lost returned after being told that there was no such thing as the Forest Rights Act, 2006. A year has passed, and they now stand with their heads held high after filing their first community right claim overpowering people who have exploited them for years now. This enthusiasm and empowerment of the community under the banner of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, is what inspires me every day.
As the fight to protect Mahan gets dirtier with increasing intimidation and pressure from local authorities, I am more convinced about the strength of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti members and their resolve to protect their home. Perhaps the best thing about empowering people is that once that process is done you cannot undo it.
Tell Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram asking him to ensure a free and fair Gram Sabha in Mahan!
Priya Pillai is a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India