Mahan, Singrauli, Waidhan.....these were names thrown at me even before I joined Greenpeace. All I knew was that there is a forest in eastern MadhyaPradesh and we were to set off hot air balloons and actor Abhay Deol was to be a part of this activity. The idea being, bring national focus to these forests which are to be destroyed for coal mining. The action happened (not exactly how we planned it). I was with the team that made that happen and that was my introduction to this region!
This is Singrauli district, in north-eastern M.P, bordering Chhattisgarh and U.P, known as the Energy Capital of the country. 10% of our country's coal based power comes from here. This is obviously a coal-rich area and hence also has 9 thermal power plants and 11 operational mines. It is also one of the most critically polluted districts of the country. Mahan is a river in the forest and thus the name of the forest. The forests of Mahan are rich in bio-diversity home to many forest dependent communities. The forests are over rich coal deposits, which, of course, has caught all the wrong kind of attention.
August 15, 2012 was a key moment in that fight.
This was the date on which the Gram Sabha (all members of the village over the age of 18) of every village is supposed to have a compulsory meeting. This was the day the villagers were going to stake their claim of community forest rights. Sounds easy enough doesn't it? Read on.....
The focus was on two villages, Amelia and Suhira. Amelia is a village that will be directly affected by the mine and will be displaced. Suhira is in a trickier position, as it is not "directly" affected by the mine. But the forests on which they depend for their livelihood, collecting firewood, Mahua flowers and fruit, Tendu leaves and much more is what is going to be destroyed. And no one is asking them what they think about that! It's like they don't exist! Moreover, they are in close proximity to the Essar power plant, which was built even before they received their forest clearances. Of course, now Essar is giving a fait accompli saying that, since the plant has been constructed already, the forest has to be given to them. How very convenient! The various kinds of pollution both from the plant itself and the mining will affect Suhira's residents. That is a pretty direct effect, if you ask me.
What I witnessed on that fateful day of 15th August and the week preceding that was the stuff that happens in the movies; at least that's what I thought. There are company dalals (Mahan Coal Limited - of course Essar being right there, nobody seems to mention Hindalco) in every village. These are people who are bought over by the company and promote their agenda and with what? Some free booze, chicken, mutton (we overheard this), small jobs, some money, bikes.
That is enough for them to threaten our campaigners and use cheap intimidation tactics. Our campaigners were even given death threats (in January 2012) and were stopped, followed....the works. While the open threats have stopped, we were still followed, not very subtly however. I think we are scarred for life now, forever imagining vehicles following us, taking down their numbers.
On that crucial day (15th August), we arrived early enough, split into two teams, ready to attend the Gram Sabhas of both the villages, Amelia and Suhira. The company guys and goons were also hanging around. As the Amelia meeting started, our campaigners were asked to leave the meeting citing the fact that it was a meeting of the village and they had no business there. Ditto in Suhira.
So we shifted base to our vehicle, right next to the Mahan Coal Limited office, which is opposite the Gram Panchayat bhavan in Amelia village. We tried getting our photographer in, but he too was shooed out. He nevertheless hung about on the fringes and kept updating us on the phone. Villagers also kept visiting us to give us updates from the meeting. What went on there was in a way expected, but the audacity of it still took me by surprise. The sarpanch (elected head of the village) was apparently singing praises of the company, promising huge amounts of compensation that they would give, citing examples of other places where the company had been so generous. The group of villagers who went there to get the resolution for community forest rights for the village passed, were shouted down on every occasion. But to their credit, they put up a fight.
This was the first time that people had come together in this way and they ensured the Gram Sabha went on for at least two and a half-three hours and that the company did not get an easy victory. They also told us later that this was the first time that the Amelia Gram Sabha saw such a turnout. When the meeting ended, the 'other side' was literally rejoicing.
While it was disappointing that the minutes of the Gram Sabha meeting were not even recorded in the register, the positive outcome was that people realised that they did have a say in the matter and have been geared up to fight. The battle-lines were clearly drawn on that day. The villagers saw what the company and its might can do. The day was a triumph of money power and greed!
Of course that was only a small battle and the war remains to be fought.
War, battle all the wrong words to use, but every day seems like we were out on a mission. The lengths to which the companies like Essar are willing to go to protect their investment, at the cost of human life and rights is where the real scam lies.
The enormity of what is happening there was driven home to me in Suhira, where a very old man came up to me and asked me in a quavering voice if he would have to leave the forests. He went around and asked this same question to others in the team.
For me, this defines the whole problem in a nutshell. Someone's life is to be uprooted completely without his consent and without a thought about the effects of it on him. Someone please explain to me why this even needs to be debated? I know, a simplistic view, but sometimes things are indeed that simple! If only...
Images: i) © Greenpeace / Harikrishna Katragadda, ii) and iii) © Greenpeace /Sudhanshu Malhotra.
Rina is an activist with Greenpeace.