18 July 2013
Members of MSS with the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, V Kishore Chandra Deo © Greenpeace/Sudhanshu Malhotra
MSS is a jan sangathan (people's organisation) that was formed in February 2013, comprising of community members from five villages in the Mahan forests in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. The purpose of MSS is to protect their land and forests from coal mining companies.
Greenpeace India's campaigners and MSS members had a formal meeting with the Minister before he came out to address the joint press conference. At the conference Deo said, "I have written to the CM of Madhya Pradesh asking him to uphold forest rights' but have received no reply."
The Mahan Coal block has already been awarded Stage I clearance along with 36 conditions which includes implementation of the FRA. But we can only hope that the FRA is adhered to in letter and spirit because indigenous communities have been dependent on these forests for generations.
Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace India says, "Allowing the Mahan coal block would mean opening doors for other coal blocks like Chatrasal, Ammelia North and several others awaiting approvals in the Mahan forests. This will further fragment the entire forests in the region."
Right now the FRA is being blatantly violated because of a strong nexus between local authorities and coal companies. Villagers from 62 villages in the region recognize that their rights are being trampled upon and the MSS is in the process of strengthening their voice.
Currently, the MSS is opposing the proposed coal mine of Mahan Coal Ltd (a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco) demanding the firm implementation of the FRA in the Mahan forests. In the meeting, the Minister addressed their concerns and assured them of his ministry's full support.
Kripanath, a member of MSS told the minister about cases of signatures being forged to secure land in Mahan. He said, "On the evening of the Gram Sabha, the tehsildar along with local policeman went around the village forcing villagers to sign the resolution. Later several signatures were forged. After obtaining a copy of the resolution, I was shocked to see that my signature was forged too."
26 March 2013
The MSS's first meeting in February 2013
On this, the minister responded by saying, "There have been allegations of indigenous people's signatures being forged to secure their land in Mahan. The State government is not following norms. Signature allegations should be examined and investigated. I assure my full cooperation."
The Minister also shared the letter he has sent to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh supporting the cause of the indigenous communities. The letter chronicled the events that led to the gross violation of the FRA. It highlighted the appalling fact that not a single community forest right has been implemented in the region, including holding a free and fair Gram Sabha. This despite the villagers writing to authorities indicating that they have both individual and community claims on the land.
On August 15, 2012 villagers from Amelia and Suhira came together at their respective Gram Sabhas to pass a resolution on 'community forest rights'. But the Gram Sabha was disrupted by officials from Mahan Coal Ltd along with representatives from the local administration. Another special Gram Sabha on FRA was held on March 6, 2013 in Amelia, which was attended by 184 people. But the copy of the Gram Sabha resolution obtained through the Right to Information Act has 1,100 signatures – most of them, the villagers say, have been forced or forged.
On this, Priya Pillai said, "This total disregard for rights of communities is a blatant violation of the provisions of the FRA, as well as the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests)notification of August 2009, which emphasises the importance of 'community consent in forest land diversions for developmental projects' and the need to hold free and fair Gram Sabhas to facilitate this process."
The FRA is the only strong law that recognises the forest dwellers' rights and makes conservation more accountable. If rich and powerful coal companies are allowed to strong arm villagers and influence government servants, what hope remains for our forests and indigenous communities?
Greenpeace along with members of MSS applaud the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Deo's efforts to uphold the FRA. His missive to the MP state government must be taken very seriously by the MP government and any other Central Ministries that push for forest clearance for coal mining by devious methods.
You can support the forest communities rights and help protect our forests, visit http://www.junglistan.org/.