This meeting with the minister – coming on the heels of the historic Niyamgiri Gram Sabha – further strengthened their demands for implementation of Forest Rights Act to decide on the fate of the forests they have been dependant on for generations. This puts into question the second stage clearance for Mahan coal block, which has been awarded Stage I clearance, along with 36 conditions, which includes implementation of Forest rights Act.
"Granting of forest clearance to Mahan coal block is a blatant violation of legal requirement of FRA and the requirement for consent of Gram Sabha before commencement of mining activity. There is also a strong misgiving among the tribals and affected people of there being a strong nexus between the said company and the local authorities in the region, which is leading to large scale violation of forest rights," said Mr Deo.
This violation has led to a growing resentment among the villagers from 62 villages, who have been dependant on the forests for generations. The MSS is right now in the process of broad basing the ongoing fight to all these villages which will also be impacted by the coal mine.
"We have been dependant on the Mahan forests for generations collecting a variety of forest produce, which is a very significant source of our livelihood. Now the company (Mahan Coal Ltd) says that these forests belong to them and we have no rights there," says Bechanlal, member of MSS and a resident of Amelia village.
Allowing mining in Mahan would open the doors to other coal blocks as well. "Chatrasal, Ammelia North and several other blocks in the Mahan forests are awaiting approvals, which will further fragment the entire forests in the region," said Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India.
Supporting the cause of these tribal communities, the Tribal Affairs Minister has written a three-page letter to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan chronicling the events that led to gross violation of the Forest Rights Act. The letter highlights that not a single community forest right has been implemented in the area, including holding a free and fair Gram Sabha. This, despite the villagers writing to authorities indicating that they have both individual and community claims in the area.
"This is not just a blatant violation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act but it also goes against the MoEF 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. This support from the Minister will put a spanner in the works of the State government's effort to ride roughshod over the rights of the people in Mahan," says Pillai.
The minister's letter chronicles the events that have led to the gross violation of the FRA in detail.
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 of the local administration.
Another special Gram Sabha on FRA was held on March 6, 2013 in Amelia, which was attended by only 184 people. But the copy of the Gram Sabha resolution obtained through RTI (after four months) has 1,100 signatures – most of them, the villagers fear, have been forged. Kripanath –a member of MSS who met the minister is a standing testimony to the fact. "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 as well," says Kripanath.
Greenpeace along with members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti appreciate the minister's initiative and call for implementation of the Forest Rights Act through the process of a free and fair Gram Sabha. Also, coal blocks should not be allocated without a proper assessment of the impact on forest dependent communities.
For further information
Countering Coal –a discussion paper by Kalpavriksha and Greenpeace http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/report/Countering-coal.pdf
Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India: 9999357766
Jagori Dhar, Senior Media Officer, Greenpeace India: 9811200481
Anindita Datta Choudhury, Senior Media Officer, Greenpeace India: 9871515804
Avinash Kumar Chanchal, Media Officer, Greenpeace India: 08359826363