ESSAR: QUIT MAHAN!

What is happening?

One of Asia’s oldest Sal forests is on the brink of destruction. This forest is in Mahan in the Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh. An Essar-led coal mine is set to destroy this forest.

The forest has been providing for communities that live around it for generations. Members of the village community have risen against the proposition to dig the Mahan forests for coal.

They’ve come together as the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS). With them stands Junglistan, a community of 1 million people from all over India who love forests and want to protect them.

The events in Mahan have been scandalous.

  • Villagers are being intimidated by goons.
  • Their signatures have been forged to show approval for Essar's plans.
  • Four activists spent 40 hours in jail for protesting peacefully to save the forests. One of them continues to be in custody.
  • And to add to this, Essar has filed two lawsuits to gag the people of Mahan and Greenpeace.

All of this because Essar wants to axe Mahan’s forest to make way for a coal mine.

But we can stop them! A van satyagraha (non-violent occupation of the forest) in Mahan is intensifying, and our movement is growing nationwide. Hundreds of people from the villages have moved into the forests. We aim to create such huge protest that the government, courts and local authorities are forced to uphold the community’s forest rights, and stop the mine.

Why Mahan?

Mahan is one of India’s most valuable forests. Adjacent to the Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve, the forest is an important wildlife corridor, with 102 migratory species present. It contains rare species of birds, including three critically endangered species of vulture. Tigers, elephants, leopards and sloth bears have all been occasionally spotted. Developing the Mahan coal block would fell 5 lakh trees and risk the lives of all these species.

The forest is just as important to people.

Thousands of people, in over 50 villages, draw their sustainable livelihoods from collection of forest produce, such as mahua and tendu. The forest also has a cultural and spiritual significance for the villages of the area. It contains cremation grounds, local deities and other such cultural associations that are important to the people.

Mahan is also a symbol of a wider problem.

India has some of the most beautiful forests in the world, but they are threatened by industrial development and especially coal mining. Around half of India’s coal reserves are located in forest areas. In Central India, coal fields are in proximity to at least 10 tiger reserves. Coal mining in these areas will destroy more than the forests.

Mahan’s forests are the last unfragmented stretch of forests left in Singrauli. The Mahan block is the first of nine projects that will open up the surrounding forests for the coal diggers, leading to destruction of 20,000 hectares of forest. If we stop this mine, we save a lot of forests, wildlife and livelihoods. And we set an example for what is going wrong in India’s development pathway.

Who is challenging them?

The Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) was formed in 2013 by the people of Mahan to protect their rights, livelihoods and forests. The organization has been protesting actively against the coal mine. It has spread to include 11 villages and more people are joining this movement everyday. With them stands Junglistan- a pan-India movement of people who want to protect India’s forests.

Members of MSS have learned to live with death threats from the village gundas. That hasn’t deterred them from fight for their rights and the safety of Mahan’s forest.

Power of renewables

The constant expansion of coal burning is not necessary for India’s development. ‘India Energy [R]evolution’, an expert study published by Greenpeace, has shown that by switching to clean energy sources such as wind and solar, India could bring electricity to the 300 million who still lack it. At the same time, this would create millions of extra jobs, compared to the low-manpower coal sector.

And this is not just theory: Greenpeace is building renewable energy demonstration projects, from an unconnected village in Bihar to the rooftops of central Delhi. All that is required is the political will to create a stable investment environment for clean energy.

Developed nations like Germany have adopted solar power in a big way. Why should India stay behind?

Remote villages in Bihar are also using solar energy to light-up their lives. There is enough sunlight and other renewable energy sources to light-up our entire country.

How will we change things?

Unjust and damaging projects have been stopped before in India – through the National Green Tribunal, through the higher courts, through political intervention and decision taken by communities in Gram Sabhas (village councils). In all these cases, massive public opposition has been a key ingredient.

In February, MSS launched a van satyagraha. The peaceful resistance has been growing ever since. In May, when the company started marking areas of the forest for the mine, dozens of villagers came out to stop them, and continued even after the police started arresting activists.

The one million strong Junglistan has been showing its strength on social media, on the streets, in the forests.

The new government has the power to undo the mis-deeds of its predecessors. We are going to ask them to do that because the clearance given to Mahan’s forest is full of discrepancy and reeks of govt-company nexus.

The Dongria Kondh community set an example by saving the Niyamgiri forests from Vedanta. This is MSS’s and Junglistan’s opportunity to stand for the forests that have given us so much.

Rights violation

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has required the company to meet 36 conditions, which include holding free and fair Gram Sabhas, where people in villages would come together and decide whether they want a mine or not.

In March 2013, a special gram sabha on FRA was conducted in Amelia village in Mahan region, which was fraudulent. Though 184 people attended the gram sabha, the resolution, which shows approval for Essar’s mining project, has 1,125, signatures –most of them have been forged. Seven of the signatories have been dead for three years.

In June last year, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Mr. K.C. Deo, had written to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh regarding violations of rights in Mahan, but his protest was conveniently ignored.

Government-Corporate nexus

Essar has been trying to get permission to clear Mahan’s forest for a long time. Both Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan withheld final forest clearance, because of the importance of the forest Essar wants to axe.

Essar got lucky when Veerappa Moily took over as the Minister of Environment and Forests. Mahan was among the 70 projects Veerappa Moily cleared in three weeks.

The decisions seemed to be an exercise in appeasing corporate concerns. Considering that the environment minister is supposed to safeguard the nation's forests and biodiversity, he wasn’t doing his job. Additionally, it reflects the cosy links between private industry and the government.

Mahan wasn’t the first time Essar benefitted from Moily. News reports say that as Petroleum Minister, Moily helped Essar get certain oil and gas fields in a cut-price deal that cost the government billions, against the advice of his officials.

These discrepancies make it even more important for the new government to cancel the clearance given to Mahan.

Junglistan - a pan-India movement to save the country’s forests from coal mining.

Junglistan is a vibrant movement that aims to protect India’s forests. Its members find innovative ways to bring the issue of India’s forest to the fore.

In 2012, Brikesh Singh stayed in a forest for a month to draw attention to all that we stand to lose due to coal. While he was there, other members of Junglistan took to social media to spread the word about saving forests.

Junglistan has over 1 million members today and it’s growing steadily. Right now, this million-strong republic is supporting the people of Mahan.

The year 2014 started with activists scaling Essar’s headquarters in Mumbai and unfurling a banner that exposed Essar’s intention in Mahan. Later, Minister of Environment and Forest Veerappa Moily, who was sharing stage with industry big-wigs including Essar, received a heart shaped balloon from “Essar” on Valentines day. This was just two days after he gave final permission to destroy Mahan’s forests.

Then on Earth Day, Junglistan sent out a strong message to the future government of India. A full page newspaper ad in the Business Standard, asked India’s new government to reverse the clearance given to Mahan’s forests. The ad was by the people of Junglistan, for the forests of Mahan.

On the same evening, people in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune gathered to show solidarity with Mahan’s forests and the rights of its people.

There’s more to come. Everyday several members of Junglistan unleash the power of sharing on social media. They tweet, share and blog about saving Mahan’s forests. They get more people to join Junglistan and make the movement stronger.

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