04 August 2013
The Van Adhikar Sammelan rally and meeting organised by the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) in Singrauli, MP © Vivek Muthuramalingam
The communities vowed not to allow any company violate their rights under the Forest Rights Acts (FRA) that gives them the power to determine whether the land they have been dependent on for centuries should be given up for mining or not.
Unfurling their flag for the first time, members of MSS drew inspiration from the recent victory in Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa where the Gram Sabhas and villagers outrightly rejected Vedanta's proposed bauxite mining in the region which would have destroyed the hills and forests there. MSS is a body of community members from five villages in the Mahan forests formed to assert their forest rights under the FRA. They have been opposing the proposed coalmine of Mahan Coal ltd, a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco.
Bechan Lal, a member of MSS says, "We are happy that so many people have come together to rightfully claim what has been theirs for several generations. More villages should come under the banner of MSS. We need to strengthen our fight locally in order to get what people in Niyamgiri have achieved."
Virendra Singh, another MSS member shared the resolution that was passed at the meeting. He said, "It has been unanimously decided that people of Mahan will not give up their forest land. They will continue their fight peacefully and put pressure on the authorities to enforce the Forest Rights Act."
04 August 2013
Bechenlalji, a MSS member speaking at the meeting at Amelia, Singrauli © Vivek Muthuramalingam
As a precursor to the public meeting, members of MSS braved torrential rains and undertook a five-day Yatra on foot across 11 villages in the Mahan forests to garner support. Members of the Jan Sangharsh Morcha, Anurag Modi, Sunil Bhai, Madhuri Krishnaswamy and Rajesh of Jan Chetna Manch also supported the movement.
Anurag Modi says, "The development model adopted by the Madhya Pradesh government has failed. Be it thermal power or nuclear power, they are just modes of robbing the state of its natural resources. Such a development model needs to be relooked."
On 19th July, 2013, the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, K.C. Deo slammed the MP government for 'blatantly violating the Forest Rights Act'. At a joint press conference with MSS and Greenpeace India, the minister assured the villagers that a probe will be ordered on the Amelia Gram Sabha resolution which gave a go-ahead to the mining proposal. This due to the fact that a copy of the resolution obtained through the RTI (Right to Information) showed that most signatures had been forged. Deo has also written letters to the Chief Minister and Governor of MP on the issue.
Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace India who has been working with members the MSS for the past two years says, "The PMO, coal and power ministries can no longer afford to bypass laws. The implementation of FRA is a right granted to these communities by the Constitution of India".
Granting of forest clearance to the mine in Mahan will mean completely destroying the livelihoods of 14,190 people, out of which 5,650 are from tribal communities as per the 2001 census. It will also be the beginning of the end of the entire forest range in Mahan as other coal blocks like Chatrasal in the Mahan forests are awaiting approvals. The approvals will also further fragment the entire forests in the region.
04 August 2013
The Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) flag © Vivek Muthuramalingam
Ujraj Singh Khairvar another member of MSS sheds some light on what this means to the local people. "Mining will not only destroy our homes but will also make basic amenities like water scarce. The electricity produced at the thermal power plants will go to big cities and we will be left in darkness. Many villagers in Singrauli have still not received any compensation from the companies. As far as jobs are concerned, we won't get anything beyond menial labour work and we will have no choice but to migrate to cities."
While the MSS unfurled their flag they were cheered by community members from the 11 villages, who participated in the meeting. The green flag has symbolic elements of the struggle of the people. The mahua tree on the flag symbolises the people's dependence on mahua for their livelihood and the peacock feathers shows their love for the animals thriving in the forests. The chain of people holding hands symbolises unity. The villagers' strength and unity to protect the forests and their way of life is inspiring. But we must remember that the coal companies are rich and powerful and will try all means to mine in the forests. For the forests and communities to remain protected, government support and a strict adherence to the Forests Rights Act is a must.