Threats, intimidation and unlawful arrests have not deterred more than 150 villagers, including women who have moved into Mahan's forests in Singrauli today to continue their Van Satyagraha and oppose Essar's illegitimate proposal for a coal mine. This comes in the wake of last night's shocking arrest of their fellow satyagrahis by the local police from Greenpeace's office.
"These dirty tactics do not scare us. We are deeply motivated by our brothers and sisters who have fought in various other movements. We are ready to go through arrest, physical abuse or any kind of torture they subject us to. We will not leave the forests and we will get justice in the end. Our fight will not go in vain," said Hardayal Singh, member of MSS and a resident of Amelia village.
The four satyagrahis were arrested in the middle of the night on trumped up charges of robbery, assaulting a government servant and obstructing government work. One of the Greenpeace activists was even beaten up by the police for refusing to sign a confession. Part of the growing Van Satyagraha, which began in February this year, the protestors have been denied bail and have been taken into judicial custody in Waidhan.
Samit Aich, executive director, Greenpeace India said: "We are moved by the commitment of the community members and are now even more determined to expose Essar's wrongdoings in Mahan. These are bullying tactics to sully our reputation and stop our work of empowering communities in Mahan. It is a desperate bid by the company to trample any opposition against their coal mine project."
The arrests took place within 48 hours of a protest on Monday by members of MSS, which included several women in which Essar officials were asked to stop marking trees. The two Greenpeace activists, Akshay Gupta and Vineet Gupta, who have been arrested, were only documenting the incident on camera.
"Why were people, who were only documenting the protest arrested? Is Essar scared that their illegitimate actions will be exposed? It all points to the fact that the company is ready to go to any extent to stop the communities from peacefully protesting for their rights," says Priya Pillai, senior campaigner with Greenpeace.
The arrests have been carried out rapidly while violations related to the mine have been ignored. "This is very uncharacteristic of the local police. They have never been this swift. Members of MSS have been raising the issue of the forged Gram Sabha for over two months, but the police have done nothing about it. No FIR has been filed despite following up with the Superintendent of Police," she added.
In February this year, following the second stage forest clearance (final stage clearance) given to Mahan, Jag Narayan Shah, member of MSS had filed a police complaint regarding the forged Gram Sabha Resolution of March 6, 2013, based on which the clearance was given. At a massive public rally, people from over 14 villages began their Van Satyagraha and declared the clearance null and void. The collector reportedly went on record to say that he will look into the issue and even hold a fresh Gram Sabha to resolve the issue.
The Van Satyagraha has been going from strength to strength even as several young volunteers from urban areas have joined the villagers in their fight. Last month, volunteers lived in the forests for 15 days helping community members collect Mahua flowers – a non-timber forest produce that is the main source of livelihoods for many people.
Greenpeace and MSS are stepping up the campaign to save Mahan. Their resolution to roll back the forest clearance remains unchanged.