Crackdown on Forest Rights Activists Escalates

Feature story - July 31, 2014
Do the constant bids to silence and threaten the people's movement in Mahan ever stop? The police in Singrauli stooped to a new low. Barely two months after four forest rights activists were arrested from Greenpeace's Waidhan office, local police officials once again arrested two Van Satyagrahis from their sleep in a midnight raid on Tuesday night at the NGO's guesthouse in Waidhan. Earlier on Tuesday, the police had seized a mobile signal booster and solar panels that Greenpeace had set up in Amelia village – all this for protesting against an Essar-led coal mine that would destroy the Mahan forest.

31 July 2014

Public Meeting at Mahan in Madhya Pradesh © Vivek M / Greenpeace


"Greenpeace set up this equipment to help the community share information with over a million people across India, who support the community's struggle. First the police seized the equipment without justification, and now they are arresting our people, apparently for reporting that fact," said Priya Pillai, senior campaigner at Greenpeace.

Just a week ago the district collector, M. Selvendran assured the villagers of a free and fair Gram Sabha next month for the community's consent on mining in the Mahan forests. The district collector's assurance is a result of the continuous agitation of the villagers against a forged Gram Sabha Resolution that forms the basis of the final stage forest clearance granted to the Mahan coal block.

"It was due to the efforts of our activists and members of MSS that we were able to expose the forged Gram Sabha resolution. Now, days before the fresh Gram Sabha, the authorities are trying to uproot the very movement that raised the issue of the forged Gram Sabha. This clampdown by the administration shows their intent that they do not want a free, fair and transparent Gram Sabha," said Pillai.

Greenpeace activists, Akshay Gupta and Rahul Gupta have been taken into police custody, while their colleagues have been threatened with arrests if they are seen mobilising villagers before the Gram Sabha. This is Akshay's second arrest since May, when he was arrested with three other activists for peacefully protesting against Essar and Hindalco's proposed coal mine in Mahan forests.

"The local authorities are intimidating people in a ploy to cater to the interests of corporate giants. On June 30, acting on a writ petition we filed, the Jabalpur High Court directed the SP of Singrauli to conduct an inquiry as to why an FIR was not filed on forged Gram Sabha complaint. Is this in reaction to our writ petition? What is the real motive behind the local police in disrupting communication like this? How does a mobile signal booster qualify to be 'illegal' communication equipment? Since when has providing electricity through solar panels become a crime?" asked Pillai.

"The police reportedly seem to be shedding the blame by portraying this sudden act of intimidation as, 'carrying out investigations of unauthorised communication gadgets in a Naxalite-infested area'. "This is completely bogus. The equipment is not unauthorized: we have a license, as we have told the police. And they cannot use the pretext of the Naxal bogeyman whenever it suits them. This way they are only trying to scuttle a fair Gram Sabha process in the name of security," said Pillai.

However, this is not an isolated case of local authorities in Singrauli trying to silence the widely brewing dissent in the villagers against the proposed Mahan Coal Block.

MSS and Greenpeace India demand a free and fair Gram Sabha process. "We are committed to save our forests and open to a Gram Sabha that is conducted in a just manner. We are not deterred by such intimidating tactics and will continue to demand our rights," said Hardayal Singh Gond, resident of Amelia village and member of MSS.

As the inimitable Leonardo da Vinci said, "Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence." Raise your voice to help create a better India where forests, wildlife and forest communities get their due. Demand that Jual Oram, Tribal Affairs Minister ensures that a free and fair Gram Sabha is held.