Pledge To Save Mahan on Raksha Bandhan

Feature story - August 12, 2014
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect – Aldo Leopold

Rakshabandhan, an occasion to pledge to support all that is important to us on August 10 was celebrated in the forests of Mahan with fervor. The occasion depicted the love and respect that the people of Mahan and their supporters have for the forests. Over 8900 rakhis were sent to Mahan by supporters from various cities around the country to pledge their protection for the forests of Mahan. This included a 54-foot rakhi sent from Mumbai that symbolizes the 54 villages that will be affected by the proposed coal mine.

Over 1,000 community members including a large number of women and children from about 24 villages of the region braved heavy rains and tied the rakhis to a giant Mahua tree in Mahan forests on Sunday. Residents of Dharnai village in Bihar’s Jehanabad district sent 1,000 rakhis from 400 homes and schools. In March, 2014, Greenpeace India had adopted the village and set up a solar plant that provides 24x7 electricity to 450 households, 50 shops, 60 streetlights and two schools in the village.

“Even though I live in a city, I was touched by the grit and the struggle of these villagers. The people of Mahan are not just fighting to save their forest but save us all from the ill-effects of damaging our environment and climate change. Today’s activity was a creative way of mobilizing people about the situation in Mahan and also sending them a physical manifestation of everyone's support,” Aafreen Ali, a 22-year-old Mumbai girl who made a rakhi out of recyclable items, said.

The villagers chose to tie the rakhi on a Mahua tree because of the sacred and important place it holds in the lives of this forest-dwelling community. Villagers in Mahan use the produce from the Mahua tree to make sweets, biodegradable utensils and liquor, which is then sold in the markets to earn money. Anita Kushwaha, a resident of Budher village and member of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS), said, “I’m overwhelmed by the support we have got and the rakhis show us that the call to save Mahan is being heard by people from across the country. It’s heartening to know that those living in the cities consider this forest as their own, which gives us more courage and determination to fight for our rights and protect our forest and homes.”

The ancient forest of Mahan, spread across 1,200 acres, lie in the heart of India’s coal belt. Over 50,000 villagers are dependent on the Mahan forest, which is today under the threat of being axed down for the coal that lies underneath its pristine cover for the mining interests of two giant corporations – Essar and Hindalco.

“In the last few weeks, we have battled intimidation, illegal midnight police raids and death threats from the state administration, police and company goons to stop our protest and give-up on Mahan. The peaceful celebration of Rakshbandhan and the massive gathering of people is a sign that the Mahan forests will be protected peacefully and with the support of people across the country. The villagers have given a strong message that they will not be deterred by the cheap and dirty tactics to intimidate them before the Gram Sabha scheduled to take place in a few days from now,” Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India and an activist with MSS, said.

The upcoming Gram Sabha will be held in Amelia to allow the people to decide whether they want the proposed coal mine in Mahan forests. After it was proven that the Gram Sabha resolution of March 6, 2013 – that forms the basis of the final stage forest clearance granted to Mahan coal block – was forged, the district collector of Singrauli assured a free and fair Gram Sabha in Amelia village. However the manner in which the administration has attempted to intimidate MSS members and Greenpeace activists over the last weeks, throws doubt on the true intentions of the administration.