The oft-repeated quote by Mahatma Gandhi, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win," is extraordinarily apt for the heartening news for people's power in Mahan.
23 July 2014
Peaceful Forest Protest in India © Udit kulshrestha / Greenpeace
On Tuesday, eight members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti were invited to a meeting by M. Selvendran, the District Collector along with Mahan Vikas Manch (a group who advocates development in Mahan through Mahan Coal Limited), the sarpanch and the panchayat secretary, to discuss the disputed Gram Sabha that was held on March 6, 2013 and the proposal for a new Gram Sabha. The Collector began the meeting by accepting that his enquiry had revealed that there were irregularities in Gram Sabha that was conducted previously. He reiterated his decision to conduct a fresh Gram Sabha in the village to decide whether the proposed coal mine would be allowed or not. In addition to this, the Collector has made it clear that mining will be allowed in the forests of Mahan only if the Gram Sabha gives consent for it. The Gram Sabha will be scheduled between August 16th and 22nd. He also confirmed that there will be a 10-day notice period given before holding the Gram Sabha. Other assurances include the administration's commitment to a free and fair process and video documentation of the whole process.
The District Collector's clear acceptance of the invalidity of the previous Gram Sabha calls into question the forest clearance given to Essar by Veerappa Moily, the Minister of Environment and Forests at that time. The forest clearance was based on the Gram Sabha that was conducted in March 2013 which has now been accepted as being bogus. One of the conditions for a forest clearance to be issued is the vote of the people in favour of the project in a Gram Sabha. Since this hasn't happened, the forest clearance based on it has to be declared null and void. Another significant concern is that around 50,000 people are dependent on the forests of Mahan for their livelihoods. The Gram Sabha to be held only gives the people in one village – Amelia - the right to vote in it. This village has a population of 2200. What happens to the homes and livelihoods of the people of 53 other villages who depend on Mahan? Don't they get a voice?
Regarding the issue of community forest rights (CFR), the Collector said that they have already been granted in Mahan and that the administration was open to more claims. He also said that the process of settling existing claims for the villages that will be affected by the mine and mentioned a compensatory package. The package included six LPG cylinders a year in lieu of the firewood that the villagers will lose access to. The Collector also mentioned 15-20 acres of pastoral land for communities to graze cattle and monetary compensation for mahua and tendu. The question remains about whether the compensation is proposed for one village or 54. Also, for how many years will this compensation be provided? This is important because the people of Mahan have sustained their livelihood for generations through the forests and will do so for generations more. Also, it is laughable that 6 LPG cylinders are going to be allocated for fuel since it will not provide enough fuel for any normal-sized family for even a year. It is surprising that the Collector is proposing compensation when the Forest Rights Act (FRA) states that the right to make decisions and initiate proposals to do with forest governance, planning and management lies with the Gram Sabha. The administration does not have the right to circumvent this process.
M. Selvendran further said that this package will be shared with the community in advance so that they take a decision on whether they want to agree to give up their forests for mining and receive compensation or keep their forests. However, the process of ascertaining the forest rights of those affected by mining in the region is yet to happen. Over 50,000 people from 54 villages will be affected by the mine and only one village's compensation is being spoken about. Furthermore, it is a mystery as to how the process of ascertaining community forest rights can be conducted within the next two weeks before the new Gram Sabha. The compensatory package in this case throws up more questions than answers.
Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) view the step taken by the administration to meet with them and acknowledge the invalidity of the previous Gram Sabha as a direct result of the pressure they have put on them. This along with the backing of over a million Junglistan supporters has forced the administration to accept the forgeries linked to the earlier Gram Sabha in Mahan. The Collector has also admitted that there has been a total breakdown of communication between MSS and the administration which was what had led to a lot of issues including the arrests in the past few months. He emphasised that the local administration realises the importance of keeping communication lines open and is committed to it.
These steps by the administration have come as a welcome move for the people of Mahan who are standing strong and united in the fight to save their homes and livelihoods despite intimidation, threats and arrests of their activists. The voices of the people have been heard and acknowledged and their claims about the previous Gram Sabha have been proven. However, the fight isn't over yet. The next 16 days are crucial because the administration will be faced with the challenge of carrying out their promise of a free and fair Gram Sabha. The sincerity of their promise will be at stake as concerted efforts to scuttle the process are sure to begin. The people of Mahan rely on the support of people all over India to stand united with them in their fight to save the beautiful forests of Mahan. It's time to step up!