Every year, between the months of March and April, Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh bustles with activity. People from around the forest set up makeshift camps to collect Mahua fruits - a non-timber forest produce (NTFP) that forms a major chunk of their annual income. It is a festival of sorts, for the people of Mahan. But this year, there is a marked difference in their gait, a smile on their faces, a spring in their steps. No longer do they live under the threat of their forest, their home and main source of livelihood, being snatched away by a coal mine. They are happy that their forests are safe from coal mining, at least for now.

A Stroke of Luck

Exactly, a year ago, the Coal Ministry responded to a RTI query and announced that it would not auction Mahan coal block because it falls in an ‘inviolate’ area, which means the area will be safeguarded from any external invasive activity which has potential to drastically and irreversibly change landuse, like mining. Indeed, it was a reason for Mahan to rejoice, but there are many more Mahans across central India, and many communities that depend on NTFP for their livelihood. These forests need to be saved from destruction. But unfortunately,  a convoluted and diluted inviolate area policy has imperiled their very existence.  

Coal blocks like Mahan were lucky enough to find a way into the inviolate list, proving that the areas were indeed high quality and rich forests, thereby vindicating what Greenpeace India had been fighting for. But unfortunately, the current criteria for classification of inviolate is massively diluted from its original form.   There are many other forest regions under severe threat by coal mining and sadly many coal blocks like Chhatrasal, Tara, Paturia and other coal blocks have been auctioned/allocated despite them being in the current list of inviolate criteria.

How to Dilute a Policy

Originally known as ‘Go-No Go’ policy, the idea of ‘Inviolate Forests’  came into place at the request of Coal India and  the Ministry of Coal way back in 2009. The objective was to have certainty on which forests area will be permitted for mining and which will be not allowed for mining coal.

The initial exercise assessed 605 coal blocks falling within nine coal fields and classified 222 (37%) blocks as No-Go and 383 as Go areas.  This did not go well with the Ministry of Coal which actually proposed the exercise in the first place.  Here came, the intervention by both the PMO and the Planning Commission that asked the then Environment Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh to scale it down, which resulted in MoEF reducing the number of coal blocks under “No-Go” area to a mere 25%, more than 32% reduction from the original figure.


Jairam Ramesh’s vocal opposition to this dilution earned him the moniker of ‘Dr No’.

Mahan too was an area that was classified as ‘No-Go’. The result: a GoM headed by our current President Pranab Mukherjee recommended that Mahan and Chhatrasal be given forest clearance because of the public money invested in the projects. The No-Go concept too was scrapped.  The only silver lining in this whole issue is that the GoM ordered MoEF to come up with a comprehensive criteria to protect important forest areas from being diverted for mining.

After much pressure, the government put the draft report on Inviolate Forests in the public domain in January 2013, giving the public a month to give inputs.. They based their criteria on six parameters; forest type, forest cover, biological richness, landscape integrity, wildlife value and hydrological value. But the sad reality is that  MoEF & CC has since removed hydrology and wildlife value from the criteria list.

In 2014, the new government came with the promise that it will balance “development and the environment”. One expected that the Inviolate Forest policy would see the light of the day. But when the minister of Power, Coal, New and Renewable energy explicitly stated that arbitrary environment policies such as inviolate criteria kept coal production low, the writing was on the wall, the Inviolate Forest policy was expected to either be severely diluted or totally scrapped. Not to our surprise the  prevailing criteria was completely diluted and No-Go areas cover only 35 scattered coal blocks and does not offer any realistic protection to large tracts of natural forest.


A scientifically robust and socially just set of criteria for determining Inviolate Forests which had the potential to be a key tool to protect the country’s forests, has now been reduced to a mere eyewash. But virtually no consultation was done while deciding on the revised criteria, this despite the fact that the government agreed to conduct consultations with the civil society scientists and community groups, who commented on the draft report.

When the Supreme Court of India cancelled the license of 204 coal blocks in September 2014 , it presented the NDA government with an opportunity to ensure the protection of our remaining natural forests. The opportunity was to finalise and legalise a robust and comprehensive policy to identify and protect inviolate forests and also rearrange coal mining in such a way that it results in much less forest destruction and reduced negative impacts on communities and wildlife. Unfortunately the reality is that the government did not show the required levels of  seriousness to protect India’s forests which would have resulted in multiple gains to protect wildlife, livelihoods of local communities and the numerous ecosystem services as well as mitigate climate change. In contrast the government was in a tearing hurry to auction coal blocks. In fact the government is auctioning coal blocks that have earlier been identified as Inviolate Forests!

Today, while we celebrate International day of forest, it’s vital that we invoke our collective conscience to understand, “how important is our country’s forests to us and how we have been treating them thus far”. Forests are not only just trees but ecosystems that support thousands of life forms including us, humans. They act as an integral part in forming and sustaining our rivers and ensuring continuous water supply even in summer,  it supports the livelihood of millions of people and plays a major part in regulating our climate, just to state a few obvious benefits.

Now is the time for us to remove the colonial mind set which has valued forests mainly for its timber and remind ourselves of what Mahatma Gandhi has stated, “what we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”. Let's stand together to protect the many Mahans of our country.

Ravi Chellam is the Executive Director of Greenpeace India