Civil Society urges the centre not to trample over the Rights of Forest Dwellers in Mahan

Implement FRA in 54 villages of Mahan, demand Mahan Sangharsh Samiti

Press release - August 1, 2014
1st August, 2014, New Delhi: Mahan Sangharsh Samiti[1] (MSS) supported by prominent members of civil society organisations today urged the Indian government not to trample over the rights of the forest dwelling communities of Mahan region in Madhya Pradesh to benefit corporate giants. Both, the state as well as the central government should take immediate steps to ensure that the Forest Rights Act (FRA)[2] is implemented. The demand came close on the heels of a massive crackdown on the people's movement against Essar and Hindalco's proposed coal mine by the local police in Singrauli which included the arrest of two Greenpeace activists from their sleep on Tuesday.

The press conference also saw the release of a report-Power for the People-that explores the socio-economic status of the communities living in Mahan forests and the impact the proposed coal mine will have on the communities. The report says that about 60 percent of the families in the two villages (Amelia and Budher) studied have land-holdings of less than an acre. They heavily rely on non-timber forest produce (NTFP) as agriculture alone cannot meet their nutritional and economic needs.

Hardayal Singh Gond, resident of Amelia village and member of MSS said: "The Mahan forest is what we have depended on for generations and the administration never once spoke to us about our rights, now they want to take it away from us, and give it to the mining company and scare us into accepting money. This jungle is our life, how will our children and their children survive without it? We are not scared. We are prepared to fight for our rights and to protect the forest."

Recognise Community Forest Rights Claims & then hold Gram Sabha

The proposed coal mine is bound to destroy the livelihoods of more than 50,000 villagers from over 54 villages. "The rights of all the 54 villages must first be recognised and people have to be informed about the project in their native language. All 54 villages should have a say on whether they want a mine in the forests or not. But as of now, no community forest rights (CFR) have been recognised in these villages," said Gond.

"The Forest Rights Act was enacted to undo the historical injustice to forest dwelling communities by recognising their pre-existing rights, which were never recognised when their lands were declared as state forest. Therefore, the first requirement is that as per the FRA, the Gram Sabha must initiate the process of receiving the claims and recognising both individual and community forest rights," said forest rights activist Madhu Sarin, who was also a member of the technical support group appointed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, for drafting the Forest Rights Act.

Just over a week ago, the District Collector, M Selvendran called a meeting with MSS members and other villagers to discuss the forged Gram Sabha[3], that forms the basis of the final stage forest clearance given to Mahan coal block. "Through our consistent efforts we were able to convince the local administration that the Gram Sabha resolution that forms the very basis of the Stage II forest clearance was rigged and contained names of at least nine 'signatories' who were in fact deceased. The district collector has assured a fresh, free and fair Gram Sabha, which makes the older Gram Sabha resolution null and void. This first step is welcome, but the Gram Sabha must be held according to proper process, and the forest rights act must be implemented in full, in all the affected villages," said Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India.

In an order passed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on 31 July 2009, a Gram Sabha has to first certify that the process of CFR has been recognised and completed. Only then can community consent be sought for forest diversion. "Under the law the district collector has no authority to settle or recognise rights. It is the prerogative og the Gram Sabha," said Sarin.

The collector even talked about compensation package for the communities. "The collector has talked of CFR, compensation, and holding a Gram Sabha in the same breath, but the fact is that one cannot talk of convening a Gram Sabha or compensation until all Community Forest Resource Rights claims are recognised," says Pillai.

However, forest department, along with officials of Essar have already started the process of numbering trees and organising camps for division of Mahua trees for compensation. "We are boycotting such camps. The administration first needs to ensure that our CFR claims are filed and examined and then hold a Gram Sabha," said Gond.

Systematic clampdown

With the announcement of the Gram Sabha, both MSS and Greenpeace had welcomed the change in the attitude of the district administration. However, on Tuesday, 29 July 2014, in a sudden raid, the Singrauli police seized a mobile phone signal booster and solar panels that Greenpeace had set up in Amelia village. Later in the night, police officials arrested two Greenpeace activists from their sleep in the middle of the night. Greenpeace has warned that shutting down communications between Mahan and the rest of the country does not inspire faith in a proper process, and demands the new Gram Sabha must not be held 'behind a curtain'.

Members of civil society condemned the way the police are behaving with peaceful activists who simply want their rights to be granted. "The increasing attacks on civil society are a part of a concerted effort by the government to crush any kind of public opinion that goes against the interests that the govt wants to protect. The endeavour of governments to protect large corporate interests at the expense of public interest has reached a tipping point now. The only thing that these people are demanding is the implementation of their forest rights as per the law. The government must listen to the voice of its people rather than making every attempt to silence them," said activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan at the press conference.

Greenpeace has also written to the National Human Rights Commission, Asian Human Rights Commission and UN Special Rapporteurs, complaining about the illegal arrest and detention of activists in Mahan. A delegation of MSS and Greenpeace activists today delivered a memorandum to Tribal Affairs Minister, Jual Oram demanding that the ministry should uphold the rights of the people in Mahan and ensure a free and fair Gram Sabha.

The proposed project not only violates the FRA, but also flouts a number of rules under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. "It ignores the recommendations of a Forest Advisory Committee which recommended the rejection of Mahan coal block. The Cumulative Assessment report that the MoEF deems necessary in view of the large number of projects coming up in the area is still awaited. The wildlife study on the project is riddled with inaccuracies. Yet, the project has been granted the Stage II (final stage) forest clearance," said Pillai.


[1] About Mahan Sangharsh Samiti: There are 54 villages dependant on the Mahan forests of Singrauli. Community members from five villages (Amelia, Bandhaura, Budher, Suhira and Barwantola) in the Mahan forests have organized themselves under the banner of MSS to assert their forest rights and have been opposing the proposed Mahan coal mine (by Essar and Hindalco). After a public meeting in August 2013, six more villages joined the movement, further strengthening MSS.

The Mahan coal block was initially rejected by former Environment minister Mr Jairam Ramesh. However, it was granted in-principal (Stage I) approval by the MoEF on October 18, 2012, after substantial pressure from the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Coal Mining. This approval came with 36 conditions, which require a range of studies to be completed and the processes under the Forest Rights Act to be complied with.

Mining will destroy the livelihoods of over 50,000 people. Mining in Mahan would mean opening doors for other coal blocks like Chatrasal awaiting approvals in the Mahan forests, which will further fragment the entire forests in the region.

[2] Forest Rights Act: As per FRA, a village council or a Gram Sabha is required to give a go-ahead to any mining project in a forest area. But a Gram Sabha can only be conducted once Community Forest Rights claims are first ascertained, registered and talks of settling it can only happen when the first two are done.

[3] Gram Sabha Resolution of March 6, 2013: This special Gram Sabha on Forest Rights Act was held on March 6, 2013 to give a go-ahead to the mine. Though the Gram Sabha was attended by 182 people, a copy of the resolution acquired through Right to Information (RTI) has 1,125 signatures. The villagers have evidence that most of the signatures in the resolution have been forged. The document even contains names of people, who have been dead for a long time. On February 12, 2014, Veerappa Moily-led environment ministry granted the stage II forest clearance on the basis of this doctored document. Following this, MSS began a peaceful Van Sataygraha and declared the clearance null and void.

MSS filed a complaint on the case, but the police did not file an FIR despite repeated attempts. Finally on June 30, acting on a writ petition filed by Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai the Jabalpur High Court passed an order directing the Singrauli SP to conduct an inquiry into the issue within seven days and communicate the outcome to the petitioner in the next 30 days for not taking any action on a forged Gram Sabha complaint.

For further information, please contact:

Anindita Datta Choudhury, Senior Media Officer, Greenpeace India: +91-9871515804;

Jitendra Kumar, Senior Media Officer, Greenpeace India: +91-9868167337;

Pari Trivedi, Media Officer, Greenpeace India: +91-9873495994;