Crackdown on Forest Rights Activists Intensifies

Police arrests two Greenpeace activists in the middle of the night in bid to “intimidate people” before Gram Sabha

Press release - July 31, 2014
July 30 2014, Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: The police in Singrauli have stooped to a new low, according to Greenpeace. 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 last night at the NGO's guest house 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.

"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[1] 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," Hardayal Singh Gond, resident of Amelia village and member of MSS.

[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 organised 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] 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.