'No tree felling in Mahan till October': MP Govt to NGT

MSS challenges Forest Clearance to Mahan at NGT

Press release - May 26, 2014
26th May 2014, New Delhi: In an undertaking submitted to the National Green tribunal, the state government of Madhya Pradesh today said that they will not fell trees in Mahan forests till October. This comes as a temporary respite for members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti [1], who had filed a petition last week with the NGT challenging the Forest Clearance granted to Mahan coal block earlier in March this year.

"The state government's undertaking has given us temporary respite till October. But we are determined to save our forests and will continue to oppose any mining-related activities in our forest," says Hardayal Singh Gond of MSS and a petitioner in the case. Earlier in May this year, four activists from MSS and Greenpeace were arrested for peacefully opposing the marking of trees.

In the petition filed by MSS members, the clearance granted to Mahan coal block violates the Precautionary Principle, Principles of Sustainable Development along with provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, National Forest Policy 1988, Biological Diversity act 2002 and Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The coal block was allocated to a joint venture of Essar Power and Hindalco industries Ltd. This is not the only case on Essar, NGT earlier pulled up Essar as the wall of it's ash pond dyke linked to Essar's thermal power plant caved in April 2014.

"We've been opposing this illegitimate mining proposal for over two years now. But despite our opposition, the UPA government went ahead with the Stage II forest clearance. The mine tramples over the rights of over 50,000 people from over 54 villages," said Gond. The non-timber forest produce from Mahan forests serves as a primary source of livelihood for these villagers. The mine will require the felling of over 4 lakh trees.

The National Forest Policy of 1988 states that diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose should be subject to very careful scrutiny, but in case of Mahan, no such scrutiny was done. "Felling of over 4 lakh trees has been dealt with in the most casual manner by the MoEF and the Group of Ministers, which recommended Stage I forest clearance to Mahan coal block," said Priya Pillai, a petitioner and a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India. "The social and the ecological impacts were ignored at every level," she added.

Forest Rights Act violated

The Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has not been implemented in the region. In fact, in July 2013, tribal minister Mr. KC Deo had even written to the MP chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan about the blatant violation of FRA. Not a single community forest right has been granted in the region. Besides this, FRA stipulated Gram Sabha consent for any project in the forest land. But the special Gram Sabha[2] on FRA in Amelia village was conducted fraudulently. "The Gram Sabha resolution based on which the Stage II (final stage) forest clearance was granted to Mahan coal block contains forged signatures," says Gond.

FAC recommendations ignored

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 specifically says that any proposal of diversion of forest will be considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which will then make a recommendation to the MoEF for a final decision. But in case of Mahan, the procedure turned out to be very different.

On 12 July 2011, the Forest Advisory Committee had submitted its report recommending the rejection of Mahan coal block. "The FAC report was based on scientific grounds after a detailed site visit. But the MoEF did not accept these recommendations." The Stage I clearance was ultimately granted to Mahan in October 2012 by the Group of Ministers stating the argument of fait accompli.

"The approval granted is wrong and will set a negative precedent for the future in view of the fact that the project proponents have presented a fait accompli situation," said Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner with Greenpeace. This means that Essar went ahead and built their thermal power plant linked to Mahan Coal block without getting the required clearances in the first place. Then they used this excuse to exert pressure on MoEF to grant approvals. "This is contrary to the directions of the MoEF as stated in various circulars about fait accompli situations. Although ministers in charge of MoEF had initially resisted this, they ultimately succumbed to the pressure from the GoM to grant Stage I forest clearance," said Sivalingam.

Wildlife study

The Stage I approval granted by MoEF clearly states that a reputed organisation like, the Wildlife Institute of India or Wildlife Trust of India should be commissioned to assess impacts of coal mining on habitat and migration of wild animals in the region containing the Mahan coal block. "The final report (prepared by a retired forest department official) has scientific inaccuracies and wrong, misleading data. In fact, it is a cut-paste job from one of his previous reports," said Sivalingam.

The Mahan forests are home to some 164 plant species including sal, saaja, mahua and tendu. Besides this one can find several threatened and rare species of animals such as leopard, sloth bear and hyena. The critically endangered vultures (White-rumped Gypsbengalensis and Indian Gyps Indicus and the Red-headed Sarcogyps Calvus) along with various other fast vanishing birds are a delight to the sight in this region.

Cumulative impact assessment still awaited

To assess the cumulative impact of the large number of power plants and coal mines located in the small area of Singrauli, the stage I clearance also specifically asked for a study to be commissioned to the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) or National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) or any such other reputed institution.

This condition has also been stipulated in the Stage II clearance granted on February 12, 2014, wherein it is stated that the study assigned to NEERI shall be completed on or before September 30, 2014.

"The MoEF recognises the necessity of Cumulative Impact Assessment in view of the large number of projects coming up in the area and yet grants forest clearance to the project without even waiting for the study to be completed," says Priya Pillai.

Hardayal Gond added. "We hope that this case in NGT is able to help us save our forests. We are sure that we will get justice in the end," he added. Greenpeace and MSS will continue to oppose any kind of non-forest activity related to the mine. Their demand for revoking the Stage II clearance still stands.

For further reading

[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.

Contacts:

Avinash Kumar Chanchal, Media Officer, Greenpeace India:+91-8359826363;

Jagori Dhar, Media manager, Greenpeace India: +91-9811200481;

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

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

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