‘Systematic clampdown on People’s Movements Unacceptable’: MSS

Amidst police excesses, MSS demands that the CM should revoke Mining licence given to Essar and protect the Rights of Forest dwellers in Mahan

Press release - August 5, 2014
August 5, 2014, Bhopal: Mahan Sangharsh Samiti[1] (MSS) supported by prominent members of other social movements today urged the government of Madhya Pradesh to end the systematic clampdown of the movement against Essar and Hindalco's proposed coal mine in Mahan forests in Singrauli. At a press conference, in Bhopal, members of MSS emphasised that a Gram Sabha or any other democratic process cannot be held in such a repressive atmosphere.

The activists also demanded that the CM should take immediate steps to revoke Essar's licence to mine and plunder the pristine forests in Mahan. The license has been granted trampling over the rights of over 50,000 forest dwellers from over 50 villages that are dependent on the forests of Mahan for their livelihood. MSS demanded that the state government should take immediate steps to ensure that the Forest Rights Act (FRA)[2] is implemented in all these villages.

"We have to battle police atrocities and administrative hurdles to preserve our forests – something that has been ours for several generations," said Hardayal Singh Gond, resident of Amelia village and member of MSS. "Now we are told to collect compensation for what the forest has been providing us. But nothing can compensate what the forest provides us. The state government has to ensure that our rights are granted. The state machinery cannot become a tool in the hands of corporate giants," added Gond, who along with other members of MSS has been boycotting all compensation camps.

Just two weeks 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. "In less than a week, Greenpeace's communication equipment (a mobile signal booster) and solar panels were seized from Amelia village. The same night, two of our forest rights activists, Akshay and Rahul Gupta were arrested in a midnight raid without an arrest warrant. We haven't even been shown the FIR, this despite the fact that we have written to the SP of Singrauli assuring him full cooperation," said Pillai.

"What does this kind of a crackdown mean? Why does the state administration want to cut off Mahan from the rest of the world?" she asked adding that shutting down communications between Mahan and the rest of the country does not inspire faith in a proper process. The new Gram Sabha must not be held 'behind a curtain'.

Members of other social movements condemned the way the police are behaving with peaceful activists who simply want their rights to be granted. "This kind of systematic repression is simply unacceptable. People fighting for the protection of forest resources are being persecuted. This theft of forest and other resources from common people to benefit corporate interests will spell disaster for the country. It is sad but true – the right to dissent peacefully has no place in this democracy," says social activist, Madhuri Bahan.

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. On Friday, a delegation of MSS and Greenpeace activists also 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 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. Also, not all the families have title to the land that they lived on. When we conducted the survey, 37 percent of them, mostly the poorest, did not have any title for their land, nor their community forest rights recognised under the Forest Rights Act.

"This report states that a major chunk of their household income comes from the non-timber fibre produce from the forests in Mahan. Consequentially, the poorest of these poor would not be eligible for compensation if their land got taken away for 'development'. The district collector has talked of Community forest Rights (CFR), compensation, and holding a Gram Sabha in the same breath, but this report makes it clear that the administration cannot go about talking of compensation and recognising CFR in this ad hoc manner," said Pillai.

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 project 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.

Notes to Editor: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/en/publications/Power-for-the-People/

[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: The Forest Rights Act (FRA) 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. In an order passed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on 31 July 2009, a Gram Sabha has to then 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 of the Gram Sabha.

[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:

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

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

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