Van Satyagraha: Community members confront Essar officials

Stop them from conducting a survey in the forest

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Press release - May 6, 2014
Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, May 6, 2014: Eighty local community members successfully stopped work on an Essar-led coal mine in Mahan forest, Madhya Pradesh yesterday. The villagers oppose the mine, which would destroy the forest on which they depend for livelihood. They accuse the company and the government of violating the Forest Rights Act.

The company officials were marking the trees and stones that would border the proposed coal mine site. This has been going on for the past one month. Last month, members from MSS have complained about this to the District Collector and Divisional Forest Officer, along with photographs and videos of the company officials in the forest but no action has been taken so far.

When they were confronted by members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS)[1], the company officials first called the police to disperse the protest, but then later backed down after seeing the protests. The villagers (mostly women) stopped the officials from starting their work following which, the officials left their survey equipment in the forest and went off. The villagers then made an inventory of the equipment and handed it over to the Bandhaura Police Chowki – along with an affidavit signed by all community members present there – as evidence of unlawful forest activity by the company in the absence of valid clearances. In a meeting today, the community members from four villages resolved to continue their peaceful protests.

Members of MSS have been protesting against the Mahan Coal Ltd's (a joint venture of Essar Power and Hindalco) proposed coal mine in the Mahan forests. Determined to save their forests – a source of livelihood for over 50,000 villagers from 54 villages, local resistance has been growing steadily.

"The employees of Essar have been sneaking into our forests, marking the forest area and the trees for felling. We have been wiping off the marks and we confronted the officials from beginning their survey work in the forest," said Vijay Singh, Member of MSS and a resident of Amelia village.

"We will continue to protest against this act. We started our Van Satyagraha in February when Mahan got the final stage clearance. We will stop the company and defend our forests. We do not want a mine," he added.

Priya Pillai, senior campaigner with Greenpeace added: "Have they got the permission to start non-forest activity? Their community forest rights have not yet been recognized and the Stage II forest clearance has been given based on a forged Gram Sabha resolution passed on 6th March, 2013. MSS has been trying to file an FIR on the forgery. We demand that the Divisional Forest Officer should immediately order the company authorities to stop the activity in the forest and due and fair process should be followed by authorities on ground."

Earlier in February this year, the Union Environment Minister, Veerappa Moily had granted Stage II forest clearance to Mahan coal block, allocated to Mahan Coal Ltd – a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco. To mark the beginning of their Van Satyagraha, the villagers of Mahan had declared this clearance, null and void. They presented evidence that the special Gram Sabha resolution on Forest Rights Act, based on which, the Stage II forest clearance has been given – was forged.

The in-principal, Stage I clearance was granted to Mahan coal block in 2012 with 36 conditions, which included implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA). This involved holding free and fair Gram Sabhas in villages that would then decide on whether they want a mine or not. On 6th March, 2013, a special Gram Sabha on FRA was conducted in Amelia village in Mahan region. Though 184 people attended the Gram Sabha, the resolution has 1,125, signatures – villagers say that most of them have been forged. Nine of the signatories have been dead for years. Nine of the signatories have been dead for three years. Besides this 27 residents of Amelia have given written testimonies that they were not present during the Gram Sabha.

Jag Narayan Shah, member of MSS filed a police complaint on the forged Gram Sabha resolution. The FIR has still not been filed. As per media reports, the district collector, M Selvendran has gone on record saying that he will look into the case of the forged Gram Sabha. But ironically, the police have refused to file an FIR on the case. The members of MSS have however, submitted a petition to the Superintendent of Police, D. Kalyaan Chakrvarti, who said that he will take up the matter with Sub-divisional Police Officer.

Clearly, the stage II clearance is questionable and there is no way that Essar can start marking trees that have to be felled. MSS demands that this surveying of forests should come to a halt and the grievances of the villagers be addressed immediately.

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 mine of Mahan Coal Ltd. (a joint venture of 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 villagers. These people depend on Mahan forests for Non-Timber Forest Produce. Mining in Mahan would mean opening doors for other coal blocks like Chatrasal awaiting approvals in the Mahan forests, which will further fragment the forests in the region.

Countering Coal – a discussion paper by Kalpavriksha and Greenpeace http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/report/Countering-coal.pdf

For more information, please contact:

Priya Pillai, Member of MSS & Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India: +91 9999357766;

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

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

Jagori Dhar, Senior Media Officer, Greenpeace India: +91 9811200481;

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

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