By Ashok Shrimali*
A new movement is taking shape in the Mahan region of Madhya Pradesh. Community members from five villages in the Mahan forests (Ammelia, Budher, Suhira, Bandhaura and Barwantola in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh) have organized themselves under the banner of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) to assert their rights. Violation of laws by Mahan coal miners has led to a growing resentment among the villagers from 62 villages, who have been dependent on forests for generations. The MSS is right now in the process of broad-basing the ongoing fight to all these villages which will also be impacted by the coal mine.
It all began a year ago, on August 15, 2012, when villagers from Ammelia and Suhira came together at their respective Gram Sabhas to pass a resolution on ‘community forest rights’. The meeting was disrupted by officials from Mahan Coal Ltd along with representatives of the local administration. The community members made a representation to the district collector on this, and he assured them that he would ensure that this does not happen in future and would hold a free and fair Gram Sabha soon.
However, nothing happened after that and a special Gram Sabha on forest rights Act (FRA) was held by the collector on March 6, 2013 in Amelia village, which was attended by only 184 people from the village. There was no prior information to the villagers on this Gram Sabha, which was led by the Mahan company officials and other supporters in the village. After the Gram Sabha, the tehsildar, sarpanch and patwari , along with two policemen made rounds in the village, and forced people to sign on the Gram Sabha register. In the evening of the same day, they gathered at the sarpanch’s house and forged signatures of around 1,000 people onto the Gram Sabha resolution.
The MSS came to know about this it from an RTI asking for a copy of the resolution. After much difficulty and multiple RTIs (it took four months), MSS finally got a copy of the resolution. The resolution is an evidence of how Gram Sabhas get conducted in Madhya Pradesh. The register was sealed following signature of the sarpanch and the secretary after more than 1,000 signatures were forged onto it. It even has signatures of people who died two years ago!
The resolution in itself is confusing – it says that Ammelia village “welcomes” Mahan Coal Limited, and also that there are no pending claims as of date. It also mentions that the company is willing to give compensation to communities.
The MSS has been writing letters to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, for a long time sharing their concerns on the way their Gram Sabha was conducted as well as on the non- implementation of FRA in the region.
The Mahan coal block was granted in-principal (Stage-I) approval by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on October 18, 2012, after substantial pressure from the Group of Ministers (GoM) on coal mining once the MoEF had rejected it. This approval was for 1182.351 ha of forest land to be diverted for non-forest use and came with 36 conditions which require a range of studies to be completed and the processes under the FRA to be complied with.
There is not a single “community forest right” granted in the Singrauli district where there are a large number of forest land diversions taking place for non-forest use. Several representations written by the affected parties to the authorities on the issue of non-implementation of FRA in this region have yielded no results whatsoever. Despite strong resistance by MSS and coal block clearances have been wrested in favour of Mahan Coal Limited.
A meeting was held with Union minister for tribal affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo. This meeting with the minister – coming on the heels of the historic Niyamgiri Gram Sabha – further strengthened the MSS demands for implementation of FRA to decide on the fate of the forests they have been dependant on for generations and puts into question the second stage clearance for Mahan coal block, which has been awarded Stage-I clearance, along with 36 conditions, which includes implementation of Forest rights Act.
The MSS is has planned more pretests. It will be holding a public meeting in Ammelia village in Mahan on the August 4 to highlight issues pertaining to the forest dwellers community. They will also be holding a padyatra in 10 new villages to broad base the fight.
The meeting with Deo, meanwhile, has yielded some results. He has slammed the Madhya Pradesh government for denying forest rights to the Baiga tribal people of Singrauli district who would be affected by mining in Mahan coal block. Mahan reserve forest is known for its unique biodiversity; for the Baigas the 1,084 hectare mine block is a rich source of forest produce and livelihood.
The coal block situated in the Waidhan forest range in East Sidhi division was granted stage-2 forest clearance by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2012, but with 36 conditions. One of the most important conditions for the coal block to get a final nod for mining is the implementation of settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2005. The coal block has been allotted to Mahan Coal Company, a joint venture of Essar Power and Hindalco. The coal mined from Mahan forest would be used to fire two thermal power plants.
Deo called a press conference to express his anger over the way the tribal people in the region are being treated. He accused the coal mining companies of subverting democratic institutions such as gram panchayats, and said the so-called villagers’ consent to mining of forest comprised of forged signatures. He said he had written to governor Ram Naresh Yadav and the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan last June, asking them not to ignore the plight of the tribals residing in the region.
“There is not a single community forest right granted in the Singrauli district where a large number of forestland diversions for non-forest use are proposed. In spite of this, the state government and the local administration has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the tribal and non-tribal communities living in the region and are using coercion and fraud to achieve its end,” the minister said in his letters.
“There is a strong nexus between the company and the local authorities in the region which is leading to large scale violation of the forest rights,” the letters state. It added, during a special Gram Sabha on FRA held on March 6, 2013 in Ammelia village, a tehsildar, Vivek Gupta, along with police personnel made rounds of the village with the gram sabha (village council) register, forcing people to sign on the register. The minister said that this was done to garner support for a resolution approving diverting forestland to the mining project.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace’s policy officer, Priya Pillai, who is working closely with the forest dwellers and residents of over 60 villages in Mahan forests, said allowing mines in the region would open other coal blocks. “Chhatrasal, Amelia North and several other blocks in the Mahan forests are awaiting approvals, which will further fragment the entire forests in the region,” said Pillai.
* With Setu Centre for Social Knowledge and Actiion, Ahmedabad, associated with SAMATA’s Mining Information Clearing House of India, Shrimali is executive member Mines Minerals & People