Bechan Lal Shah, a member of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, addresses a public meeting in Amelia Image Credit: Vivek Muthuramalingam

“The mine will render us homeless. For generations we have been dependent on the forests for our livelihoods,” said Ujiraj Singh Khairwar, member of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) and a resident of Amelia village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The nearby Mahan forests sit on coal reserves, which industrial giants Hindalco and Essar hope to mine to meet the demand for their proposed power plants. The MSS, which is an organisation of local people residing in the vicinity of these forests, have vowed to fight against the government and the industrial houses to save the forests and their livelihood.

These are among the oldest and largest sal forests of Asia, with an estimated canopy density of 70 per cent. Situated in Singrauli district, the forests are officially a part of around 1200-hectare coal block. Government records say the block has 94 per cent forest cover.

In April 2006, Union Ministry of Coal allocated this block to meet the requirements of a 1,200-megawatt power plant proposed by the London-listed Essar and a 650MW captive power plant of Hindalco.

Essar has a 60 per cent stake and Hindalco the remaining 40 per cent in the Mahan Coal Company, a Rs50,000 million (Dh2,977 million) joint venture, which will mine the coal block. Sixty per cent of the coal is to be used for Essar’s Mahan power plant, and 40 per cent by Hindalco’s captive power plant to feed its aluminium smelting operations.

According to the 2001 census, more than 14,000 people from 14 villages were dependent on these forests. Tribals make up a substantial part of the population. With their livelihood threatened, they ask why the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has not been invoked.

“We have been demanding our rights from the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. The union minister of tribal affairs had assured us of his support when we met him in New Delhi, but the state government has not spoken a word on the issue,” said Khairwar. His Amelia village will be destroyed first when the mining begins.

Kanti Singh, 40, is also from Amelia. How will we survive without the forests? she says. “We collect mahua and tendu leaf and sell them in the market to get money. We don’t have jobs, so this is how we keep our families alive. If you take away the forests from us, our destruction is not far away.”

Several villagers have written to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the district collector that their rights, especially those related to community forest rights and resources as prescribed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), have not been recognised.

One third of the forest land in the district has already been earmarked for mining. Mining in the Mahan block will lead to felling of more than 5,00,000 trees. Singrauli district is already known as the energy capital of the country as 10 per cent of coal for power plants comes from here.

Bechan Lal Shah, another member of MSS, said, “Our problem is that the company is taking away our forests from us for their own use. We have very small land holdings. We cannot survive without forest. Some middlemen are working in the area on behalf of the company and purchasing land for them. We are ready to fight for our rights.”

The forests, named after a river that runs through them, hold a significant cultural and spiritual significance for the villagers of the area. Hidden away among them are cremation grounds and local deities.

“The land is very fertile here and the area is free from pollution,” Shah said. “But it is not going to remain the same for long if government allows mining here. We don’t know where we will be rehabilitated. They are going to pay only Rs3,00,000 per acre. Mining will destroy everything in this forest area.

The region is home to rare wild animals and birds including the critically endangered vultures. A census in 2006 had found leopards, chinkaras, nilgais, pythons and various primates in the Mahan forest reserve. There were some 164 plant species, including sal, tendu and mahua trees. Apart from its rich biodiversity, the mining of Mahan will destroy an important connecting corridor between wildlife habitats in the north and south. The Global Registrar of Migratory Species confirms that more than 102 migratory species are present in the area.

“We have many animals and rare species in our forests, which are all going to be destroyed,” said Jag Narain, another resident of Amelia. “We have an abundance of forest resources in our area. These companies want to destroy everything. It is going to affect us in a big way and future of our children depends on the forests. I don’t know what we will do without them.”

Sunil Bhai, who has fought many such battles for the rights of the tribals, had also raised objections over the project. He said giving away rich forests to industrial houses amid protests from the locals shows that the state government doesn’t care about the common man.

“The government has to decide where they want to take us,” he added. “Our government believes that the development depends on private companies. So they are invited and given land, forest and water. These three things are associated with common people.”

Environment clearance (under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006) was given to the Mahan coal block on December 23, 2008, by the MoEF. After reviewing the project four times during 2008-2009 in accordance with the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and subsequently visiting the area in mid-2011, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF decided against permitting the “non-forest” use of the land.

Then in January-February 2010, MoEF and CMPDIL (Central Mine Planning and Development Institute Limited) of the Ministry of Coal identified the Mahan coal block as a “no-go” zone. The MoEF was of the view that the Mahan coal block was the last remaining patch of very dense, unfragmented forest in Singrauli coalfield region, which spreads across Singrauli and Sidhi districts in Madhya Pradesh and Sonebhadra district of the Uttar Pradesh state. Companies such as Reliance, Hindalco and Jaypee Group are already operating about 15 mining projects in the region.

According to the FRA and a circular issued by the MoEF on the September 3, 2009, a resolution of the gram sabha (village council) is required prior to the ministry’s approval for non-forest use of forest lands.

In the case of Mahan, government records cite a gram sabha resolution from March 2013. The special gram sabha meeting on FRA in Amelia was attended by 184 people. But the resolution had 1,125 signatures. Most of the signatures, the villagers claimed, have been forged.

Priya Pillai, an activist and a campaigner with Greenpeace India working for the implementation of FRA in the area, said, “The MoEF granted Stage I clearance to the Mahan coal block in 2012, along with 36 conditions which include implementation of FRA. However, the state government has gone ahead and given an NOC [no-objection certificate] to the company on the basis of a fraudulent gram sabha resolution.”

Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS)

There are 62 villages dependent on the Mahan forests of Singrauli. Community members from five villages (Amelia, Bandhaura, Budher, Suhira and Barwantola) have organised themselves under the banner of MSS to assert their rights and have been opposing the proposed mine of Mahan Coal Ltd. The Mahan coal block was initially rejected by former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. However, it was granted in-principle (Stage 1) approval by the MoEF on October 18, 2012, after coming under pressure from the Group of Ministers (GoM) on coal mining.

The 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. The mine will destroy the livelihoods of 14,190 people, out of which 5.650 are from tribal communities as per 2001 census. Stage II clearance would mean opening doors for other coal blocks, such as Chatrasal, which will further fragment the forests in the region.

Members of the MSS have been actively trying to mobilise support for their fight among villages affected by the mine. On August 4, 2013, MSS organised a public meeting, which was attended by more than 1,000 people from 11 villages of Mahan forests.

Shuriah Niazi is a freelance journalist based in central India.