Print edition : September 15, 2017

Village residents gathered on the fringes of the Mahan forest to protest against Mahan Coal Ltd's coal mining project in Singrauli district on February 27, 2014. The allocation of the coal block was cancelled in March 2015. Photo: GREENPEACE HANDOUT/REUTERS

Members of a Greenpeace fact-finding team—Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Ramesh Agrawal, Justice Suresh Hosbet, R. Sreedhar and Kalpana Kannabiran—releasing their report titled “Singrauli: The Coal Curse” on September 15, 2011, at a conference in New Delhi to discuss the impact of coal mining on the people and the environment of Singrauli. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The way in which coal blocks are allotted and land is acquired in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh shows that the fight to save natural resources and the environment and to protect the rights of forest-dwelling communities will continue for a long time to come.

THE forests of Mahan, situated in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh, are among the oldest and largest sal forests of Asia and have an estimated canopy density of 70 per cent. This biodiverse region supports a substantial forest-dwelling tribal population.

In recent years, Mahan has been in the news for reasons other than its ecological and livelihood significance. It began on April 12, 2006, when the Union Ministry of Coal allocated the Mahan coal block, which is in the Singrauli coalfield, to a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco Limited called Mahan Coal Ltd. The proposed coal mine would have led to the loss of approximately five lakh trees, affected the livelihoods of over 50,000 people in 54 villages, displaced forest-dwelling communities, destroyed and fragmented good-quality natural forests rich in biodiversity, and destroyed the catchment area of perennial rivers which provide water to the entire region. Besides, there were blatant violations of the Forest Rights Act 1 (FRA) and other mandatory regulations 2. Clearing this coal block would open the way for other coal blocks in the region to be mined. The Forest Advisory Committee considered the proposal four times and could not come to a decision on the matter because of the complexity of the issues involved. 3 In January/February 2010, on the basis of a joint exercise carried out by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Central Mine Planning and Development Institute Limited of the Ministry of Coal, the Mahan coal block was identified as being in the “no-go” zone, that is, it was out of bounds for mining.

The reality on the ground

Land acquisition in the country is undertaken with fanfare and promises of development, including employment opportunities and education and health care facilities. Mahan was no different. The reality on the ground in all projects across the country is that none of these promised benefits ever come through, and the so-called project beneficiaries are left in a situation where they have not only lost their land and agricultural resources but have to fight a never-ending battle to get what was promised to them.

The land acquisition process for the Essar thermal power plant was started in 2007 in four villages (Khairahi, Nagwan, Karsualal and Bandhaura) of Mahan, and award of land was made almost a year later. The first round of displacement happened for the power plant, which is located near Bandhaura village, when people in these villages were shifted to rehabilitation plots. The communities in these villages alleged that there were many irregularities in the land acquisition process. When the survey for land acquisition was done, not all those who had proper revenue records proving that they owned land in this village were taken into account. A large number of Dalit and tribal families who had houses in the villages with proper records to prove their ownership were shown as non-inhabitants. In some cases, the survey forms were changed arbitrarily to exclude names of beneficiaries above 18 years of age on the date of the land acquisition or to strike down women-headed families. There were also multiple cases where individual community members approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Collector or even the High Court in Jabalpur and got orders in their favour, which are yet to be implemented by Essar.

Corporate-government nexus

People from the communities in and around Mahan forests affected by the coal mine project began to mobilise themselves into a grass-roots movement to oppose the mine. This community-based people’s movement became the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) in February 2012. This is a perfect example of the growing opposition from communities against India’s growth-oriented economic system and the increasing corporate-government nexus and corruption, which puts profits above people. The relentless pursuit for growth based on higher gross domestic product dominates policymaking, while ground realities make it clear that more GDP does not mean better lives for most people. The lives, dignity and livelihoods of the vast majority of Indians (farmers, fishers, forest-dwelling communities and others) are intricately entwined with nature and natural resources (forests, water and land), and the current corporate-investment-based growth model creates conflicts and violations (both environmental and social) and is based on the exploitation of natural resources in predominantly climate-sensitive sectors.

The coal allocation (Coalgate) and 2G spectrum scams are just two recent examples of the government’s nexus with corporates, which is aimed at promoting the interests of the latter. Mahan Coal Ltd was allocated the Mahan coal block as part of Coalgate, and this thread of corruption can be seen not only in allocations but right down to the grass roots where local administrations, the police and corporates work in a coordinated manner to facilitate land grab and to intimidate communities. Despite all this, M. Veerappa Moily, who took office as Minister of Environment and Forests on December 24, 2013, granted stage II clearance to the Mahan coal block 4 in February 2014 even though there was clear evidence of violations of the FRA and the conditions laid down when stage I clearance was granted. Both the State and Central governments bent all the rules to suit corporate interests. 5 The MSS challenged the forest clearance at the National Green Tribunal. The case was set aside after the Supreme Court deemed the allocation of 204 coal blocks illegal in September 2014. In the face of threats, criminal intimidation, illegal arrests, character assassinations, midnight police raids, false cases and strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) suits, the MSS protested relentlessly over a period of five years. Finally, in March 2015, the Ministry of Environment and Forests cancelled the allocation of the coal mine, which was a big win for the MSS. It proved that saving the Mahan forests from devastation and securing the rights of the communities in the region was in the national interest and that environmentalism and fighting for human rights were not crimes. However, the region is still battling with the displacement caused by the Essar Mahan power plant. There are a large number of people in the villages who are yet to receive compensation and be rehabilitated. Community members sat in a protest from December 2016 to March 2017 to put pressure on the local administration to resolve the issues relating to land acquisition, which ended in six people, including four women, being arrested and jailed for five days. To the world outside, Mahan is a battle won, but for those already displaced by Essar, it is a never-ending fight against the powerful nexus between the state and corporates, which has gone on for 10 years now.

Fresh allocations in Singrauli

One might think that that was the end of the environmental and human rights violations in Mahan. But this is far from the sad reality. On August 29, 2016, the Ministry of Coal allotted (under Rule 11(10) of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Rules) the Amelia coal block to THDC India Limited (formerly Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Limited), a company jointly promoted by the Government of India and the Government of Uttar Pradesh, in order to meet the requirement of its Khurja Super Thermal Power Project (2 × 660 MW). The initial land acquisition process for the Amelia coal block began in 2007, and the award for coal mining was made in 2009 to a joint venture of MP Sainik Coal Mining Pvt. Ltd and Madhya Pradesh State Mining Corporation Ltd. After the award was made nothing happened; compensation was not paid, nor were communities displaced, but people were told that they were not to carry out any work, even repairs to broken homes, in the region where land was acquired.

A large portion of the Singrauli coalfield, which includes the Amelia coal block, lies within the Sanjay Dubri National Park and the Guru Ghasidas National Park. Some of the demarcated coal blocks threaten forest connectivity between the Sanjay Dubri/Guru Ghasidas cluster and the Bagdara Wildlife Sanctuary to the north. This connectivity occurs through two main and somewhat parallel forest corridors: the Dongrital-Mahan-Chatrasal-Amelia corridor and another to the west of the Gurumbara coal blocks. The project will not only impact the sal forests and the livelihoods of thousands of forest-dwelling communities in the region but will also end the contiguity of one of central India’s best unfragmented forest zones spread over 20,000 ha. Allowing the coal block to be exploited could mean opening the way for several others awaiting approvals, which will further fragment the forests in the region.

If the allocation of the Mahan coal block was cancelled because it was deemed inviolate, one would have to believe that the same holds good for the other blocks in the region. The allocation of the Amelia coal block clearly shows that the government does not follow a common rationale or set of rules when it takes important decisions relating to the rights of communities and the environment. The fact that there are previous decisions in favour of the environment and community rights does not deter the government from going ahead and making allocations that are arbitrary and illogical. The ongoing fight against displacement and the proposed Amelia coal block reminds one that the fight to save resources, rights and the environment will continue for a long time, especially for communities that reside in the mineral-rich, forested regions of the country.

Priya Pillai is a social environmental activist focussing on the energy sector with a special reference to tribal land rights.

Notes

1. The free and prior informed consent of the gram sabha, which is mandatory for forest land diversion, was forged and the no-objection certificate was granted on the basis of the forged document.

2. Singrauli is among the 10 most polluted industrial clusters in the country according to the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (http://cpcbenvis.nic.in/industrial_pollution.html#)

3. The observations made by the Forest Advisory Committee meetings: http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Mahan.pdf.

4. http://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/government-grants-stage-ii-clearance-mahan

5. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/mahan-at-all-costs-34230

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