ByÂ Ignatius Joseph:
The Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, V Kishore Chandra Deo, promised complete support from his ministry to ensure that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is upheld in Mahan, Madhya Pradesh. The Minister addressed a joint press conference with Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) and Greenpeace in Delhi on July 19, 2013. Community members from five villages in the Mahan have come together to form the MSS to assert their forest rights over the Mahan forests.
Greenpeace campaigners and MSS members met with the Minister and he assured them of his ministry’s full support. At the press conference Deo said, “I have written a letter to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh asking him to uphold forest rights’ Act. The State government is not following norms. There is evidence that the gram sabha resolution in the Amelia village has been forged. This is a criminal offence of forgery and cheating which will be investigated. I assure full cooperation from my ministry.”
The Mahan coal block has already been awarded Stage I clearance along with 36 conditions which includes implementation of the FRA. Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace India says, “Allowing the Mahan coal block would mean opening doors for other coal blocks like Chatrasal, Ammelia North and several others awaiting approvals in the Mahan forests. This will further fragment the entire forests in the region.”
Right now the FRA is being blatantly violated because of a strong nexus between local authorities and coal companies. Currently, the MSS is opposing the proposed coal mine of Mahan Coal Ltd (a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco) demanding the firm implementation of the FRA in the Mahan forests.
Pillai adds, “This total disregard for rights of communities is a blatant violation of the provisions of the FRA, as well as the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) notification of August 2009, which emphasises the importance of ‘community consent in forest land diversions for developmental projects’ and the need to hold free and fair Gram Sabhas to facilitate this process.”
The Minister also shared the letter he has sent to the CM of Madhya Pradesh supporting the cause of the indigenous communities. The letter highlighted the appalling fact that not a single community forest right has been implemented in the region, including holding a free and fair Gram Sabha.
On August 15, 2012 villagers from Amelia and Suhira came together at their respective Gram Sabhas to pass a resolution on ‘community forest rights’. But the Gram Sabha was disrupted by officials from Mahan Coal Ltd. along with representatives from the local administration. Another Gram Sabha on FRA was held on March 6, 2013 in Amelia, which was attended by 184 people. But the copy of the Gram Sabha resolution obtained through the RTI Act has 1,100 signatures — most of them, the villagers say, have been forced or forged.
Kripanath, a member of MSS who met the minister says, “On the evening of the Gram Sabha, the tehsildar along with local policeman went around the village forcing villagers to sign the resolution. Later several signatures were forged. After obtaining a copy of the resolution, I was shocked to see that my signature was forged too.”
The Forests Rights Act is a law enacted to undo the historical injustice faced by forest dwelling communities. If rich and powerful coal companies are allowed to strong arm villagers and influence government servants, what hope remains for our forests and indigenous communities?
Greenpeace along with members of MSS applaud the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Deo’s efforts to uphold the FRA. His missive to the MP state government must be taken very seriously by the state government and any other Central Ministries that push for forest clearance for coal mining by devious methods.
Photo Credit:Â Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace