ByÂ Pari Trivedi:
As Indians gear up for the election battle this year, one can already hear the politicians’ campaigning plans for a better India. The highest priority on this agenda is that for development. Even as India is touted to become the third largest economy by 2028, a politician’s promise of Roti Kapda Makan is the primary vote winner for most in today’s date. It is a rather paradoxical situation when the government entices the voters with a distant dream of development and simultaneously allows multinational corporations to destroy the livelihoods of its people on their own land.
In January this year, a group of villagers dared to challenge one such multinational company, Essar by peacefully protesting outside its headquarters in Mumbai. The villagers were a part of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) – an organisation set up to defend the rights of those whose livelihood depends upon the Mahan forests in Madhya Pradesh. In return, Essar filed a lawsuit against them claiming damages worth Rs. 500 crores and a gag order that forbids them from stating certain facts about the multi-million dollar conglomerate’s behaviour.
This exorbitant amount sought from these villagers, under the garb of compensation is an attempt to silence the voices that question the way in which their sustenance is ruined by mining. Generations of these villagers living in Mahan in Singrauli district, have primarily depended on the forests for their existence and Essar has threatened to clear these precious forests for a proposed coal mining project in the region.
The MSS has been relentlessly raising its voice against Essar for the way its proposed mine would destroy its members’ lives. Minister of Tribal Affairs, KC Deo has written to the Madhya Pradesh state government, and to Sonia Gandhi, raising his concerns over the way in which the villagers are mistreated at the hands of the company officials in Mahan.
In this case, Essar is also expediently overlooking the fact that the Mahan is a vital piece of central India’s remaining forest and clearing this precious forest land will pave way for the surrounding forests in the region to be axed. With such large-scale deforestation, the region will be wiped off its rich biodiversity, wildlife and the way of living that the people of Mahan have always known.
Jal —Jungle —Jamin (Water-Jungle-land), which is the motto of MSS, makes a poignant point about the sustainable lifestyle that the villagers live by and want to safeguard from Essar. However, what the Ministry of Environment seems to be safeguarding is an ideology that promotes industrial development at all costs. In just a month’s time, Veerappa Moily, Minister of Environment had cleared over 100 projects, many of them highly environmentally damaging, in a hasty manner that pays lip service to real development for Indians, while actually favouring those who are working for their private profits.
The people of Mahan who are on the verge of losing everything, have already started preparing for a big fight against the corporate powers as the news about the second environmental clearance to Essar was declared last month.
On February 27, the MSS mobilised almost 1000 villagers from 15 villages in the Mahan coal block region. The purpose of which was to hold a massive public meeting and launching of a Satyagraha against the tyrant forces that are threatening to destroy the Mahan forests.
Drawing inspiration from the Gandhian movement of Jan Satyagraha, Van Satyagraha stands for all the people who have the right to be heard and live their life the way they want. The peaceful nature of the protest reinstates the shared values of other environmental movements like the Chipko movement and Narmada Bachao Andolan.
In what might seem to become a defining example for environmental movements in India, Van Satyagraha — as the villagers like to call it, is an ongoing movement in the Mahan forest that will peacefully establish the voices of the villagers till the clearance order is revoked by the environment minister Veerappa Moily.
However, even in this time of uncertainty, they have vowed to not end their struggle, and continue fighting with Essar in a peaceful manner so that they can keep the Mahan forests safe for the generations to come.