The Battle For ‘Mahan’: How 14000 Villagers Are Braving State Crackdown To Save Their Forest

Posted on August 5, 2014 in Environment

By Kayonaaz Kalyanwala:

Mahan in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli district, has become another front in the battle waging between the desire for economic growth and that to conserve forests and indigenous ways of life. The forests in Mahan are the largest Sal forests in Asia. In a landscape already blackened by mining, this is now the last remaining tract of un-fragmented forests. Close to 14,000 residents from 54 villages and over 600 species of animals (including tigers and elephants) call this home. Over the last month, the fight to save Mahan has intensified. Local administration and police have used unconstitutional means like fabricated arrests and use of undue force on individuals and organisations who are leading peaceful protests to stop forced evictions.

mahan forest

In 2006, Essar and Hindalco were allotted this land for mining projects. The Ministry of Environment and Forests granted mining clearance in February 2013. A majority of the communities living here are opposed to giving their land over to the companies.

In June 2014, some from the team of Video Volunteers visited Amelia, the largest of the affected villages. They met members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS), a group formed by the villagers opposed to the project. Along with Greenpeace, the MSS has been central in making sure that residents are aware of their rights under the Forest Rights Act and that legal procedures are followed.

Our visit was aimed at exploring how Video Volunteers can support this people’s movement with the power of community media. In light of the arrests of civilians and targeting of organizations working in the area to ensure the rule of law, it is imperative that this story be told in the voices of those people who stand to be affected. In the months to come, some from the MSS will learn how to record videos and through this they will be able to bring the hopes, concerns and aspirations of their people to the world.

The events that have unfolded over the past eight years in Mahan have been controversial from the word go–while the ex Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had stated his own reservations on the project, it was given clearance after pressure from a Group of Ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Further, the Gram Sabha, which is a mandatory and crucial procedure to ascertain consent (or lack of it) from residents of the project-affected area, was rigged. While the actual number of attendees was 184, hundreds of signatures were forged bringing the total up to 1125 signatures. Around 9 people on this forged list have been dead for some time and 2 were in jail at the time. While the High Court in Jabalpur has come down hard on the Superintendent of Police for failing to look into these allegations, no action has been taken yet. All hopes are now pinned on another Gram Sabha scheduled soon.

“This time we are prepared to ensure that the legal procedures will be followed. We’ve also requested that the proceedings be recorded on video and that external observers be present,” says a member of MSS.

Over the years, there have been several instances where the local police have taken steps to protests from these communities. Many activists have been arbitrarily and illegally detained.

“Judging by the way the police was acting, it was as if they were out to catch a big criminal or deadly terrorist,” recalls an MSS member who was arrested in May and later released. He and other members allegedly tried to obstruct officials from doing a survey of the trees in the forest.

Most recently, on 30th July, local police confiscated solar panels, signal boosters and batteries from Amelia village. They later arrested the Greenpeace staff present there. All of this spells out, once again, the many violations of law that allow such projects to spring up despite opposition from communities that have historically depended on these forests. Successive governments and local administration have in effect neglected the demands of the people. Their disillusionment with the system they are up against is evident:

“If the governance and administration has been handed over to the company then I say ask the Prime Minister to resign; the company can be that (PM). Ask the Chief Minister to resign as well. If the companies do all the work, what are you there for?” asks a resident.

The growing intimidation and clampdown is not enough to deter the people; they will save their forests and homes. You can join them by signing this petition asking the Tribal Affairs Minister Shri Jual Oram to ensure that a free and fair Gram Sabha is held in Mahan.

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