Vote in Madhya Pradesh village will decide whether ancient forest is cleared for mining project
By Sophie Yeo
India’s new government faces a key test of its commitment to tribal rights this week, when a tiny village votes on plans to develop a huge coal mining project in nearby forest.
British registered Essar Energy and Hindalco have been given permission to start extracting coal from the area, located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but their plans are fiercely opposed by locals.
In the village of Amelia, the Gram Sabha, a vote of the community council, will determine their support for the destruction of a 1,182 hectare block of the ancient Mahan forest, which boasts a diverse array of wildlife.
The vote will formally conclude the long dispute, but its significance for India’s coal industries and forest communities makes it unlikely that either side will accept an unfavourable outcome.
Allegations of corruption and forgery have held up the coal project so far. In 2011 then Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh opposed the companies’ bids for forest clearances, but his decision was overturned.
And the outcome of the case will likely be a test of the Narendra Modi government’s dedication to forest rights in the face of intense corporate lobbying, which in this case have reached the highest levels of government.
Research by Greenpeace India shows that there are 54 villages that are dependent on the Mahan forest for their livelihood.
“The Mahan coal mine is not only placing the climate at risk, but will also destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on the Mahan forest for survival,” said Priya Pillai from the NGO.
— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) August 18, 2014
India suffers frequent power outages and is in desperate need of new sources of energy. But campaigners say that destroying large swathes of forests on which rural communities depend is not the way to go about securing it.
As well as trashing the biodiversity of the area and livelihoods of over 14,000 people who are dependent on the forest, coal is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, contributing to climate change and the air pollution.
India is vulnerable to both. Analysis commissioned last year by Greenpeace found that between 80,000 and 115,000 people die every year from coal plant pollution in India, and the NGO is working to bring microgrid solar installations to rural communities in Bihar.
The government also hopes to exploit India’s capacity for clean solar energy, pledging around US$ 80million in its most recent budget for “ultra mega solar power projects” in four states.
Meanwhile, heavy rains have caused devastating floods in northern India this week, killing at least 21 people and leaving thousands homeless. Despite India’s vulnerability, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled that he will not attend a landmark UN climate summit hosted by Ban Ki-moon in New York this September.
Both environmental activists and coal supporters have been fighting fiercely in the battle for Mahan forest.
The Gram Sabha vote, which is meant to take place before the 22 August, is a repeat of a vote held in March last year, after Greenpeace and villagers disputed the outcome, alleging that signatures had been forged.
While Essar and Hindalco announced that they had secured the necessary forest clearance rights from the government in February this year, they are legally required to gain the consent of the forest community through the Gram Sabha.
Villagers are preparing to resist the intrusion into the forest. Last week, resistance group Mahan Sangharsh Samiti filed their community forests rights, a legal right granted under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). If recognised, this will strengthen their claims of ownership over the Mahan’s resources.
“We have been raising our voice demanding the implementation of the FRA for a long time. Finally we have been able to assert out rights successfully,” says Hardayal Singh Gond, a member of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti.
The group also plans to oppose other resolutions set to appear before the council, including a compensation package and banning Greenpeace, whose activists have been working with villagers in the area.
“There is no question of any kind of compensation till our rights are recognized,” continued Gond.
While the coal companies may see the vote as a final hurdle in accessing the Mahan’s coal resources, Greenpeace activists say that a negative outcome would not signal the end of the forest.
A “random” approach to by the local administration to securing the consent has led to disregard for the legal process, which Greenpeace plans to protest if the vote goes in favour of the mining companies, said Jagori Dhar from Greenpeace India. “This is just the beginning of the fight,” she said.
There remains some doubt as to whether the vote will go ahead in the allotted time frame, as a 10-day notification of the process that authorities are supposed to issue has yet to arrive.
A case against the forest clearance lodged by Greenpeace in India’s National Green Tribunal is ongoing, while they say the fact that a vote is only being held in one of 54 villages disregards the Forest Rights Act.
“One village cannot be seen as a microcosm for the entire voting population of several other villages there,” she told RTCC.
But she added that neither would a victory in the vote this week signal the end of the battle, and that it was possible that the coal companies would “make a pretext, they can come up with some reason or another” to continue their operations.
The outcome of the vote is not a foregone conclusion; Greenpeace India has now teamed up with its international counterparts to bolster support for their work.
“The local communities are really working hard to raise the awareness level of the people and they’re confident. But we’re also apprehensive that the local administration managed to get its way last time and there is an attempt to stifle opposition,” said Dhar.
“That’s why we want support and we’re calling the global community to stand with us in the fight.”