The uphill struggle to save Mahan forests

Mon, 21/04/2014 - 18:08
The road curving up to the Mahan forests has few trees growing on either side. The forests appears to thicken somewhat after one has travelled a few kilometres inside it. Mahua trees are in full bloom, their yellow flowers scattered in a profusion around each tree trunk. April is a celebration time for the villagers living inside and on the outskirts of this last surviving central Indian forests which goes by the formal name of the Mohanban Reserve Forest.
the.jpgThe Mahan forests have been in the eye of a storm as leading corporate houses eye the coal reserves lurking below this cover of green. Two successive ministers of environment and forest, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan had refused to green signal its destruction by the corporate houses. The Sonabhadra-Singrauli region spread over both UP and MP has 11 coal mines and nine thermal power plants producing ten per cent of coal based thermal energy in the country. Its 11-lakh population comprising largely of villagers and tribals have paid a heavy price for this energy production. Singrauli is presently the third most polluted cluster according to the Environmental Pollution Index prepared by the ministry of environment & forests. The MoEF had asked for a moratorium in the setting up of new thermal plants and mining units in this critically polluted cluster. This moratorium was lifted under the infamous Moily regime much to the concern of locals. More mines means more displacement and higher levels of toxic pollution to contend with. It also means the end of this last contiguous forest spread across central India.

“Fifty-four villages have been directly affected by the lifting of this moratorium which will result in the displacement of over 25,000 people,’ says Ram Lelu Singh Khewar who owns two acres of land in the village of Budher located in the midst of the Mahan forests. He is a member of the Mahan Sangarsh Samiti which is fighting the “company”, a name loosely used against all the corporate houses who are seen to be taking over local land. Almost every home in this area has a slogan “Jal, Jangal, Jameen” painted outside it, an obvious pointer to the three “Jewels” they value most in their lives.
Bachan Lal, farmer cum business man of Amelia village said, “The forest is our mother. We cannot live without it. Our livelihood, our water, our air is all linked to this forest.”
Poetic descriptions aside, there is hard economics involved in their relationship with the forests. Each family earns a minimum of one lakh rupees annually from forest produce and medicinal plants. Villagers are haunted by the spectre of displacement. Many of them, including Bachan Singh, have been displaced two to three times over. The despair of leaving their homes has driven some to commit suicide.

White-haired Jeetlal Vaiga had to leave his home in the forest of Jhariya and start life afresh in a barren and inhospitable terrain. Presently staying in Amlori Visthapan Colony in Amlori with the hot sun beating down on his shack he lamented bitterly, “Koi sukh nahi hai.”
Mr Vaiga is one of hundreds of villagers who had to move out after their land was acquired by the Reliance group to construct the Sheshan Power Corporation. “We are no longer allowed to access our forests for firewood, mahua or tendu pata. The company has placed guards everywhere. We have been placed in a situation where the government and the company would be delighted if we could survive eating mud and rocks,” said Mr Vaiga.

A large number of people have been provided displacement cards to highlight their “refugee” status. A group of 30 women, clinging desperately to their displacement cards, are holding a protest rally outside the Essar Thermal Power Plant in Singrauli. Displaced five years ago, they belong to the villages of Bhandora, Nagwa, Kherae and Samvua and have been on dharna from March 2. “My family was given land three km away but this area has no water. The other major problem is that the land is located next to an overburden where all the debris from the mine is being dumped. Many of our cattle have died drinking polluted water that flows out of the Essar power plant,” said Ms Mahimati from Kherai village. When questioned why they have not complained to the local collector, these women claim they have been going regularly for the “Jan sunvais” held at the collector’s office but despite having received a written assurance, their cases have remained unresolved.

Greenpeace has been helping local villagers give voice to their frustration. Their local campaigner Priya Pillai said, “Mahan forest extends right up to the Sanjay Dubri National Park which is a tiger reserve. The Central Mining, Planning and Design Institute involved with coal exploration has cautioned that coal deposits in Mahan will provide optimum coal only for seven to eight years. Our question is why are forests being destroyed for such shortlived gain?” A young farmer with a post graduate degree in computer application Jagnarayan Shah said, “the situation is made more complex because while eight per cent of villagers do not want to leave their homes, twenty per cent villagers have already sold their land to the company and are now being forced to support them.”
Singrauli’s collector M.S. Selvendran claimed a recent survey undertaken by the MP state control pollution board did not show very high levels of air and water pollution in his district. “Sonabhadra in UP is causing all the pollution due to their extensive use of stone crushing machines and the dust blows into our area,” he said.

The collector maintained that by 2016, by which time all the power plants would become operational, Singrauli would be able to provide 15,000 MW which generates into 10 per cent of the country’s power. Selvendran’s assertion that no tribal living inside the Mahan forest is eligible for pattas under the individual rights category is being questioned by the local tribals.
It’s a David-Goliath battle with few supporters for the underdog.