Greenpeace, villagers fight to keep coal mining from ‘life-giving’ Mahan forest in India’s energy capital

Originally published on ABC 08/07/15


6604902-3x2-700x467Photo: Aaron Hollett

To the people who live in central India’s Mahan forest, it is paradise.

Anita Kushwaha, from the forest’s Budher village, says all the plants have some use.

When the Mahua fruit is in season, she sells bags of it at the market.

She uses its seeds to make oil and medicine.

“Forest is our life source. There’s a saying that from forest comes water and from water comes life, so without the forest, we won’t be alive,” she said.

6605026-3x2-340x227Photo: Aaron Hollett

What grows out of this land is precious to the villagers, but it is what is underneath that has drawn them into a five year-long battle.

A coal mine was proposed to take up more than 1,000 hectares of forest land.

It would have fed a nearby power station and aluminium smelter owned by an Indian-British joint venture.

The plan was for an open pit mine, as Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai explains.

“Which means all this will be first cut down, the top soil will be removed, and that is how the mine will come into existence,” she said.

“So this would have displaced villagers, it would have snatched away livelihoods of communities.”

Earlier this year, the villagers and Greenpeace India got a win and for now, the mine has been scrapped.

But the Mahan forest is still at risk.

It is located in Singrauli, also known as the energy capital of India.

The energy sector produces 10 per cent of the nation’s coal-fired power, and the Indian government is desperate to expand.

By 2019, New Delhi wants to provide power to the hundreds of millions of Indians who currently do not have it.

6604894-3x2-700x467Photo: Arron Hollett

Ruling party spokesman Nalin Kholi said expansion would improve life for many.

“It is about expansion of economic activity. It’s about improving delivery, not just about alleviation of poverty, it is about elimination of poverty,” he said.

In June last year, a report was allegedly leaked from India’s Intelligence Bureau, accusing foreign funded NGOs like Greenpeace of being anti-national and of costing the country between 2 and 3 per cent in GDP growth.

Since then thousands of NGOs have had their registration suspended.

Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde said the Government was throwing the book at any NGO it did not like.

“As far as NGOs like Greenpeace, Ford Foundation, Amnesty, all these seem to be, to the government, somewhat Western NGOs with Western agendas, with Western values which are not particularly suited to Indian conditions,” he said.

6604918-3x2-700x467Photo: Aaron Hollett

Greenpeace has had its bank accounts frozen and been barred from receiving foreign funding.

In January, Indian officials hauled Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai off a plane as she tried to travel to the UK to speak against the British company involved in the Mahan project.

“I was not allowed to travel, I was put on a no-fly list along with terrorists and criminals. I was treated like one. They branded me anti-national,” she said.

Last month, Australian Greenpeace campaigner Aaron Gray Block was denied entry to India.

New Delhi says he is now on its blacklist.

Mr Kholi said the government was entitled to take such action.

“Would we like someone from another country with their roots abroad, to start interfering in the democratic process of India?” he asked.

“That is not correct. I don’t think even Australia would like that.”

6605048-3x2-700x467Photo: Aaron Hollett

The ruling party says the crackdown is on NGOs who have mismanaged foreign donations, but Mr Kholi did not deny that the party may have broader concerns.

“This government is trying to find solutions so environment and industry can walk hand in hand,” he said.

“That does not mean that in the name of environment, organisations that carry a global repute locally will function as, if I may put it, surreptitiously political activist fronts. That is not part of the agenda.”

Greenpeace still cannot access its foreign funds but recently won a court battle to unfreeze its accounts holding domestic donations.

Mr Hegde says the group’s future remains uncertain.

“I’m not sure how long that can carry on because a lot of Indians would probably be kept away or be scared of donating to such organisations given the fact that the environment is not politically conducive,” he said.

6604854-3x2-700x467Photo: Aaron Hollett

Someone who wishes he had support from an NGO like Greenpeace in the past is Jeet Lal Baiga

At 80, he spends his days dreaming about the way things once were back in his village Amlori, elsewhere in Singrauli.

“It was so comfortable there. All my ancestors died there. In the jungle we would live off the greens, vegetables,” he said.

Five years ago, his village was forced out of the forest to make way for a mine and relocated to a dusty plain.

“The company told us that we will have no reason to feel sad here. They promised us food, water, electricity… that they would give us no cause for any grief,” he said.

“They provided food for a only a month or so. They gave no jobs to the children, so how will we survive?”

Greenpeace now uses Jeet Bal Baiga as an example of what can happen to communities in the name of development

Anita Kushwaha’s fear is that if voices like hers and Jeet Bal Baiga’s are not heard, it will spell the end of her culture and livelihood.

“We are mulling over our situation at the moment, but if we go away, we can only regret later,” she said.

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