The Singrauli district administration of Madhya Pradesh has decided to organise a fresh gram sabha in Amelia village to decide the fate of Essar-Hindalco coal mining project in Mahan forest. The move follows close on the heels of police initiating a probe on high court's order into a an earlier gram sabha resolution allowing coal mining in the area, which the residents allege is fraudulent.
But the district administration appears to working hard to keep the meeting a secret. It clamped down on activists and seized their mobile communication equipment on July 29, in what appeared to be an effort to isolate the village from the rest of the world on the day residents are expected to decide whether to allow mining in their forests or assert their forest rights.
Mahan coal block, allocated to Essar Power and Hindalco Industries, in a densely forested patch of Singrauli region will witness the next gram sabha meeting mid-August to decide on the fate of the coal mining project, informs the district administration. Residents of Amelia allege that the previous gram sabha falsely adopted a resolution two years ago. They filed a case against the Gram Panchayat in the high court, which ordered a police probe. The villagers have alleged that the resolution which states that the community forest rights of the residents of Amelia village have been settled – a pre-condition for granting final forest clearance to the coal mine – was drafted in absence of several villagers by doctoring their signatures.
Telecommunication equipment seized
With the district administration yet to announce a date, the residents alleged that even the fresh gram sabha is just eyewash. On July 19, the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS), a local association of land losers, and Greenpeace, which is aiding the residents of Amelia to assert their rights over the forests, welcomed the move of the district administration when it announced the fresh gram sabha. However, on July 29, the local police officials suddenly raided MSS office and seized a mobile phone booster and solar panels which was set up with the help of Greenpeace. Members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti say that the district administration with the local police is trying to isolate Amelia and Budher village during the gram sabha.
“Two Greenpeace activists were arrested on July 29 night after the raid. Since the mobile connectivity is weak in our village, we had installed a mobile phone booster so that we could tell the world if there is any attempt to sabotage the gram sabha by the company persons. However, police officials slapped false cases on us and took the equipment away,” says Sitaram Lal, a member of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti. Later on Friday, Greenpeace reiterated that shutting down communications between Mahan and rest of the country does not inspire faith in a proper process. It has demanded that fresh gram sabha should not be held “behind the curtains”. Lal says that police officials are yet to file fresh FIR against Gram Sabha members despite Jabalpur High court’s order asking the Singrauli police to probe the issue of forged gram sabha resolution.
The district police officials justify their act. They stated that a notice was issued to MSS against using high frequency equipment like mobile boosters, which only security forces are allowed to use. “For private use, they need a permission from the district administration,” says district collector M Selvendran.
On Friday, Greenpeace released two letters showing that the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology had granted the license to the organization to operate these high frequency devices across the country. The purpose and nature of the license has been defined as radio communication for handling operational traffic relating to the conduct a survey of viability of renewable energy in different parts of India except border areas, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and North Eastern States.
According to environmental and forest rights activist, Madhu Sareen, the Forests Rights Act was enacted to undo historical injustice to forest dwelling communities by recognizing their pre-existing rights, which were never recognized when their lands were declared as state forest. “Therefore, the first requirement is that as per the FRA, the Gram Sabha must initiate the process of receiving the claims and recognizing both individual and community forest rights,” she says.
MSS members say that the proposed coal mine is bound to destroy the livelihoods of more than 50,000 persons in over 54 villages. “The rights of the 54 villages must first be recognized and people have to be informed about the project in their native language. All 54 villages should have a say on whether they want a mine in the forests or not. But as of now, no community forest rights have been recognized in the village,” says Hardayal Singh Gond, a member of the MSS.