Madhya Pradesh assures Green Tribunal no trees to be cut in Mahan for now

The state government of Madhya Pradesh has assured the National Green Tribunal that they will not fell trees till October in Mahan forests, the site of Mahan coal block, that was given a forest clearance by the central government in March.

The move comes as a temporary respite for members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, which had filed a petition last week with the NGT challenging the Forest Clearance granted to earlier in March this year.

“The state government’s undertaking has given us temporary respite till October. But we are determined to save our forests and will continue to oppose any mining-related activities in our forest,” says Hardayal Singh Gond of MSS and a petitioner in the case. Earlier in May this year, four activists from MSS and Greenpeace were arrested for peacefully opposing the marking of trees.

In the petition filed by MSS members, the clearance granted to Mahan coal block violates the Precautionary Principle, Principles of Sustainable Development along with provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, National Forest Policy 1988, Biological Diversity act 2002 and Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The coal block was allocated to a joint venture of Essar Power and Hindalco industries Ltd. This is not the only case on Essar, NGT earlier pulled up Essar as the wall of the it’s ash pond dyke linked to Essar’s thermal power plant caved in April 2014.

“We’ve been opposing this illegitimate mining proposal for over two years now. But despite our opposition, the UPA government went ahead with the stage II forest clearance. The mine tramples over the rights of over 50,000 people from over 54 villages,” said Gond. The non-timber forest produce from Mahan forests serves as a primary source of livelihood for these villagers. The mine will require the felling of over 4 lakh trees.

The National Forest Policy of 1988 states that diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose should be subject to very careful scrutiny, but in case of Mahan, no such scrutiny was done. “Felling of over 4 lakh trees has been dealt with in the most casual manner by the MoEF and the Group of Ministers, which recommended Stage I forest clearance to Mahan coal block,” said Priya Pillai, a petitioner and a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India. “The social and the ecological impacts were ignored at every level,” she added.

According to the petitioners, the Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has not been implemented in the region.

“In fact, In July 2013, tribal minister Mr KC Deo had even written to the MP chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan about the blatant violation of FRA. Not a single community forest right has been granted in the region. Besides this, FRA stipulated Gram Sabha consent for any project in the forest land. But the special Gram Sabha on FRA in Amelia village was conducted fraudulently, according to them. “The Gram Sabha resolution based on which the Stage II (final stage) forest clearance was granted to Mahan coal block contains forged signatures,” says Gond.

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 says that any proposal of diversion of forest will be considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which will then make a recommendation to the MoEF for a final decision. But in case of Mahan, the procedure turned out to be very different, the petitioners said.

On 12 July 2011, the Forest Advisory Committee had submitted its report recommending the rejection of Mahan coal block. “The FAC report was based on based on scientific grounds after a detailed site visit. But the MoEF did not accept these recommendations.” The Stage I clearance was ultimately granted to Mahan in October 2012 by the Group of Ministers stating the argument of fait accompli.

“The approval granted is wrong and will set a negative precedent for the future in view of the fact that the project proponents have presented a fait accompli situation,” said a Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner with Greenpeace. This means that Essar went ahead and built their thermal power plant linked to Mahan Coal block without getting the required clearances in the first place. Then they used this excuse to exert pressure on MoEF to grant approvals. “This is contrary to the directions of the MoEF as stated in various circulars about fait accompli situations. Although ministers in charge of MoEF had initially resisted this, they ultimately succumbed to the pressure from the GoM to grant Stage I forest clearance,” said Sivalingam.

The Stage I approval granted by MoEF clearly said a reputed oranisation like the Wildlife Institute of India or Wildlife Trust of India should be commissioned to assess impacts of coal mining on habitat and migration of wild animals in the region containing the Mahan coal block, according to the complaint.

“The final report (prepared by a retired forest department official) has scientific inaccuracies and wrong, misleading data. In fact, it is a cut-paste job from one of his previous report,” said Sivalingam.

The Mahan forests are home to some 164 plant species including Sal, Saaja, Mahua, Tendu etc. Besides this one can find several threatened and rare species of animals such as leopard, sloth bear, Hyena, etc. The critically endangered vultures (White-rumped Gypsbengalensis and Indian Gyps Indicus and the Red-headed Sarcogyps Calvus) along with various other fast vanishing birds are a delight to the sight in this region.

To assess the cumulative impact of the large number of power plants and coal mines located in the small area of Singrauli, the stage I clearance also specifically asked for a study to be commissioned to the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) or National Environemnt Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) or any such other reputed institution.

This condition has also been stipulated also in the Stage II clearance granted on February 12, 2014, wherein it is stated that the study assigned to NEERI shall be completed on or before September 30, 2014, the complaint said.

“The MoEF recognises the necessity of Cumulative Impact Assessment in view of the large number of projects coming up in the area and yet grants forest clearance to the project without even waiting for the study to be completed,” says Priya Pillai.

Hardayal Gond added. “We hope that this case in NGT is able to help us save our forests. We are sure that we will get justice in the end,” he added. Greenpeace and MSS will continue to oppose any kind of non-forest activity related to the mine. Their demand for revoking the Stage II clearance still stands.

Out of the 54 villages dependant on the Mahan forests of Singrauli, members from five villages (Amelia, Bandhaura, Budher,Suhira and Barwantola) in the Mahan forests have organisedthemselves under the banner of MSS to assert their forest rights and have been opposing the proposed Mahan coal mine (by Essar and Hindalco). After a public meeting in August 2013, six more villages joined the movement.

The Mahan coal block was initially rejected by former Environment minister Mr Jairam Ramesh. However, it was granted in-principal (Stage I) approval by the MoEF on October 18, 2012, after substantial pressure from the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Coal Mining. This approval came with 36 conditions, which require a range of studies to be completed and the processes under the Forest Rights Act to be complied with.

Mining will destroy the livelihoods of over 50,000 people, according to the agitators.

“This special Gram Sabha on Forest Rights Act was held on March 6, 2013 to give a go-ahead to the mine. Though the Gram Sabha was attended by 182 people, a copy of the resolution acquired through Right to Information (RTI) has 1,125 signatures,” the agitators alleged.

On February 12, 2014, Veerappa Moily-led environment ministry granted the stage II forest clearance.