By Nitin Sethi
Greenpeace India has faced a rough time since the National Democratic Alliance government came in. The Indian end of the international non-government organisation has advocated against any new coal projects in India for a while. But the one case that provided the NGO great mileage and has now irked the government most is its campaign against the Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh.
Sitting under one of the best sal forests in the country, the block was allocated to a joint venture between Hindalco Industries and Essar Power in 2006. It was to supply five million tonnes of coal per annum for 14 years to a 1,000 Mw power plant of Essar and a 650 Mw project of Hindalco.
But the companies would have to chop down atleast 500,000 trees over about 1,000 hectares. It required a central government clearance. They applied for one in 2008.
The Union environment ministry’s statutory Forest Advisory Committee, which appraises such projects, dithered. It was unable to say no and records show it was unwilling to say yes. By 2010, Jairam Ramesh, now heading the ministry, crafted the no-go policy for coal mining to provide some predictability to the forest clearance process by listing in advance forests that were too good to be destroyed. Mahan was identified as one of the best patches of forest and put in the no-go zone for miners.
The Forest Advisory Committee, too finally rejected the forest clearance noting the state government had understated the quality of forests and the rights of the tribals on the land had not been settled under the Forest Rights Act.
Pressure began building on the United Progressive Alliance government for a nod. The two companies reached out to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. Mukherjee at the time was also heading the Group of Ministers on coal and environment issues. Essar noted that its plant was more than 60 per cent ready without awaiting the coal block clearance.
Ramesh protested that he was being forced to clear the block as a fait accompli. He suggested alternative blocks. “Clearance of the Mahan coal block will open up a Pandora’s Box which we should avoid at all costs,” he wrote to Singh. Ramesh eventually deferred to his cabinet colleagues and left it to the Group of Ministers headed by Mukherjee to decide.
By now, Greenpeace had set up operations in the area, and a group of citizens from 11 affected villages, called Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS), had also come together. The MSS began protesting at the site against handing over their forests. Greenpeace lent it support at the local level and took the issue to a larger Indian and international audience through its signature high-amp campaign mode.
Soon Jayanthi Natarajan took over as environment minister. She took the same position as her predecessor Ramesh. But the Group of Ministers headed by Mukherjee overruled her. She reluctantly cleared the project, noting, “Despite reservations against the diversion of the dense forest land expressed strongly by the environment ministry at the GoM, and the fact that the entire civil work and construction of the plant is already complete after procurement of environmental clearance — and resulting inter alia in huge exposure to nationalised banks — Forest Clearance (first stage) may be granted to the Mahan coal block.”
So far, the government had collectively also sidestepped the other big issue – rights of the tribals over the forests under the Forest Rights Act. Under the law, the coal block could not have been granted a forest clearance until the villagers’ rights over the forests were settled and they had given consent for their traditional forestland to be used for mining.
Soon the MSS and others protested that consent had been forged and provided evidence that showed that the consent resolutions of the gram sabha (village councils) were fraudulent. The then Tribal Affairs Minister V Kishore Chandra Deo wrote to UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, the state’s governor and the environment minister, noting that the Mahan coal block had been ‘wrested in favour’ of the companies despite clear violations of the FRA and strong misgivings about a nexus between local authorities and the companies involved, leading to large-scale violation of rights. They also pointed out forged consent letters from villagers had come to light.
In January Greenpeace activists, in their typical guerrilla-like campaign mode, unfurled a banner on the glass facade of the Essar Group headquarters in Mumbai saying “We kill forests: Essar”. The company took them to court for criminal defamation.
But Veerappa Moily, now the environment minister, in February 2014 issued the final clearance to the coal block ignoring the concerns about tribal rights. In the meanwhile the MSS challenged the clearance granted to the coal block before the National Green Tribunal.
As the hearings on the case began, the NDA government took over at the Centre. Soon an Intelligence Bureau report was leaked naming, among others, Greenpeace India for being anti-development and anti-national. Acting after the report, the government blocked funding support of the organisation from its mother organisation abroad.
When the case came up for hearing the companies used the IB report (downloaded from the internet it claimed) to question the intentions of the petitioners. But, with the Supreme Court cancelling all coal block allocations, the specific case challenging green clearances to Mahan was also set aside.
The NDA government has not put the block up for auction in the first round.