I was in Delhi to witness the spectacular failure of climate COP in Copenhagen in December 2009. I was a small time organizer in the movement and we were running a climate camp in New Delhi. We did a protest outside the US embassy when we heard Obama was blocking the deal, and creating side deals with India and China. The US embassy is one of the most secure buildings in New Delhi and a journalist friend actually put a 500 Rs bet that we won’t be able to carry out the protest. I won the bet and we were all dragged out by the police. But that did not help the cause clearly as our hopes collapsed and world leaders could not decide on our future and merely took their flights back home from Copenhagen. Climate activists worldwide were extremely agitated. I also didn’t get the 500 bucks which I won from the bet. Here is the protest link.
All through 2010 activists grappled with this fact and we wondered what’s next I, left activism for some time, packed my bags and spent several months in the hills.
Then, in 2011, I got a chance to travel to many coal fields of India to see forests and communities which stood in line for India’s energy expansion plan. The journey was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
House in the village of Bandhaura and Essar power plant as seen from the village. The forests of Mahan were threatened by coal mining for years. But recently, the Coal Ministry declared Mahan coal block as ‘No-Go’, implying the forests stand tall.
The journey was intense. Through the year of 2011 the debate around coal mining areas in the forested central eastern India was big, the environment minister then (Jairam Ramesh), challenged this vociferously. The Coal Ministry complained that environmental clearances are delaying the coal production. The coal minister proposed ‘No-Go’ areas in forests where mining can never be allowed, and “Go” areas where one does not have to go through a lot to get clearance. Post this, the Environment Ministry mapped out ‘No-Go’ and “Go” forests. This mapping became the most contested thing by the industry and other ministers including the coal minister. This caught momentum in the media. After the Environment Ministry finished the mapping, the coal industry realized that much of the coal they wished to mine would go out of bounds if ‘No-Go’ was implemented, and hence started resisting it. This was in March-April of 2011.
We accessed the list of coal blocks in India and their categorization from the Environment Ministry through an RTI (Right to Information). Once again I packed my bags to travel and see as many “Go” and “No Go” areas with our own eyes. In total there were approximately 750 coal blocks, spread in an area of 1000 of kilometers in the interior parts of central eastern India, mainly in states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra.
We covered as many as we could in a span of two months, and what we saw was mind boggling! The mining regions were largely located in forested areas inhabited by tribal populations. What we saw was symbolized oppression in its worst form. We witnessed destroyed hamlets, ruined forests, largest open cast mines on the face of the earth, one of the most polluted town in the world, and beautiful deciduous tiger habitats with peaceful tribal regions waiting to be destroyed, all in the name of coal.
By the time we completed the journey, I was shaken up. The people we met, the stories we heard and what we saw with our naked eye. We met Government officials, tribal people, wildlife enthusiasts, activists and journalists. One of the places we stopped was at Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. This is the energy capital of India and also the most polluted place in the country. The town is surrounded by half a dozen power plants, a big artificial lake which is badly polluted and located in the vicinity of several coal mines. On the last day of of our stay in Singrauli, we had one last coal block we wanted to visit in the area. Also because this place was in news – Mahan.
Gebra open cast coal mining in Korba, Chhattisgarh. At present, it is India’s largest coal mine with a total production capacity of 35 million ton per annum. Gevra mining block is having an area of about 19.03 sq.km, located in the central part of Korba field. These types of landscapes are very common view in this region made by the overburden of open cast coal mining.
For this block Enviroment Minister Jairam Ramesh had dug his heels and resisted pressure to give in to the industry. Before he was shunted out of the Environment Ministry, on the last day he put all communication on the Mahan coal block he had with the PMO, and the industry on the website of the Environment Ministry!
We really wanted to see what is so special about this place? But to our disappointment when we inquired about Mahan to our local guides and contacts, they were blank. No one had heard that name before! I tried to give them hints using the information I had from going over the maps I got from Environment Ministry website.
One hint struck a chord, ‘Mada’. When I uttered the word the hindi speaking Pandit Ji usherred ‘acha’. Ah! So we figure out directions and addresses in the usual Indian manner. We asked people along the route, but Mahan didn’t seem to be a familiar term on that road, with a lot of asking and guessing we reached this village called Amelia, where finally an old frail man acknowledged ‘Mahan Jungle’ right here in front of your eyes! I looked west and saw small hills covered with thick vegetation extending north to south! It was a treasure I thought.
I rushed and climbed up a small hill to get a better view, and had one of the local activist with me, he was panting as he explained the topography, the local people and their struggle. At that moment I had never imagined the people of this village will one day create the epicenter of a movement to protect India’s forests.
Mahan is very famous today and symbol of the struggle that people of forests have in our country, and I was fortunate to visit the place many times again and meet the inspiring people. Recently Ministry of Environment has once again classified the Mahan forest an Inviolate (‘No-Go’) forest.
And then the evening of 19 March I was walking with my dog when my phone was buzzing with WhatsApp messages. One of the fellow activsts had got an RTI response that Mahan will not be auctioned for mining and that Coal Ministry has accepted the Environemnt Ministry’s view. I stood in the dark corner of the street staring at the message again and again and my mind kept rushing back to all those amazing people and moments that I have lived with because of Mahan.
I wished I could go back in time and tell the people that I met in Amelia first time, to not worry, that this forest is not going anywhere, that you will win. But then I thought maybe not, it is better this way. This is a great victory for people of this forest, and many others who supported them. And I am so proud to have been there and to have known the people of Mahan, and to have learnt so much about life from them!
Celebration of Mahan forests victory, Madhya Pradesh. The celebration took place on 30th March 2015.
In the process of saving their forests and home ‘Mahan’, these people have also done something that world leaders failed in Copenhagen. And it was not ironic to me that when the world is again preparing for Paris Summit, and world leaders this time seem more eager to put a leash on climate, they are not leading anymore, but merely following many other communities like Mahan who have said ‘no’ to a certain way of growth!
Anyway, one thing is for sure, this time around I won’t be in Delhi, during Paris Summit. But I will be watching Paris from Mahan — anyone placing a bet?
Pushpinder is an activist with Greenpeace India.
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