MAHAN FOREST, India, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
- W ith an axe on one shoulder and lugging a large log over the
other, Bhajandhari Kushwaha emerges from the dense Mahan forest
in central India with his dog by his side after a day of
foraging and wood cutting.
For Kushwaha, the timber, leaves and seeds of this
centuries-old forest not only sustain his family of five, they
represent a vital part of his community's cultural identity that
has suddenly come under threat from two of India's largest
"This forest is our life. We get everything from it," says
the 45-year-old, vowing to fight plans by Mahan Coal Ltd (MCL) -
jointly owned by London-listed Essar Energy Plc and the
Aditya Birla-owned Hindalco Industries Ltd - to mine
part of the 1,000-square-km (385-square-mile) woods for coal.
"Whatever compensation the company is offering us, we do not
want it. We will fight until we die, if that's what it takes."
It is a sentiment shared by many villagers in this dusty
corner of Madhya Pradesh state, a sign of growing popular
resistance spurred by a new forest law that gives people a
greater say over how natural resources are exploited.
What happens at Mahan could determine if anti-mining
campaigns will increasingly seek a legal recourse under the new
law, underscoring a new twist in the challenges facing India's
quest for energy security and its industrial future.
Hundreds of projects are stuck over similar local oppostion,
where protests often turn violent, including more than two dozen
multi-billion dollar proposals.
A THICKET OF APPROVALS
In January, London-listed Vedanta Resources Plc lost
a seven-year battle to dig bauxite in the eastern state of
Odisha after the Supreme Court ordered that local tribespeople
should decide on the project. The villagers voted against it.
The government accepted the decision even though Vedanta,
had already spent more than 500 billion rupees ($8.1 billion) on
an aluminium refinery, smelter and power plant in anticipation
of access to local mines. The company has been forced to bring
in bauxite from the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.
In Mahan, MCL was granted environmental approval last month
to extract around 100 million tonnes of coal. Essar and Hindalco
have already invested $3.2 billion building a power plant and a
smelter that will run on locally mined coal.
But local resistance, led by environment group Greenpeace,
could still derail the coal mine project, affecting the economic
viability of the power plant and smelter.
The final forest clearance for MCL came from environment
minister Veerappa Moily, who in less than three months in the
job has approved more than 70 big-ticket projects worth over $40
billion, some of which were stalled by his predecessors over
Moily, who is also the oil and gas minister, has been
criticised by environmentalists who accuse him of acting in
haste to mollify industrialists who complain that approval
delays are strangling economic growth.
Greenpeace says MCL's project will fell hundreds of
thousands of trees and affect the livelihoods of 14,000 people
who sell products such as mahua seeds and tendu leaves, used to
make cheap alcohol and hand-rolled cigarettes respectively.
MCL says only about 4,500 people will be affected and they
will be compensated for as long as they live for lost income.
"There are a lot of phantoms over social and environmental
concerns that are being created about this project," says MCL's
chief executive, Ramakant Tiwari. "I personally believe that
sustainable development is possible."
Only one percent of Mahan will be cleared and a massive
reforestation programme will be undertaken to regenerate the
woodland, he told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a site office.
But there are fears that the MCL project will open the doors
to the mining of the entire Mahan forest, a concern raised by
environment minister Moily's predecessor when he put it on hold.
Besides MCL, seven other coal mines are proposed across
Mahan, including one by Reliance Power. Jaypee group
also has an operating coal mine in the area.
India's mining sector has been at the centre of a
multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal after the government's
opaque and discretionary mining rights allocation system was
questioned by the country's top auditor. The furore slowed
decision making in the sector and put a brake on mining.
India is desperate for power and coal is expected to remain
at the heart of its energy security for decades.
Government-controlled Coal India Ltd has not been able
to mine fast enough, forcing power producers to import costly
coal from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa to bridge the
Seventy million households - 35-40 percent of the country's
1.2 billion people - have no access to electricity. In 2012, a
blackout left over 600 million people in northern India without
power for nearly two days, exposing Asia's third-largest economy
and an aspiring global power to international humiliation.
"It's a painful paradox for me," says Tiwari. "Nearly
one-third of our domestic production is imported from outside,
despite India having the fourth-largest coal reserves in the
The project, he says, will not only bring in millions of
dollars for the government, it will also bring skills, jobs and
better infrastructure to a backward area.
"OUR FOREST, OUR RIGHT"
The tussle over Mahan has divided the local community.
In Amelia, the largest of the affected villages, some
wealthier, higher-caste villagers want the coal mine and have
already sold land to MCL to build its offices.
"I want the same life for my children as they have in the
cities," says Amelia's village head, Santosh Singh, who sold off
some of his land and got jobs for his family at MCL. "I have no
interest in the forest. Those who want to fight the company can
go and hang themselves from the branches of the trees in Mahan
forest if they want."
But Singh may be in a minority against Amelia's poorer
residents where mistrust of corporations runs deep, partly due
to an unfulfilled earlier promise to provide jobs at Essar's
Painted on the mud-and-brick walls of many homes, Hindi
slogans read "Our forest, our right."
Inhabitants say clearance was given to the project in
violation of the Forest Rights Act, a 2008 law that gives
affected communities a right over the forests.
A village vote in Amelia supporting the MCL mine was rigged
with hundreds of forged signatures, they say. The company said
it had no say in the vote, which was conducted by the village
head in the presence of government representatives.
Still, the allegation has forced district authorities to
launch an inquiry, which is due to completed at the end of
March. The outcome could scupper the project.
"If the majority is not with the resolution then, at my
level, I would report to the government that mining should not
be done in this area because it is a legal right of the people,"
said M. Selvendran, the top government official in Singrauli
district, which covers the Mahan forests.
Selvendran recommendations will go to Madhya Pradesh state's
mining department, which is responsible for granting leases to
companies - the final clearance required for a mining project.
In a show of strength last month, hundreds of men, women and
children from Amelia and surrounding villages gathered on the
fringes of Mahan forest to demonstrate. Arranging themselves in
lines, the crowd formed three words: "Essar quit Mahan".
"We are poor people but we are not afraid to take on these
big companies," said villager Kripan Nath Yadav, comparing the
battle against Essar and Hindalco to India's fight for
independence from British colonisers almost 70 years ago.
(Editing by John Chalmers and Richard Pullin)