Mahan, a forested area in northern India, is sometimes called the ‘Badlands’ because of its history of lawlessness. It certainly feels like the wild west sometimes, except instead of a gold rush here, there’s a scramble for something a whole lot dirtier. British companies like Essar are coming for coal in india, turning places like Mahan into new frontiers of mining.
A smog of coal dust hits you as you arrive at Singrauli station, and a huge sign declares that you are in ‘The Northern Coal Fields.’ Here, nothing and no one stands in the way the coal industry. In the past, that has been especially true for the thousands of people whose forest homes sit atop of the coal.
The people living in the villages surrounding the proposed Mahan coal mine make a living collecting leaves and flowers from the forest. The mahua flower collecting season has just finished (the flowers are used in medicines), and the tendu leaf collecting season is at its height. Tendu leaves are used for making Indian cigarettes called beedis.
The campaign to save this area from Essar has been big and dirty. The company’s hired goons collude with the police every day to find new and creative ways of intimidating the local villagers and Greenpeace into giving up.
Two weeks ago two Greenpeace employees and two local villagers were arrested in the middle of the night on completely trumped up charges. When they refused to sign false confessions, they were beaten. Essar company employees were in the police station the entire time. Three of the four villagers have since been released on bail. The fourth, Bechanlal, remains in custody, supposedly because he has a previous criminal conviction — from 30 years ago.
In reality he’s there because he’s the leader of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti or MSS (translates as ‘Great Struggle committee’.) His continued incarceration is designed to intimidate the community into backing down.
I had an opportunity to meet Bechanlal while he has in a holding cell during a court appearance this week. He cried when he saw faces that he recognized but repeatedly assured us that he was strong, well, and unbowed. Greenpeace joined 400 villagers on Monday to protest for his release. This has prompted a new wave of intimidation.
Greenpeace was called this week to come and listen to villagers who had just set up a tendu leaf co-operative. They had been intimidated by officials all day and were told to shut their cooperative down on the grounds that it was illegal. The truth is that by setting up a co-operative, they cut out the middleman who normally brokers the sale of the leaves. Surprise, surprise: this middleman is associated with Essar.
My every movement is followed by the police. I am told that as a foreigner I must be protected from the maoist rebels who wish to kidnap me. Priya Pillai who leads the Greenpeace team here, is used to threats of violence and even death.
The most powerful symbol of collusion between Essar and the police is the fact that the local police station is actually situated inside the compound of the brand spanking new Essar power station, next to the proposed mine. To access it, Essar employees have to open the gates and let you in.
It’s no wonder local people can’t trust the police and must ask Greenpeace to help them sort out their problems. Priya is part campaigner, part social worker, taking on sexism, caste, and class politics, while trying to empower villagers to stand up for their rights and protect the forest they own. When Priya started talking to people around here more than 3 years ago, they didn’t even know that they owned the forest, had little appetite for a fight, and were hugely suspicious of Greenpeace.
Now, when we drive down the dirt road in the villages, old men and children raise their fist and shout ‘Zindabad!’ (Long live the fight!)
This week, Mahan Coal Ltd (a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco) stepped up its campaign of psychological warfare. The company sent a ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ representative named Vijaylaxmi into the villages. Vijaylaxmi has been talking to Bechanlal’s son, telling him that Greenpeace isn’t doing anything to get him bail. She told him only she could help get her father released. At Monday’s protest, she had the nerve to tell Priya, ‘I’m a social worker just like you.’
This fight is only going to get dirtier. We expect more spurious arrests of village leaders, and we wouldn’t put it past the authorities to begin using violence. On our side it will be completely non-violent. Because that is the only way that you truly win.