It’s June 5 and India’s climate future looks coal-grey

As you celebrate World Environment Day, spare a thought for the gritty environmental fight that Mahan’s forest dwellers are waging against corporate greed for coal

According to a study released this week, nine in 10 Indians in eight cities felt that climate change is occurring. While more and more Indians are waking up to effects of climate change, the ecology of India’s forests is in a critical condition due to coal mining in these regions.

With the new government in power, the role of renewable energy is expected to grow but energy from coal-fired power plants will remain the backbone of India’s energy generation plans even as many of the world’s biggest economies are slowly but swiftly committing to fight climate change by cutting emissions from coal.

US President Barack Obama’s bold move to cut emissions from coal plants to 30% on 2005 figures by 2030 and China’s proactive step towards boosting funding for local governments that cut emissions will have little impact on a global scale if India does not do anything drastic about the emissions from coal plants soon.

As anywhere else in the world, the issues with coal energy generation are multi-layered and complex. In India, most of the coal lies buried underneath thick forests inhabited by a sizable tribal population that depends on the produce from the biodiversity of these forests. The ecological harmony of this coexistence is broken when coal mines spring up in a region, snatching from people their lands and from forests their biodiversity.

A classic example of this is the fight to save Mahan forests in the heartlands of central India from the coal mining plans of the corporation, Essar, which threatens to destroy the wildlife and livelihoods of the people living there.

These pictures depict the life of the people living in Mahan and what they stand to lose if Essar is successful in setting up a coal mine here.

Lady offering prayers at the sacred site of Dih Baba in Mahan

A lady offers prayers at the sacred site of Dih Baba, believed by local people to be the spirit and the protector of the Mahan forests. Vllagers visit the holy site before any big event and pray to this pagan god to protect their lives. February 12, 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forests led by the newly transferred Veerappa Moily granted Stage II forest clearance for the Mahan Coal Block, upon which villagers residing in Mahan have come together to declare the clearance as null and void. The villagers have begun a peaceful Van Satygraha against the destructive forces of Essar.

Essar power plant as seen from the village of Bandhaura in Mahan

Last year, a study conducted by Conservation Action Trust in partnership with Greenpeace revealed that coal power emissions have killed 100,000 Indians in 2012. The Central Pollution Control Board has already declared Singrauli district, in which the Mahan forests are situated, as a critically polluted region. Close proximity of the coal plant from the villages and the forests will lead to irreversible damage of the ecology in Mahan.

Fly ash pond in Mahan

In April this year, the mud wall lining the fly ash dyke of Essar Energy’s Mahan-I (600MW) thermal power plant in Singrauli collapsed, leading to fly ash-laden water seeping into Khairahi village. Fly ash from the coal power plants has been a perennial problem for the residents of Singrauli. Fly ash contains harmful heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead, which can potentially harm the health of the people and the environment. Despite repeated complaints of the fly ash pollution from residents and local health officials, the government, along with the profit-making companies, have shown no interest in addressing the issue. In case of a similar disaster involving the Mahan coal plant, the people will be at a complete loss.

Forest-dwellers collect mahua fruit

Villagers collecting Mahua fruit from the Mahan forests. The fruit is used to make local liquor and other foodstuffs. The produce is a huge part of the annual income of the people of Mahan. Per a recent National Green Tribunal order, the Madhya Pradesh government will start felling trees for the coal mine from October 2014. This might be the last Mahua harvest for the villagers, who will lose a major source of their income when these trees will be gone to accommodate the coal mine. For these people, whose livelihood is derived from forestry and farming, the coal mine will put their survival skills to test and leave them in an unfamiliar environment.

An attendee at the MSS public meeting

An attendee at a public meeting organised by Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation set up to defend the rights of those who derive their livelihood from the Mahan forests. Members of MSS and the local people have been successful in exposing grave violations done by Essar in the region like forgery of the Gram Sabhas. The movement to save the Mahan forests has been a peaceful one so far and the pressure tactics of the company have not deterred the spirit of the villagers to in the fight against coal mining. Currently, villagers are awaiting a fresh Gram Sabha per the Forest Rights Act. The date of the new Gram Sabha is yet to be decided.

Author: Pari Trivedi

Photo Courtesy: Greenpeace India

This article was originally published as on June 4, 2014.