Battle over Essar-led project reflects India's new mining pains

Mar 20 2014, 13:18 IST
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Villagers gather on the fringes of the Mahan forest during a protest against a coal mining project in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh. (Reuters) Villagers gather on the fringes of the Mahan forest during a protest against a coal mining project in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh. (Reuters)
SummaryIndia's mining sector has been at the centre of a multi-crore corruption scandal.

"Nearly one-third of our domestic production is imported from outside, despite India having the fourth-largest coal reserves in the world."

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 power plant.

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

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