Co-Written by Neema Pathak Broome and Mahesh Raut
The world environment day came and went one more time on the 5th of June, many passionate statements were made about the environment and need for tree plantation drives. Many tree plantation drives were carried out across the country. The officials from Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) “celebrated” world environment day in the Banquet Hall of Ashoka hotel in Delhi. Even as these celebrations and plantations were being carried out, thousands of local communities across the country were risking their lives to resist destruction of trees that already exist in some of the country’s finest forests. For these communities there is little meaning in declaring “world environment day” when as per MoEF&CC’s own admission over 25000 ha of forests are diverted every year by giving clearances for mining and other development projects. This article is about one such struggle to save the rich, dense and old growth forests in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra by the Madia Gonds residing in these forests. Communities like these do not celebrate world environment day, but it is in their struggles that the ecological and cultural wellbeing of our country currently rests.
On 25th of April 2017, just a few weeks before the world environment day, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), set up by the Government of India to advice (MoEF&CC on diversion of forests for development projects, recommended a proposal for a mining lease by Gopani Iron and Power (India) Ltd. This mining lease is for 153 ha of reserved forest in Etapalli taluka in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. In 2007, another mining project here by Lloyd Metals was given clearance over an area of 384.04 ha. In fact, these two leases are just the tip of the ice-burg as 22 other mining projects have been either sanctioned or are proposed in the forests of Gadchiroli. Collectively, these mines will directly impact and destroy approximately 15000 ha of dense forests and indirectly through allied activities these will impact 16000 ha of forests.
Resistance against mining in Bhamragad region of Gadchiroli
The forests in Etapalli where Lloyd Metals has been granted lease and Gopani mine has been recommended are also the traditional territories of many tribal and non-tribal forest dependent communities, primarily the Madia Gonds. The Madia Gonds are well known for their socio-cultural uniqueness. In fact in recognition of this, they have been given the status of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) by the government of India. Particularly Surjagad Hills, where the mining sites exist, are not only crucial for ecological security but also for the cultural, agricultural, food, water and economic survival of the Madia Gonds.
It is for this reason that there have been consistent and strong protests against mining by the local Madia Gonds. These forests are closely linked to the stories of their origin and to Thakurdeo- known to the Madias as God of Gods. Legend speaks of Thakurdeo disguising himself as a wild boar and coming to a Madia village. A hunter spotting his tracks started followed them eventually coming across a majestic wild boar. The hunter wounded the boar with his arrow and began to follow the blood trail, only to find himself trailing human footprints. The footprints led him to the top of this difficult to climb mountain. People believe Thakurdeo made this journey to reveal this sacred mountain to them. To pay their respect and undergo penance for past years actions, 70 villages of Surjagad Ilaka hold an annual yatra. They climb this rugged mountain barefoot, as their hunting ancestor had once done, while making various offerings and poojas along the way. In addition to being sacred these hills are also important to the local people because of their strong historic importance. Baburao Shemake, a local tribal freedom fighter had used these hills as his based during the 1957 resistance against the British.
Lloyd Metals had been attempting to start mining in these hills since 1993. Under strong local resistance they were not successful even as their lease expired. In 2007, their lease was renewed again without taking into account opposition from the local people. Lloyd Metals was finally able to start mining only in January 2016.
FAC decision in violation of legal provisions.
The FAC is mandated to advise the MoEF&CC on whether or not to approve diversion of forests for any development project by assessing the ecological damage it would cause and by ensuring that the project is not culturally and socially disruptive. This they are meant to do primarily by following the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 (FCA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA). For the latter, of particular significance for the FAC, is a circular that was passed by the MoEF&CC on the 3rd August 2009. This circular mandates that prior informed consent of the gram sabhas affected by a project be sought before diversion of their traditional forest land for any development project. Similarly, a letter issued by the MoEF&CC on the 26th of February 2013 requires the state governments to complete the processes related to recognition of forest rights as per FRA before submitting the proposal for diversion of forests to MoEF&CC (proposals for diversion of forests above a certain area are required to be forwarded by the state government to the MoEF&CC on behalf of the project proponent). The above mentioned of FRA, to be considered by the FAC, become even more significant in the light of an Order by the Supreme Court of India. In a Judgment passed on the Orissa Mining Corporation versus Ministry of Environment and Forests and Others (Writ Petition (Civil) No.180 of 2011) dated 18th April 2013, the SC, while stating that the FRA legally intends to protect the traditional customs, usage, forms and practices and ceremonies of the local people, had upheld the rights of the gram sabhas to:
- Determine their religious rights including right of worship
- Determine if any activity is affecting their sacred spaces
- Determine if any activity affects their religious rights
And based on the above the SC has ordered that the gram sabhas must give an uninfluenced, free and prior informed decision on whether or not the project should come up in their forests.
Violation of FRA and people’s decision
The 70 gram sabhas for whom these Hills are sacred and whose water, food and livelihoods are sustained by these forests, have been continuously demanding for cancellation of existing leases and proposed leases. These gram sabhas have used all possible democratic and constitutional means and forms to register their protest. They have submitted their resolutions to the MoEF&CC, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), and the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes (NCST) through the District Collector of Gadchiroli. These resolutions clearly and strongly reject mining in their traditional forests. The same resolutions have also been sent to the Governor of Maharashtra. Gram sabhas have organized public meetings to draw the attention of policy makers and sent statements from these meetings to the relevant political and administrative actors. Their voices did not find any support except in a few sections of media, which tried to raise the issue when hundreds of Madia Gonds converged for a 3-day Yatra, in January 2017, and reaffirmed their resolve to not allow their beloved and sacred mountain to be desecrated. All these forms of protests and letters have been completely ignored while recommending the Gopani mining lease.
The Minutes of the meeting in which the FAC recommended Gopani mining lease mention that the rights under FRA were settled in 2012, while also mentioning that the proposal does not comply with FRA. This would imply that the proposal reviewed by the FAC did not include evidence of having completed processes of recognition of rights under the FRA and that prior informed consent of the concerned gram sabhas has not been obtained. The FAC has not made any attempt to find out why the required evidence of completion of FRA process and consent of the gram sabhas has not been attached with the proposal. This should have been reason enough to withhold recommending the project as it violates both the MoEF&CC circulars and the SC Order. On the contrary, the FAC recommends the project, saying that documents related to compliance with FRA will be submitted later! This makes compliance with FRA sound like a mere paper-work requirement rather than a fundamental question of democratic rights of the people. It would be significant to mention here that the process of implementation of FRA is far from complete in Gadchiroli. In Etapalli itself more than 40 gram sabhas have filed their claims in 2014 for the right to govern and manage their traditional forest as Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights under the FRA. While these are still pending with the district administration many others are in the process of being filed. The Madia Gonds are also in the process of asserting their rights as a PVTG under the FRA by claiming their traditional territory as a “Habitat” important for their social and cultural survival. Surprisingly, not only all these facts have been ignored while recommending the mines, but the FAC minutes also mention that “no socio-cultural/religious place or sacred groves have been reported from the area proposed to be diverted”!
Disturbing Ecological Regime – violating the FCA
It is important to take note of the statement of the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Central) (PCCF), who has noted in his report (as quoted in the FAC minutes) “The proposed area for diversion is comprised of moderately dense and very dense forests with forest density ranging from 0.5 to 0.8… Given the facts such as area is dominated by pristine forests having fairly high density, opening up of the area (sic) disturb the local ecological regimes, the proposed area does not deserve recommendation for diversion.” This should have been second reason for rejecting the mining proposal. On the contrary the Add. PCCF himself then goes on to say “However, as the extant mining lease is contiguous to other mining leases for which stage II approval has already been accorded by the Central Government, the MoEF&CC may take an appropriate decision on the proposal.” The “other mining leases” mentioned here are the leases to Lloyd Metal. Those who have visited the forests where Lloyd Metal has started mining have described the mining sites as “deep red wounds” in the midst of forests with above 80% density. It is shocking and ironic how such an act of violence over nature and local people, in complete violation of FCA and FRA, could be used to justify more such violence! It is like saying, since one crime has already been committed it justifies committing all subsequent crimes, instead of bringing the earlier crime to justice.
FAC Decision based on presumptions and prejudices
Making laborers out of a self-reliant and proud peoples
One of the justifications used for recommending the mine is that the project will create over 10,000 jobs for the local people. This seems to suggest that the people living here are in abject poverty and are looking for menial jobs in polluted mines at the risk of their lives as a last resort. On the contrary, people here, though politically weak, are culturally and spiritually strong and well endowed with natural resources. They have average to large land holdings, rich alluvial soil and perennial sources of water (which now stand threatened because of mining). When the farmers in the entire country were reeling under the drought of 2015-16, farmers in Gadchiroli had produced enough food to see themselves through the year. Their forests were still green and streams still clear and running. This is the “ecological regime” which sustains the population in the district, and is perhaps what the PCCF was referring to when he said mining will lead to its disturbance.
Since the implementation of the Rules under the Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas in 2014 and FRA in 2006, more and more gram sabhas in this region like in rest of Gadchiroli have asserted their rights over the non-timber forest produce, mainly bamboo and tendu patta. The collective income of gram sabhas through the sale of these two products (which was controlled by the forest department till then) in Gadchiroli has been reported to run in crores, creating immense economic security for the local people. In Surjagad area alone, the total turnover of bamboo and tendu trade is over 100 crores annually. This direct income already heavily out weights the incomes that the mining company has been verbally promising to the people on the ground.
The economic and livelihoods insurance, food and water security, social and cultural vibrancy, spiritual strength and individual and collective dignity that these communities receive from standing forests can never compare with daily wage labour in risky mines.
The “Maoist” tag and associated atrocities on people
Bhamragad Block, where Etapalli is located, is also known for the presence of Maoist Movement, another fact which seems to have been used as a partial justification for recommending the area for mining clearance. A few weeks before the annual Surjagad yatra of 2017, Maoists had burnt down about 80 trucks at Lloyd Metals site. This led to further obscurity of the struggle of the local people. Immediately, their opposition got tagged as “Maoist supported extremism”, “anti-national”, and “anti-development”. This gave further power to those already powerful and also justification to push for mining “in this Maoist infested” area. In no time, one additional battalion of CRPF was posted here to reinforce existing battalions. In fact, as per media reports, in September 2016, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra had already requested the Central Home Ministry to sanction additional battalions of CRPF to start mining in Gadchiroli. Ever since the mining started in 2016 more and more police cases have been filed against innumerable people from these gram sabhas. These cases have been filed under violations of the Indian Penal Code sections ranging from 144 (unlawful assembly), 37 (1)(3), 302, 102 (B) to sections under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) to pressurize those who are opposing mining. This is in addition to various other forms of harassment including, regular house to house searches, people being randomly called to the police station, people being forcefully taken to the police state without any explanation, among others.
Instead of attempting to understand people’s voices and concerns, after the Maoist attack, the state government infact announced a stronger resolve to re-start mining in the area. Gadchiroli, therefore, becomes one more example of suppression of democratic voices of people living in resource-rich areas. One more example of using Maoist presence as a reason to further the policies of extractivism-based development at the cost of ecological and cultural well-being. It will not be surprising if many other pending leases are also granted permission using this rationale in the months to come.
The Struggle Continues
People in Surjagad, Etapalli and Bhamragad, as in other parts of Gadchiroli, continue with their democratic struggles on the ground, in whatever restricted space available to them. Latest in this has been an attempt to gain a political voice by engaging in electoral process since their elected representatives have failed them in their struggle and joined the corporate-politician nexus. The local gram sabhas therefore decided to participate in Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad elections in early 2017. The gram sabhas fielded candidates as independents against all political parties (surely not something that the Maoist Party which does not recognize the government in its current form terming it “bourgeois parliament” would do). The gram sabha representatives stood for elections under an oath to follow certain ethical principles including; an oath to represent only the gram sabhas’ interests and not that of any political party or outfit; to respect people’s mandate against mining in their forests, to secure rights of local people over their forests and natural resources; to protect the environment and the ecosystem; to facilitate village based conservation and development planning; to work against all forms of communal and divisive politics; among others. The gram sabha candidates won elections despite not being able to canvas and promote themselves due to heavy harassment by the police. Three of the gram sabha candidates, along with the other villagers who were opposing mining, were in jail for almost 15 days just before the elections under various charges. One of them, in fact filed his nomination from the jail. As on today, the gram sabha candidates occupy two Zilla Parishad seats and four Panchayat Samiti seats. In fact in Bhamragad block the gram sabha candidates are in majority as they occupy three of the four seats. In Surjagad area where the opposition against the mines is the strongest the gram sabha candidates occupy both the Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad seats. Given the circumstances there can be no greater democratic expression of sentiments against the mining as these electoral victories.
The gram sabhas have once again given fresh resolutions, supported by their elected representatives, directly to the FAC members. One hopes that the mining companies, the state government, the FAC and MoEF&CC listen to their voices and cancel existing and proposed mines in Gadchiroli. This would be the real celebration of Environment for many years to come and not just on one day in a year!
Neema Pathak Broome is a member of Kalpavriksh and resides in Pune
Mahesh Raut is an independent researcher and activist based in Gadchiroli.
 Limited media reports came in local marathi news paper, special cover story was done by weekly ‘Chitralekha’ 22.01.17, and news articles by scroll in, the wire, the hindu etc. (availabale on internet)