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Halt violation of human rights in forests: NGOs

Posted on Oct 15, 09:07PM | IBNS

Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Kalpavriksh and Greenpeace on Monday released a new report exposing a catalogue of environmental damage and human rights violations against tribal and other forest dwellers in the forests of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, that are under threat from the Indian government's massive coal expansion programme.

The report, released at the ongoing United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in Hyderabad, called for a moratorium on coal mining, highlighting the violations of constitutional rights of forest communities.

Authors of the 27-page report, Countering Coal, spoke to over 500 forest dwellers that are among the thousands who face forced eviction from their traditional lands to make way for the existing and proposed coal mines in the Singrauli region.

The report that took over sixteen months to compile is the first to speak with such a large section of the communities affected by coal mining. The picture painted from the personal testimonies tells a harrowing story of the systematic failure of the Indian Government to protect the constitutional rights of these communities.

Among those interviewed for the report was Amravati, a single mother with six children, who has lived in Moher forest in the Singrauli area with her family for generations.

She said: "Before the work for the mine began, I used to go into the forest and collect forest produce, but now they have made boundaries all around the forest and they do not allow any villager to enter into the forest. They say that the forest now belongs to the company so you cannot go in there."

The scale of the destruction of the forests is unprecedented, with an estimated 1.1 million hectares under threat in the central Indian region from just 13 coal fields, the report said.

According to it, if the Indian government implements its expansion programme then over 14,000 tribal people will lose their traditional homes and way of life in just one coal block of Mahan alone.

There is legislation to protect these communities - the Forest Rights Act is supposed to safeguard the rights of tribal communities, forests dwellers and the environment they live in.

The report lays out the possibilities of the Act's provisions on Community Forest Rights providing legal backing to resisting displacement and dispossession. But the government is riding roughshod over the laws to protect these communities.

Ashish Kothari, founder-member of Kalpavriksh, a research and campaign organisation which have been working for over three decades on the issue of environmental and livelihood rights, said: "In its blind pursuit of economic growth, the government is undermining the ecological and livelihood security of hundreds of millions of people; the Mahan coal mining process is part of this injustice. The Forest Rights Act could provide some safeguards against this, but has not been implemented."

At the launch of Countering Coal, Amnesty International, a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights, joined a growing chorus of organisations calling for the government to respect the law and protect the human rights of the communities living in the forests.

Commenting at the launch of the report Executive Director of Amnesty International India, G. Ananthapadmanabhan said: "The Countering Coal report provides evidence to show that the Indian government and several state governments have violated the Forest Rights law and shown a lack of respect for the rights of local communities. We have heard directly from the community how coal mining projects can exclude them from participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives.

"The Indian government has a duty to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. It must obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Adivasi communities before taking any decision that can affect their lives and livelihoods. Businesses too have responsibilities to strive to avoid infringing people's rights, which apparently isn't the case here."

Greenpeace India has been at the forefront of challenging India's mad dash for coal power at the cost of its forest people and wildlife.

Greenpeace India Executive Director, Samit Aich, said: "Today the Indian Government has two faces. The first face is a compassionate and caring one. It is a face that says it supports protecting the biodiversity of the planet. It is the face they are presenting to the international delegates at the COP in Hyderabad."

"For the second face, you just have to travel a few hundred miles from Hyderabad to the forests of Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh the coal capital of India, to see the realities of their policies. It is the mass destruction of the forests, the forced removal of tribal people that is the true face of this government.

This report is clear and unequivocal in its findings - the Indian government is presiding over one of the largest acts of human rights abuses in our history. That is shameful stain on the integrity of the hosts of the 2012 UN conference on biodiversity," Aich said.