Several developmental projects are threatening to take away forests of Madhya Pradesh, endangering lives and livelihoods of communities dependent on them.
(Photo: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)
Rajesh Yadav, a 35-year-old environmental activist from Madhya Pradesh has been a witness to the sharp rise in youth-led climate movements in India.
“Zyada se zyada degree le lenge, naukri to waise bhi nahi mil rahi. (The government can take away their degrees, anyway they’re not getting jobs). They have nothing to lose and they aren’t afraid to raise their voices,” Rajesh believes as he explains this trend.
These youngsters are set to preserve something that is indispensable and beautiful - with 10 national parks, 25 wildlife sanctuaries and some large rivers draining into the state, Madhya Pradesh has the largest registered forest area in the country.
The threat to this forest cover are the series of development projects that are springing up across the state. And the citizen-led movements that are resisting them.
On 5 June this year, #SaveBuxwahaForest was among the top five trending topics on Twitter.
Why, you ask? What was once a battle of few villages of the Chhatarpur district became the talk of the nation overnight. The Twitter rage and the ongoing protest were against the Bunder diamond mine project.
This disastrous proposal was followed by Essel Mining & Industries Limited (EMIL), an Aditya Birla Group Company in 2019, winning the bid for Bunder diamond block which is estimated to have 34 million carats of rough diamond.
That’s not it - to supposedly alleviate the water woes of Bundelkhand, the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti on 22 March, signed an MoU with the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to implement the Ken-Betwa River Linking Project (KBLP). The argument is to fill up water in Betwa river by linking it with Ken which the government claims has surplus water.
"This is not development but destruction", says Hanumant Pratap Singh, ex-state wildlife board member when asked if it’s worth spending Rs 35,000 crore and cutting 23 lakh trees for this project. “It’s a disaster for the people living here, there’s no surplus water in the Ken basin. The detailed project report (DPR) of the KBLP on which the project is based was published back in 2010 and contains hydrological data of 2003-04. They didn’t even bother to conduct a new study,” he adds.
The Ken river in June.
The Ken river in June.
Almost 220 km from the Panna district, another tension is brewing. The decision to divert Dumna forest’s land for multiple projects has been met by strong opposition by the locals in Jabalpur.
Conservationists warn that such developments could have devastating ecological consequences on this urban forest which is home to leopards, barking deer, golden jackal, jungle cat, asiatic wildcat, wild boar and at least 300 species of birds.
Leopard spotted in the Dumna Forest.
The green cover in Buxwaha.
Madhya Pradesh is a mineral and forest rich state with the highest registered forest area in the country but the state also has a sizable tribal and rural population which is dependent on these forests for their livelihood and basic needs.
The Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy group (CFR-LA) in a identified Madhya Pradesh as a “laggard” state in its implementation of Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights, which allow communities “to use, manage and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of villages.”
According to the (IBM), Madhya Pradesh alone accounts for about 90.18 percent of India’s total diamond reserves. However, the situation for the inhabitants of the forests isn’t gleamy at all. Poverty, landlessness, unemployment and migration has plagued the adivasi community for years and every new mining project marks a deeper dent on their history, traditions and culture.
Ironically, the submitted by Chhattarpur's Chief Forest Conservator (CFC) on 2 January 2021 claimed that the tribals of the area were "not dependent" on the proposed forest and that "no right of tribals has been recognized in the area".
“We aren’t educated. It’s not like they are going to provide us with desk jobs. We all know how day labourers in these mines work for 12-16 hours under inhuman conditions,” says Chotu Barela, a local adivasi, when asked why the community is not in favour of diamond mining when the company claims to provide them with (directly and indirectly).
Explaining how almost 13 schools in the block have shut down in recent years, he adds, “People here aren’t aware and educated. What we need is schools, basic healthcare facilities, roads and electricity. Don’t we deserve that without a company setting up its plants here? Water is scarce and with the mining project coming up, all of it will be diverted to their needs. How are we supposed to irrigate our lands?”
Sadly, for the policy makers, the narrative around conserving forests has always been about planting trees. This explains why indigenous communities and their co-existence with the forests are considered least by the planners.
Cave art in Kasera and Bhimgarh.
Cave art Kasera and Bhimgarh.
In another campaign, Ankit Sharma, an advocate who has been raising his voice against the Ken-Betwa river linking project explains how the central government decided to go ahead with the plan despite the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court challenging the proposition.
“The forest land which falls under the core tiger habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve involved in submergence is an unique ecosystem of morphological significance with unique and rich biodiversity. An ecosystem like this cannot be recreated. In an ideal situation, it would be best to avoid such projects in such areas and specifically when it runs the risk of providing justification or unhealthy precedence for more such developmental projects that will not be in the interest of wildlife,” the filed in 2019 states.
Protest against the Ken-Betwa river linking project.
The pain and the trauma that displaced people go through is mostly covered with the band-aid of monetary compensation but a deeper understanding suggests that the amount given is transient and doesn’t make up for the lost permanent source of income; their land.
“We had 12 bigha of land and almost 50 percent has been taken by the government for dam construction. What is left is the unfertile part of the land which is not good for agriculture. I have four kids to feed and the compensation amount of 3 lakh got exhausted in one year. If given an option, I would have never agreed to let go of my land,” says Bharat Kondar, an Adivasi who lost his land to the construction of Runj Dam in the Panna district.
Construction of dam under Runj Medium Project in Panna.
With more projects coming up, the wildlife is being pushed into limited spaces and indigenous communities who share the forests with animals are bearing the brunt of it. Industries, highways, dams could further fragment the habitats and make their long-range movement more challenging.
“The construction of a 222 km long and 30m wide canal in the core and buffer area of Panna Tiger Reserve will divide it into two parts. This will have serious implications on the movement of tigers. How do you expect an animal to cross the cemented canal?” asks Mr. Singh. He argues that as we continue to push wildlife out of their natural habitats, human-animal conflicts will become inevitable.
With the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, rights of citizens being curtailed and on ground movement becoming limited, many social movements have had to rethink their old strategies and turning to online activism was just the right thing to do.
“I first read about Buxwaha through a report published in Dainik Bhaskar. But when the message resurfaced on our WhatsApp groups, we realised it needed immediate discussion. We conducted a zoom meeting and called our environment action groups to join in. Youngsters suggested conducting Twitter storms and it is only when the issue started trending and media reached out to me, I realised the wonders that social media could do for the environment movements,” says Dr Dharmendra Kumar, who hails from Bihar but has been actively campaigning on ground in the Chhatarpur district to save the Buxwaha forest.
“Through digital platforms, anyone who cares for the climate can join in the movement and extend support. And with cleaner skies witnessed during the pandemic, people envisaged the kind of post-pandemic world they want to live in. People realise one common cause; climate change,” says Avinash Chanchal, a campaigner with Greenpeace.
“The protest and the issue is not new. Adivasis here have been protesting for years, but with social media, support for them is pouring in from across the country. Buxwaha has supporters from Punjab, Kerala, UP, Gujrat, Delhi and many other states,” Abhishek Khare, a local of the Panna district says.
“In the future also, we are determined to stand against any project which is a threat to our ecosystems. No matter what or where. When it comes to the environment, all of us come together despite differences in our political leanings and opinions,” he adds.
With smartphones in hand, people realize they could have a voice and be heard if they stand together. Their actions whether it’s sharing a post, or retweeting a thread or sending an email could add to the voice of the movement. An online by Jhatkaa.org for the Buxwaha forest has garnered more than 88,000 signatures. A youth-led group, says, “we are amplifying the voice of the people fighting to save Dumna. We have been hosting its official site, helping with tweet decks, content and AR (augmented reality) filters for more than a year.”
With more campaigns sprouting everyday reporting the flaws of these projects and their blindness to the ecological impacts, the ones supporting are labelled as anti-developmentalists and anarchists. “Environment vs development debate is created by corporations. You have to define development. Is having access to clean air and water not development? Not putting people at serious health risks, not development?” asks Yash Marwah, founder of environment collective,
These 20-something young people who create an Instagram account of a new forest movement, make the Ministry server crash by bombarding them with emails, conduct awareness drives, hold climate strikes, and want to put a stop to the widespread decimation of ecosystems and cultures. They aren’t afraid to stand with affected communities and speak truth to power.
Instead of cracking down on protestors and environmental campaigns, governments must take into account the long-term sustainable interests of the affected indigenous communities, and the wildlife. The social cost of these projects needs to be factored in and consultation between state and indigenous people at every level should be accounted for.
We need a booming economy and better infrastructure but it’s high time we stop putting marginalised communities at stake for it. This could be best summarised by words of P. Sainath in his famous book, Everyone Loves a Good Drought:
“Who constitutes the nation? Only the elite? Or do the hundred of millions of poor in India also make up the nation? Are their interests never identified with national interests? Or is there more than one nation?”
“That is a question you often run up against in some of India’s poorest areas. Areas where extremely poor people go into destitution making way for firing ranges, coal mines, power projects, dams, sanctuaries and even poultry farms. If the cost they bear is ‘the price of development’, then the rest of the ‘nation’ is having one endless free lunch.”
(Rashmi is a Delhi based campaigner working in the areas of air pollution, climate change and gender justice at . She’s interested in writing about risks possessed by the climate crisis in rural India. You can reach out to her on Twitter (@donotrushmee) and Instagram (@_rushmenot). This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)