Industrial giants are seeking to exploit the Mahan sal forests' rich coal reserves. Forest dwellers and Greenpeace are fighting to save the pristine area, but time is running out, with mining due to be approved in March.
The forests of Mahan in Madhya Pradesh are among Asia's oldest and largest sal forests, populated by Shorea robusta or the shala tree. These forests in India's Singrauli district in the state of Madhya Pradesh cover an area of around 1,200 hectares (4.6 square miles) - or the size of some 1,500 soccer fields. But the district has also been dubbed the energy capital of the country, as 10 percent of the coal burned in India's power plants comes from here.
In April 2006, India's coal ministry approved mining in the forests to meet the coal demand for a 1,200 megawatt power plant proposed by London-based company Essar Power, and a 650 MW plant owned by Hindalco Industries. Together, the two companies make up Mahan Coal Limited. It's a joint venture worth 50,000 million Indian rupees (600 million euros; $800 million) that will mine the area's coal deposits, once it's gotten permission.
The ministry granted the first stage of approval in October 2012. The companies now have to fulfill 36 conditions, such as compensatory reforestation equal to the area of land proposed to be stripped for mining. The project is not supposed to harm wildlife. The companies will need to complete studies on the impacts of coal mining in the area, and on the habitat and migration patterns of wild animals. They also have to comply with requirements of the Forest Rights Act in order to be granted stage II approval - which is needed before they can start mining.
Depending on the forests
According to data from the 2001 census - the most recent census available - more than 14,000 people from 14 villages are dependent on these forests. Their livelihood is now threatened by the companies' coal mining plans.
"Our livelihood depends on these forests. How will we survive without them?" asked Kanti Singh, a 40-year-old from Amelia village. She is among the locals who will be affected by the mine. "We collect mahua and tendu leaf from these forests and sell them to market and get money. This is how we survive in this area," she said. "We don't have jobs, so this is how we poor keep our families alive. If you take away forest from us then our destruction is not far away."
Coal mining continues in other areas of India, such as in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya
In theory, the Forest Rights Act - which came into force in 2006 - grants villagers certain rights, such as ownership and access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce traditionally collected in that area. But residents have said the government has not upheld their rights as laid out by the law. Officials did not respond to DW's queries, despite repeated attempts at contact.
One-third of the forestland in the district has already been diverted for mining. Mining in the Mahan block will lead to felling of more than 500,000 trees - which play an important role in the ecological balance of the area.
"Our problem is that the company is taking away our forests from us for their own use," said Bechan Lal Shah, a member of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS), a local organization trying to fight the mining plans.
"We have very small land holdings - we cannot survive without forests," Bechan Lal Shah said. "We are ready to fight for our rights."
Animals and people endangered
The region is home to endangered species and other rare wild animals, including critically endangered vultures. Jag Narain Shah of the local tribe fears for their harm. "These companies want to destroy everything," he said. "It is going to affect us in a big way - and the future of our children depends on forests. I don't know what we will do without them," Jag Narain Shah added.
This view is echoed by Sunil Bhai, who has been fighting against forceful evictions of tribal peoples in central India for years. He said giving such forests to industry without listening to the protest of the locals shows that the state government doesn't care for its people.
"Our government believes that development depends on private companies, so they are invited and given land, forest and water," he said. "Now we see direct struggles between these industries and common people," Bhai told DW.
MSS members recently went to the province's capital, Bhopal, to demand answers from the state government. They wanted to know why they weren't consulted by the government as stated in the Forest Rights Act.
Priya Pillai, an activist and campaigner with Greenpeace India, has been working for implementation of the Forest Rights Act. She said that after the Indian environment and forest ministry granted stage I approval, the state government issued a certificate of no objection to the company based on a fraudulent resolution from the Gram Sabha, or village council.
Last March, 184 people attended a special Gram Sabha meeting on the Forest Rights Act. But the resolution which supposedly emerged from the meeting had more than 1,000 signatures - the villagers claim these signatures have been forged.
Bechan Lal says that the Gram Sabha's approval is necessary for companies in any tribal area to start a project. "The land is very fertile here and the area is free from pollution - but it is not going to remain the same for long, if government allows mining here," Sal said. "We don't know where we will be rehabilitated. They are going to pay only $4,800 per acre. Mining will destroy everything in this forest area," he said.
Environmentalists fear that if final permission is granted to mine in the forests of Mahan, this would open the door for exploiting other coal blocks in the area, and to further destruction of forests in Central India.
Meanwhile, protests continue in the Singrauli district. The government is expected to grant stage II permission subject to fulfilment of 36 conditions by the end of March 2014. At that point, protesting villagers will have no option but to move out. Company officials declined comment on the issue.