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Ecowarriors take on a power giant in India

Greenpeace Protest Against Essar

The giant Greenpeace banner displayed across Essar headquarters building in Mumbai. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Ecowarriors take on a power giant in India” was written by Kavitha Rao, for on Monday 10th February 2014 16.02 UTC

On January 22nd, Mumbai residents woke up to an unusual sight: a massive banner obscuring the glittery façade of a 21-storey building in central Mumbai, the headquarters of energy giant Essar. The banner said “We kill forests: Essar.” 14 Greenpeace activists dressed in tiger suits dangled precariously from the top of the building. The activists had inveigled their way in by pretending to be window cleaners. They were protesting against the proposed destruction of Mahan, a forest in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to make way for an Essar coal plant. Also part of their protest: the recent appointment of controversial minister Veerappa Moily as Minister for the Environment.

This kind of high profile activism is rare in India, and there was plenty of media attention. But the excitement was short lived. A few days later,, Essar slapped Greenpeace India with a Rs 500 crore (about £50 million) suit for defamation. But the company didn’t stop there. In an astonishing and brazen display of corporate intimidation, they also sued Mahan Sangarsh Samiti, an organisation formed by poor subsistence villagers from the Mahan forest.

Greenpeace was unrepentant. “These are bullying tactics, plain and simple. Essar is trying to sue us for an amount that is multiple times more than our annual income, which comes from our committed individual supporters. Our protest was simply to draw people’s attention towards Essar’s plans for rampant destruction of the environment, forest, human and wildlife by coal mining, in the biodiversity rich forest of Mahan,” said Samit Aich, Executive Director of Greenpeace India. Aich added that Greenpeace would defend their actions under the provisions of fair comment, which allow for freedom of the press. Meanwhile, Essar hit back by accusing Greenpeace activists of misusing office premises to spread “misleading and false propaganda.”

Greenpeace’s actions need to be seen in the context of recent events. Moily, until recently the oil and gas minister, was suddenly appointed environment minister, a multitasking that makes sense nowhere, but especially not in India, where growth and environment are always at odds. Oily Moily, as he is now called, has set about clearing mining and power projects with a vengeance, prompted by criticism of the current government’s sluggish ways by both foreign and domestic investors. Since December 24th, Moily has cleared nearly a 100 projects at breakneck speed, to the delight of Indian corporates, but the dismay of greens, and often local residents. Last week, he even approved a mining project in India’s best elephant sanctuary.

Greenpeace and other green groups have spoken out against this unseemly haste, and called for Moily’s dismissal. In an open letter, Greenpeace accused Moily of ignoring all stakeholders except corporates. “Has Moily been appointed to line the pockets of a tiny number of wealthy corporate companies like Essar, who are out there to wipe off forests like Mahan, or to safeguard the environment, rights of people and wildlife of the country?” asked Priya Pillai, a campaigner for Greenpeace India, quoted in the Mint newspaper.

Meanwhile, the estimated 14,000 villagers in Mahan, who rely completely on the forest for their livelihood, are trying to prove their claims over the forest by filing a claim for community forest rights. Under India’s forest laws, the community rights of forest dwellers are recognised,but often denied in practice.

Community action has shown results in India before. Early this year, the Indian government rejected a multi-billion dollar bauxite mining project by mining giant Vedanta, after villagers of the state of Odisha protested strongly. Moily often cites this as an example of his willingness to consider environmental risks, and has said all his decisions were well considered.

But greens remain unconvinced. With elections in April, the government clearly wants to look business friendly. Even if it means at the cost of the environment.

Follow Kavitha on Twitter at @kavitharao © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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