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The forest’s cry

Destination: Meghalaya.

columns Updated: Apr 03, 2011 01:42 IST
Tithiya Sharma

I have a small family,” he shares, “only two brothers and two sisters!” Prosper Marak lived the simple life in Bhagmara, in the South Garo Hills of Meghalaya. Three years ago, when Prosper was only 23, he rose to a challenge that turned this dynamic leader of the Garo Students Union (GSU) into a eco warrior. GSU is the apex body of Garo Youth.

Despite his young age and no formal training, his knowledge and passion for India’s environment and wildlife has seen him endure many hard-fought conservation battles. Prosper and his young compatriots have taken on the mining mafia that dominates much of the north eastern state of Meghalaya.

The southern edge of the Balpakram National Park is rich in coal and in 2008, yet another illegal coal mine was in the making. Prosper couldn’t stand the sight of bulldozers mowing down large tracts of community owned forest land. In a matter of days, they intended to destroy an eco system that had been thousands of years in the making.

So he organised a group of young activists to petition the state government against the miners. Their attempts were met with apathy and aggression from the authorities. Not surprising since the local government was the primary beneficiary of the coal mafia’s operations. Half way through 2009, their patience and all the by-the-book efforts had been exhausted. Led by Prosper, an army of young green warriors seized a bulldozer used by the miners and handed it over to the police. A long legal battle ensued, and in the meantime, the young men and women cleared the debris of fallen trees and construction rubbish and began to swiftly reforest the area. These dedicated young citizens then took to sharing patrolling duties on the restored land to ensure that the goons hired by the miners did not return.

Like all coal mining operations in Meghalaya, no environmental clearance or permissions had been sought. All coal in our country was nationalised in 1967. With as many as seven laws under which clearance has to be granted by state and central bodies before any mining activity can be initiated, the coal mafia was pillaging the forest unchecked. The blatant violation of the law of the land, and with no impetus to control the illegal coal mines by the state authorities, Prosper was forced to intervene.

“The villagers inspire me. They have supported us...many of them depend on the forest for their livelihood and it has been very sustainable so far. They want to preserve their land and their future should be determined by them and not by corrupt officials or private contractors with deep pockets,” says the young man.

Illegal coal mining and logging is flourishing all over Meghalaya. Along with the trees, the miners are hacking down the connection people have to the land and are stealing the habitat from the dwindling wildlife in the region. Apart from being a rich and varied ecological hotspot, Balpakram National Park is also a sacred place in Garo mythology. The locals call it the ‘land of the eternal death’ and it is believed that the spirits of their ancestors rest there.

The GSU’s act of bravery and solidarity soon began to influence the youth across the state and culminated in an organisation, headed by Prosper, called the Chitmang Hills Anti Mining Forum. As a result of their relentless work, the state of Meghalaya has been forced to put together a mining policy, which is being closely monitored and will have an impact far beyond Balpakram.

When he’s not demanding accountability from local authorities, Prosper is busy training teachers and students. He says that in mid April, he will be conducting a workshop for 17 schools to educate them about their rights and responsibilities towards the environment and the repercussions that may follow if they stand by idly as the bulldozers arrive. It’s a lesson we should all learn from Prosper.