Dhanpat Khairwar squats before a bonfire outside his dilapidated hut, staring into the flames rising from firewood he collected from the Mahan forest.
For more than five decades, Khairwar and other residents of Amiliya have depended on these forest lands in northeastern Madhya Pradesh to graze their cattle as well as collect Mahua flowers and other minor forest produce to supplement their meagre income.
The forest is located just over a kilometre from the 78-year-old forager's home in Amiliya, which will be affected if the government gives the go-ahead to mine coal reserves holding some 96 million tonnes of a natural resource so badly needed to power India's economic growth.
But the curse of resources is tearing asunder an ancient land still undecided whether to welcome the juggernaut of progress or stay with its age-old, pastoral way of life.
"What will I do if they cut these trees? I don't have even any land. This jungle is where my Deeh Thakur (protective deity) lives and moves," said Khairwar, patting a goat that ran to his lap to avoid the chill.
In August last year, the Supreme Court cancelled clearances from the central government for mining in 214 coal blocks, including Mahan, and the state government is now responsible for protecting the forest.
Mahan forest was back in the news recently when immigration officials in Delhi prevented Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai - who has been campaigning about the impact of the proposed mining project in Madhya Pradesh - from boarding a flight to London on January 11. Pillai was scheduled to brief British MPs on alleged rights violations at Mahan.According to a report of the Forest Advisory Committee, the project will require the felling of 512,780 trees in Mahan coal block, which is spread over 9.8 sq km and is part of a 925-sq km reserve forest.
Just a 15-minute drive from Amiliya, the dirt track snakes uphill into the dense forest. Near a turn, HT found some youngsters with loads of dry wood and fallen branches on their bicycles. Twenty-two-year-old Babulal Sah said he and his friends often went into the forest to collect firewood.
Another youngster, Akhilesh Sah, said there is little local residents can do if the government goes ahead with the mining. "They are very powerful. We are helpless before them."
While travelling through the forest, HT saw trees marked with numbers and stones on the forest floor painted red, which local residents claimed represented trees that would be cut and the boundary of the proposed project.
"It takes a lifetime for a tree to grow and centuries for a forest to come alive, but they will cut all these trees and destroy the home of wild animals and birds," said Virendra Singh, a resident of Amelia associated with Mahan Sangarash Samiti (MSS), which has been protesting against the project.
But Byasji Jaiswal, a resident of Budher, a village on the edge of Mahan coal block, was forthright in expressing what others are hesitant to say.
"We are poor and nobody gives a damn about us. I don't think we can save these forests. And I don't care now. We want money and jobs. The reality is that the mining project will come here. And it is good if it brings more benefits to us," he said.
"I sold four acres for Rs 16 lakh to Mahan Coal Ltd (MCL), which promised me a job after they start taking out coal. But after the de-allocation last year, I have not heard from them. Our monthly subsistence allowance of Rs 4500 was stopped in the same month," Jaiswal added.
In Amiliya and Budher, several people have sold more than an acre to MCL and are not opposed to regulated mining that brings them benefits. These villages have also witnessed the formation of a pro-mining group, Mahan Vikas Samiti, which submitted a memorandum to the chief minister for fast-tracking the project.
Some villagers, who did not want to be named, alleged the MCL was behind the Mahan Vikas Samiti.
Read:Coal thieves strike it rich in Mahan
Questions continue to be raised about the special 'Gram Sabha' on the Forest Rights Act held on March 6, 2013 in Amiliya for giving the go-ahead for mining. Greenpeace claims the meet was attended by 182 people but a copy of the resolution adopted by it - which was acquired through the Right To Information Act - shows 1,125 signatures. Greenpeace alleges the signatures were forged.
Elderly Deepchand from Amiliya claimed the consent of villagers was not obtained in a transparent manner. "If the mine is reallocated, this time we want a proper and transparent Gram Sabha, which will make clear what we want," he said.
Some MSS members and Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai even filed a complaint about the resolution at the local police station. The MSS members and Greenpeace told HT no action was taken by police.
Greenpeace has opposed the project on the ground that it would involve the felling of 5 lakh trees and affect the livelihoods of more than 50,000 people. But MCL claimed on its website that only 5,000 people would be affected.
"The Mahan coal block is under a cloud of controversy … Essar or any other entity bidding for the block is likely to face stiff resistance on the ground and in the courts," said Vinuta Gopal, a campaigner with Greenpeace.
MCL's site office at Amiliya was locked when HT visited it. When HT went to MCL's main office at Waidhan, it too appeared deserted. Few officers who were present confided that they were unsure about the future of the project.
When HT contacted Rabin Ghosh, the spokesperson of Mumbai-based Essar Energy that is a co-owner of MCL, he said he would not comment on anything as the coal block had been de-allocated.
"We can only assume from reports in the public domain that the government acted to stop Priya (Pillai) from bringing Essar's violations in Mahan to the attention of British parliamentarians. But Essar is a company registered in the UK," said Gopal.