Pillai’s story made the international news as a case of state intimidation of green activism, but many other local activists in Mahan, where she works, have been targeted. Mahan is one of the last forests of sal trees in the country, and mining there affects more than 14,000 indigenous people. In March 2013, nonprofits, including Greenpeace, and local activists joined hands under the grassroots group Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, or MSS, to oppose mining, primarily by Essar and Hindalco. In Singhrauli district, which is near Mahan, members of the MSS say they are subject to regular raids by the Intelligence Bureau, midnight arrests by local police and constant intimidation. On May 7, 2014, some MSS members, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, tried to stop Essar staff from cutting trees before forest clearances were given. They were arrested at midnight without the required warrants.
“Coal should not be so important that the government wants people to pay with their lives,” says Pillai. “The green activists are fighting for an equitable model.”
The Intelligence Bureau report has often been ridiculed in the Indian media, but its language of anti-nationalism is widely used by politicians today. Previous governments have targeted activists too, as in the case of Abhay Sahoo, an activist in the state of Odisha who has been charged in more than 55 cases for protesting against the Korean steel company Posco. But activists Medha Patkar, Alok Shukla and Pillai all say that today, the intimidation has been stepped up. Once the word “anti-national” is used to describe any dissenter or activist, that person is sure to suffer grave consequences. For instance, Laxmi Chauhan, an environmental activist based in Korba, Chhattisgarh, had a visit from Intelligence Bureau officers who questioned him about his source of funds and his work against illegal mining. Under the Modi government’s recommendations to speed up environmental clearance, anyone who files and loses a “frivolous” case against a project, whether on the basis of environmental or human-rights violations or personal loss, and loses, will have to pay a penalty of 100,000 rupees.
“The government is on a certain course of development, and it simply brushes aside those who ask questions, whether it is a villager or a Delhi activist,” says Patkar.