Hardly a fortnight after the Madhya Pradesh government scuttled the Jal Satyagraha against submergence by dams, it has again come down hard on activists in Sidhi protesting the diversion of forest land for a cement factory. On the intervening night of September 30 and October 1, 22 protestors in Sidhi district were arrested for attempting to burn effigies of the district administration and Jaypee Cement. They were sent to prison for a fortnight after refusing to sign bonds that they would not protest.

A local NGO Toko-Roko-Thoko Krantikari Morcha (TRTKM) found out through an RTI response that 525 acres in the Kaimor Hills had been allotted to Jaypee Cement for quarrying. The area is close to the Sanjay Gandhi Tiger Reserve and it is in this range that the White Tiger was discovered in 1950.

“We did not know that the forest will be cleared as there was no public hearing or any environment report shown to us. We started meeting local revenue and forest officials from August 16, but they said everything is legal,” a protestor told this paper.

On August 20, women symbolically tied rakhis to trees in the forest. After much protest, the villagers say they were assured by additional collector Anil Khare and Divisional Forest Officer RB Sharma on September 20, that work would be stalled until Jaypee and the government hold an awareness camp in Pipraon village

“On September 26, bulldozers started clearing up the forest to show it is wasteland. It was futile to picket as there were too many police. Three villagers Rajesh Pandey, Harishankar Tiwari and Devendra Tiwari sat on indefinite fast on top of the hill while they rest started sloganeering,” TRTKM secretary Sachin Chouhan told The Hindu.

On September 30, when villagers attempted to burn effigies at the foothill they were arrested and taken to Pipraon police station. Superintendent of Police Navneet Bhasin evaded questions and later stopped taking calls from this paper. Sources confirmed that around 1500 villagers laid siege to the police station all evening. They were pacified by the police who said that the men would be released once the SP and Collector reach.

“At around 11, the lights went out. Already around 500 police had gathered. After sometime they started a lathicharge. Everyone began to flee and in this confusion they took away our friends to the district jail in a van,” said Chouhan.

Collector Swati Meena refused to give any clarification. “It is a law and order matter and I will not talk to you on the phone. You can write what you want,” she told this reporter.

Sources in the administration said that there were orders to prevent the agitation for intensifying. “Collector Madam is strict. She was transferred here in June from the Commercial Taxes department. Development and industry is her priority,” an officer said on condition of anonymity.

The indefinite fast continues, even as the bulldozers clear the hills. No senior official or politician has yet met the protestors.