The Ministry of Environment and Forests on Wednesday granted stage II clearance to the controversial Mahan coal block, a joint venture by Essar Energy and Hindalco that will cover 967 acres of dense forest land in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli district.

The Mahan project – one of many proposed coal mines currently being scrutinised by the Supreme Court in the mine allocation scam – has been facing opposition from villagers, tribals and environment activists since it was allocated to Essar-Hindalco in 2006.

Their most high-profile protest was staged on January 22 as activists from non-profit Greenpeace India unfurled a large banner on the glass facade of the Essar headquarters in Mumbai's Mahalaxmi neighbourhood, saying “We kill forests: Essar”.

It is believed that volunteers entered the Essar premises by creating a fake window-cleaning company that offered the conglomerate a free demonstration. Essar accused Greenpeace of trespassing and making false and defamatory statements.

Even as the case is sub-judice in the Bombay High Court, the stage-II clearance has brought Essar one step closer to coal-digging in Mahan. All it needs now is a mining lease agreement with the MP government. Environmental activists are not pleased.

“Despite clear evidence of violations of the Forest Rights Act and other mandatory conditions, [environment minister Veerappa] Moily has pushed through stage II clearance for the Mahan coal block,” said Priya Pillai, a senior Greenpeace campaigner, in an official media statement. “This project involves the loss of over 500,000 trees and will impact thousands of people in 54 villages. Does the government really care about forest dwellers or the environment?”

Essar Energy confirmed the news of the clearance in a press release but declined further comment when contacted.

For activists like 25-year-old Dhirendra Mulkalwar – one of the 14 “window cleaners” who climbed down Essar’s building facade with the protest banner – the news was disturbing, even though he was expecting it.

Mulkalwar hails from Vidarbha’s Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, in an area surrounded by coal mines and power plants.  “I have grown up seeing the ill-effects of having coal mines in my hometown, and don’t want the same thing to happen to the people of Mahan,” he said.

A music composer by profession, Mulkalwar is a member of an NGO called Eco-pro that in 2008 opposed a coal block allotted to the Adani Group in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district. He has also participated in Eco-pro’s wildlife rescue operations in Chandrapur, which involved a bit of rock-climbing. That was Mulkalwar’s only climbing experience when he signed up for Greenpeace’s stunt protest at the Essar building last month.

“When I first visited Mahan in 2012, it was a very emotional experience for me,” said Mulkalwar. “Mahan is already overburdened with coal mines, and the forest that Essar and Hindalco want to mine is the only dense forest patch left in the region.”

Mulkalwar goes on to list the problems he has seen, first hand, in the heavily-mined district of Chandrapur. For one, locals barely benefit from the coal mining and thermal power plants. “Chandrapur produces around 8,000 megawatts of electricity, but all that power was given to Mumbai,” he said. “Meanwhile, I grew up with 16 hours of load shedding every day, even though I could see the power plants from my window.”

In addition, power plants, says Mulkalwar, need plenty of water, and the companies respond by building dams on local rivers. “The farmers were barely left with any water. And then people wonder why there are so many farmer suicides in Vidarbha.”

Finally, when villagers are displaced by projects, they are supposed to be rehabilitated in similar environments. But that rarely happens, says Mulkalwar, who has worked with Eco-pro to oversee the rehabilitation of villagers in Chandrapur. “Even if the compensation is good, there is no employment guarantee, and people find it difficult to sustain themselves economically when they no longer have the forest to depend on for many essential goods,” he said.

After performing the window cleaning stunt, Mulkalwar and more than 60 other protestors were detained by the police for 24 hours, before being released on bail. “We were prepared to face arrest from the beginning,” he said. “But I wasn’t really scared, because I know we were doing the right thing. The stage-II clearance may have come through, but we don’t intend to give up.”