It was in March 2013, that Vinit Gupta first visited Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh. The biodiversity and rich forest ecosystem is still preserved in this forest, but this may not be the case for too long.
Under the lush greenery lies 14 years of coal reserves, and this area has now been allocated to Mahan Coal Ltd for mining. Gupta’s initial intention was to document the ongoing protest of the indigenous people against the acquisition of land for mining. Once there though, he felt the need for a longer engagement and wanted to understand the relationship these communities share with the forests. “The people of Mahan,” discovered Gupta, “live with the cycle of nature and understand that it is bountiful. They only take what is necessary for their sustenance.”
Over the last two years, Gupta learnt about the corruption, exploitation and insidious administration that threaten the livelihood of at least 54 villages around the forest. He understood how these communities are facing social and cultural alienation, and how the promised developmental activities only widens the gap between the tribals and the rest of India. Through the portraits he made of the people in these villages, he attempts to chronicle the changing face of these communities.
The tribals are aware of the inevitable, that is their forest being snatched away from them. Yet, they try to hold their ground while also preparing for the inevitable exodus. Gupta explains this by borrowing a quote from Susan Sontag’s At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, “The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” In fighting a battle so difficult to win, these communities demand acknowledgement for their identity. That this forest is who they are and where they belong.
Vinit Gupta is a documentary photographer based in Delhi. In 2014, he received the Neel Dongre Grants for excellence in photography. His works have been a part of numerous group exhibitions in and around Delhi. His work has been featured in a number of national and international publications such as Invisible Photographer Asia, Sunday Guardian, Better Photography Magazine, F-Stop Magazine amongst others.
Where They Belong is part of the exhibitions line-up of this edition of the Delhi Photo Festival opening on October 30 at the IGNCA, Delhi.