MAC: Mines and Communities

Environment prize goes to Indian activist who battled coal mine plan

Published by MAC on 2014-04-30
Source: Los Angeles Times, AP (2014-04-28)

The prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize has been awarded to, among others, Ramesh Agrawal.

He was shot in July 2012 by two men, linked to the huge Indian steel company, Jindal, against which he had  been campaigning.

The other winners of the prize can be viewed at:- http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipients/current

For previous MAC article see: Filipino priest rewarded for his work on mining

Environment prize goes to Indian activist who battled coal mine plan

The Goldman Environmental Prize for Ramesh Agrawal, who was attacked by gunmen, highlights the risks campaigners face.

By Shashank Bengali

Los Angeles Times

28 April 2014

Reporting from Mumbai, India - Ramesh Agrawal had just finished lunch when two men walked into his cyber cafe and inquired about computer prices. Agrawal said he would ask his sons, who run the business. That's when one of the men shot him.

Two bullets pierced Agrawal's groin and left thigh, shattering his femur. Blood ran down his pant leg. He collapsed but managed to grab a phone to call his wife for help.

The assailants, who sped off on a motorbike, had links to a powerful steel company seeking to build a coal mine in Agrawal's home state of Chhattisgarh, in eastern India, police said. Agrawal had been the mine's foremost opponent, using India's nascent freedom-of-information laws to lead a grass-roots campaign that prompted authorities to cancel the project's environmental clearance.

The July 2012 shooting badly wounded Agrawal, now 58, who still wears a cast on his upper leg and cannot walk without a cane. But for his activist efforts, Agrawal on Monday will receive the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's largest award for grass-roots environmental activists, at a ceremony in San Francisco.

The award for Agrawal - one of six recipients of the annual prize, which comes with $175,000 in cash each - highlights the risks faced by Indian campaigners who have tried to challenge powerful business interests. The company that Agrawal opposed, Jindal Steel & Power, is one of the country's largest energy firms and is led by multibillionaire Naveen Jindal, a two-term member of Parliament from the ruling Congress Party.

Agrawal challenged Jindal's coal project after seeing the harmful effects of rapid industrialization in his state, home to nearly one-fifth of the country's coal reserves. India's surging economy has created a yawning demand for domestic coal, the country's primary fossil fuel. New mines and power plants have overtaken vast tracts of forest and farmland, transforming agrarian Chhattisgarh into one of India's fastest-growing states.

Environmentalists say that the breakneck expansion has worsened air and water quality, pushed poor villagers off their land and produced industrial runoff that threatens small farms. A recent Greenpeace report blamed air pollution from India's coal power plants for 120,000 premature deaths and 20 million new cases of asthma each year.

Activists complain that industrialists are cozy with government officials, who rubber-stamp massive new projects without regard for the environmental and public health costs.

"We are a rich state; we have minerals, natural resources, everything we have here," Agrawal said in a recent interview from his Internet cafe in the industrial boomtown of Raigarh. "This would be the happiest state in the country except for corruption."

Agrawal was an early believer in the power of the Internet; his cyber cafe, opened in 1999, was Raigarh's first. A father of three, he was involved in village literacy programs before starting his own nongovernmental organization, the Jan Chetana people's movement, in 2005.

The same year, India passed a Right to Information Act that aimed to improve the accountability of government agencies. Using the cyber cafe as an office, Agrawal fired off a flurry of information requests on local coal and steel projects and found that many had failed to conduct mandatory environmental impact assessments or may have broken other laws.

In meetings in the surrounding villages, illiterate farmers complained to him that company representatives had tricked them into signing over farmland for cut-rate sums.

"The villagers didn't know how to go about opposing business," Agrawal said. "We united people and showed that if you want to oppose such bigwigs, you have to join together. You can't fight them on your own."

In 2007, Agrawal learned that Jindal Steel, which already operated several private coal mines in the area, was planning to develop a 4-million-ton-per-year mine in Raigarh. By law, the company had to conduct a public hearing on the project, but Agrawal said such meetings usually were a farce - held in private, with some residents plied with cash or a free meal to ensure their support.

Agrawal brought concerned villagers to the meeting, where they clashed with pro-Jindal residents in a chaotic, chair-throwing melee. Police were called in and many of Agrawal's supporters were beaten or arrested. The hearing continued without them and the project eventually won government approval. Agrawal was accused of defamation, landing him in jail for 2 1/2 months.

Undaunted, Agrawal fought the mine project all the way to the National Green Tribunal, a special court established in 2010 to handle environmental cases. In April 2012, the court withdrew the project's environmental clearance, declaring that the public hearing conducted by authorities was a "mockery."

Three months later, the gunmen arrived at Agrawal's cyber cafe. He underwent multiple operations in the state capital and in Mumbai to remove the bullets. Nearly two years later, seven metal rods still hold his thigh in place, confining him to his home and the cyber cafe on most days.

Police arrested a Jindal Steel security guard and three associates in the shooting, and later two Jindal security officers surrendered to local authorities. The case is pending.

A company spokeswoman, Indira Das, denied that Jindal Steel had any involvement in the "alleged incident of shooting."

"All the allegations of Mr. Ramesh Agrawal against JSPL and/or its management are wrong, manipulated and baseless," Das said.

Although the Right to Information Act has increased transparency, it has also made targets of activists, who must file requests under their own names. Scores of petitioners have been attacked and several have been killed.

Despite the risks - and his serious injuries - Agrawal has continued to file information requests on behalf of other impoverished communities and has successfully blocked several other coal and power projects on legal grounds.

"It's not that Raigarh is different from other places," said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer who is representing Agrawal in more than a dozen cases. "The difference is that they have someone who is willing to raise their voice and face the consequences, and that is Ramesh."

The other winners of the 2014 Goldman prize are South African environmentalist Desmond D'Sa, Russian zoologist Suren Gazaryan, Indonesian biologist Rudi Putra, Peruvian indigenous activist Ruth Buendia and New York anti-fracking lawyer Helen Slottje.

shashank.bengali[at]latimes.com


Indian man confronts mining industry, wins prize

Katy Daigle

Associated Press

28 April 2015

GARE VILLAGE, India (AP) - The man walked into Ramesh Agrawal's tiny Internet cafe, pulled out a pistol and hissed, "You talk too much." Then he fired two bullets into Agrawal's left leg and fled on a motorcycle.

The 2012 attack came three months after Agrawal won a court case that blocked a major Indian company, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., from opening a second coal mine near the village of Gare in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh.

For a decade, Agrawal - who has no formal legal training - has been waging a one-man campaign to educate illiterate villagers about their rights in fighting pollution and land-grabbing by powerful mining and electricity companies. He's won three lawsuits against major corporations and has spearheaded seven more pending in courts.

"When I started this fight, I knew I'd be a target. It will happen again. Let it happen. I'm not going anywhere," the soft-spoken yoga enthusiast said in an interview this month in the city of Raigarh, where he hobbled around his modest home with a cane and a metal brace screwed into his shattered femur.

On Monday, Agrawal, 60, will be recognized in a ceremony in San Francisco as one of six recipients of this year's $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the "Green Nobel."

Among the other winners are former corporate lawyer Helen Slottje who fought fracking - pumping chemicals and water underground to break open shale rock formations - in New York state and South Africa's Desmond D'Sa who closed down one of the country's largest toxic dumping sites. The award was established in 1990 with a grant from philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to honor grass-roots environmental activists in the six regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and Latin America.

"This is the biggest milestone in my life," Agrawal said of the award, which he flew to California to receive. "But it also makes me sad, that someone in a foreign country who I don't even know is willing to do so much for us, while so many people here don't even know us or want to help."

Activists, lawyers and analysts in India say that's changing as hundreds if not thousands of small, scrappy movements are challenging building and mining projects that local residents believe will damage the environment, undermine their livelihoods or even uproot them from their homes.

"People are gaining confidence and losing patience," environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said in New Delhi. "These are not established activist groups or nonprofits like Greenpeace campaigning on global issues like climate change. These are regular, everyday people worried about their survival, and their voices of dissent are forcing India to change."

Villagers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh have won national TV coverage for their cause by standing neck-deep in water for days to protest large hydro-power dam projects that would flood their farms and homes. Apple growers in northeast Himachal Pradesh are suing dam builders who they say have tunneling plans that will damage their orchards.

"People used to say, 'You can't fight with the big guys.' But once we started winning a few cases, people started believing in themselves and believing in this country again," Agrawal said.

India's rapid economic growth over the past decade has boosted the incomes and living standards of millions, mostly city-dwellers.

But the environmental impact has often been ignored, and the rural poor largely left behind. The 400 million Indians who live on less than $1.25 a day are dubious about their economic prospects, particularly those who have lost their land or been forced to live with poisoned groundwater, dirty air and fetid rivers.

"Why should these villagers pay for development that is defined by shopping malls and luxury items?" Agrawal asked. "We have to redefine what development means, and decide if it's for the few or the many."

Environmental activists are also increasingly facing violence - at least 908 have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade, including six in India, according to a report this month by the London-based Global Witness group.

After he was shot, Agrawal's attackers turned themselves in, revealing themselves to be Jindal Steel & Power's security guards. But police never linked the attack with the Indian company.

He also has been jailed for 72 days on what he said were false charges of extortion and defamation that were later dismissed.

In the village of Gare, where Agrawal has helped villagers voice their objections to Jindal's plans for more mining operations, the earth shakes violently for a half-hour each morning as workmen blast a gaping coal pit with dynamite, sending clouds of black dust billowing up. The acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air, already hazy yellow from the nearby power plant pollution.

The company has been mining coal in the area for several years, but Gare and the neighboring villages of Sarasmal and Kosampali have seen little economic benefit. No new schools or hospital clinics have been built, and only a few dozen menial labor jobs were offered after protests by residents, who were once self-sufficient growing rice and vegetables, villagers said.

There are, however, new roads on which dozens of uncovered coal trucks rattle through communities every day with coal dust blowing off the back.

"For six years I have been sick," 55-year-old villager Sushila Choudhury said through bloodshot eyes and the wheezing cough of an asthmatic. "Why are they doing this to us? We haven't done anything wrong."

Dr. Harihar Patel, the area's only trained doctor for 10 kilometers (six miles), said he's seen a jump in the number of people with asthma and other lung ailments, skin lesions and exhaustion.

"The system is not working properly. The rich get richer, and the government supports them over us," Patel said. "Twenty years ago we had no idea this could happen to us, to our land and our water."

Agrawal began researching the rights of the poor in confronting corporations in 2005, after becoming alarmed by the sudden influx of industry into his home state of Chhattisgarh. In 2010, he won his first court victory in blocking Indian company Scania Steel & Power Ltd. from expanding a coal-burning power plant without clearance.

He's been helped by some legal tools along the way. In 2005, India passed a law giving citizens the right to review public records. Six years later, India launched a separate environmental court system that gave any citizen the right to demand a hearing on environmental matters.

Two years ago, the court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Agrawal on behalf of Gare residents to revoke Jindal's clearance for a second mine in the area. Jindal has since reapplied for clearance to mine in the village, and Agrawal is preparing another suit to block it.

"We have to look after the environment, or there will be hundreds of thousands of people with nothing, no employment, no money, no farmland, no forests," he said. "They will end up cutting each other's throats just to survive."

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