Ramesh Agrawal educates community residents. Photo by: Goldman Environmental Prize.
This week, the Goldman Environmental Prize was awarded to six grassroots environmentalists from around the world in honor of their achievements. Of these, Ramesh Agrawal was chosen as this year’s winner for the Prize’s Asian region. For many years, he has worked to spread awareness of the environmental repercussions of India’s coal industry to local residents, empowering them with information and speaking out on their behalf. In 2012, his tireless efforts shut down development of a major coal mine, which would have been the largest in the state of Chhattisgarh (see interview below).
India is a country of rapid growth in terms of both population and economy, requiring ever-increasing amounts of energy. Coal is its most abundant fossil fuel, with an estimated total of 293,497 million metric tons of reserve remaining throughout the subcontinent. Beginning in 1774, coal mining has sought to supply the energy needs of the country. In the late 1970s, annual production reached 100 million metric tons, and has surged ever since. Today, nearly 700 million tons of coal is mined in India every year, making it the third-largest coal producer in the world.
However, there are downsides to what India deems “progress.” Mounting public health concerns, displacement of human communities, and environmental degradation are commonplace in areas surrounding coal mines. Air is filled with haze, and air pollution-related diseases are on the rise. A study published in 2013 estimated that, every year, 397,000 people in India die from conditions directly attributable to air pollution. Coal mining also pollutes waterways, and causes deforestation of the country’s already-reduced wild areas.
Ramesh Agrawal. Photo by: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Not all of India’s coal pollution stays in India. Once mined, the coal is transported to power plants where it is combusted to produce electricity. The emissions from this process contain, among other things, high levels of mercury, which are transported around the world by atmospheric circulation patterns. This mercury eventually precipitates out of the air as rain or snow, much of which ends up in the ocean and accumulates up the food chain, resulting in high mercury levels in many predatory fish and whale populations around the world – and in the people who eat them.
India’s government is known to operate hand-in-hand with the coal industry, allowing it to bypass thorough environmental impact analyses in order to get coal mines and power plants up and running as quickly as possible. Residents of communities in areas affected by coal development are often denied access to information about proposed energy projects, their land appropriated without fair compensation, and their water and air contaminated with toxic mining byproducts.
India’s Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2002 guarantees access to governmental information, allowing individuals to make informed decisions and report legislative misconduct. However, many people in India are illiterate, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to access critical information. Agrawal, a former social worker, realized that more people needed better access to information, as well as someone to speak for them and their interests. In response to this need, he founded Jan Chethana, a grassroots movement headquartered in a small internet café in his hometown of Raigarh, in the state of Chhattisgarh.
Jan Chethana acted as a watchdog for Chhattisgarh’s rural communities. Agrawal took it upon himself to educate their residents about environmental violations and file RTI applications on their behalf. He encouraged residents to voice their opposition to threatening industry development and helped them file petitions against it.
Jan Chethana’s greatest triumph came in April, 2012, when Agrawal and area residents succeeded in halting development of a new coal mine. Proposed by Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL), the new mine was slated to be the biggest mine in the state and produce more than four million tons of coal annually. Starting in 2008, Agrawal organized residents to demonstrate their opposition to mine. Eventually, the permits allowing JSPL to break ground were revoked by government agencies, citing the many violations Agrawal had reported.
A few months later, Agrawal was shot by gunmen allegedly hired by JSPL to kill him. He survived, but with a shattered femur. Still, he remains undaunted, and plans to continue his work as the voice for those who are underrepresented by the government and overexploited by industry.
INTERVIEW WITH RAMESH AGRAWAL
Mongabay: How has the coal industry changed in India during your lifetime?
Ramesh Agrawal: The coal industry has gotten more powerful in recent years, and they now enjoy more support from the Indian government than they used to.
Mongabay: What sorts of impacts were coal plants in Chhattisgarh having on its communities and environment?
Ramesh Agrawal: The coal mining has affected the livelihoods of local people. Their land was taken for coal mining. This is land they needed to live on and farm off of. The local people that used to get water from the rivers, their water is now polluted by toxic waste from the coal mines. The mines have also contributed to a water shortage—the wells have dried up, and the hand pumps villagers used to get water no longer work. The forest used to be an important source for herbs, spices and other goods that local villagers would harvest and sell at the market. That source of income is now gone. They have become homeless, and they have no jobs. They have not been compensated properly, despite earlier promises.
[The coal companies] were afraid that I was damaging their reputation, that lead to image loss world wide, thus affecting share price value and direct financial loss. This motivated them to eliminate me, whom they viewed as the cause of their problems because their projects were denied, delayed or cancelled by the government for abusing the environmental laws, [which I] brought to the government’s attention.
Mongabay: How did increasing awareness in these communities affect the attitudes of villagers and actions towards the coal plants?
Ramesh Agrawal. Photo by: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Ramesh Agrawal: Villagers, many of whom are illiterate, are now aware that they have rights and they have a voice. Now they have learned the process to access the information through the Right to Information Act. As a result, they now know where to go and whom to approach to voice their rights. The government has special laws in place with regard to rights of tribal people, of which they were unaware. Now they realize that without their consent, these mines cannot be opened.
Mongabay: Are there any restrictions to coal industry development in India? Are any planned for the future?
Ramesh Agrawal: They had restrictions in place earlier by the government in thickly forested areas, because of ecological reasons. But now those areas are available for mining. The pressure for industrialization has increased; it has pressured laws to be lax in giving permission to develop in those areas. Coal mining companies have a big hold on the government and they are a big part of government. They hold positions in government. The pressures from the industrialists have caused this change. There are no plans to impose new restrictions or bring back old ones.
Mongabay: What can be done to expand your work to other communities in India?
Ramesh Agrawal: What’s holding me and Jan Chethana back is limited resources with regards to traveling and commuting to those places and educating the population. We also need to develop educational tools like brochures and pamphlets to inform people in other communities.
Local residents walk in front of a coal plant. Photo by: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Mongabay: Could you describe the time when you were attacked and shot by coal industry supporters? Did it deter you from your work? What happened to those responsible? Were they apprehended and charged? Are you worried about attacks in the future?
Ramesh Agrawal: I was working at my office in the afternoon. It was July 7, 2012. Two unknown people came to my office, which is also my business place, the Internet Café. They shot me, took two or three shots. One of the bullets went through my thigh and came out the other side, leaving the leg bone shattered. The police arrested the shooters and are prosecuting them, but they are not the real criminals here. They were hired gunmen who had no motive to shoot me other than the money they received for the kill. The real conspirators at the top of the command chain are still out free, and police never approached or interrogated them. I wish there [would be a] high-level inquiry into this matter so the real culprits could be brought to justice.
I faced a lot persecution even before this attack. One year before the shooting, I spent 72 days in jail on false defamation charges.
From the very beginning, I knew this work was going to be very dangerous. The industrialists have a process of dealing with activists. They first try to bribe you with money or jobs, then they harass you with false charges and make you run through court proceedings, then they try to eliminate you. I remain undeterred and am resolute in my campaign.
Mongabay: What do you think India should be doing to more effectively balance economic development, human rights, and environmental protection?
Ramesh Agrawal: The government needs to look at other sectors besides coal-based energy development for economic opportunities. They need to think about agriculture and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. But whatever development they pursue, they need to pursue them in compliance with the law. It must enforce the Right to Information Act and make sure residents are properly informed and have a say about what’s going on in their communities. The government acts swiftly when terrorists attack. It puts all kinds of resources to find the perpetrators. Why can’t we [use that] kind of energy to solve these issues?
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