2014 Goldman Prize winner Ramesh Agrawal answers our questions about how he organized villagers to demand their right to information about industrial development projects and succeeded in shutting down one of the largest proposed coal mines in Chhattisgarh.
How has the coal industry impacted the environment of Chhattisgarh and the lives of its people?
Chhattisgarh was once known as the Bowl of Rice. The livelihood of the people depends upon forestry and paddy farming and most people earn their living as farmers or fishers. With the emergence of the coal and power industries, agriculture land is diminishing, and thousands of farmers have lost their land. The mines are destroying the land and natural resources. The water from our rivers has been drawn through dams and pipelines, and whatever remains contains coal dust and hazardous chemicals. Air pollution is so thick it’s visible to the naked eye. As a result, diseases such as asthma, skin disease, heart disease and stomach disorders run rampant, and premature death is common.
What is the relationship between the Indian government and the coal industry like?
Coal is India’s most abundant fossil fuel, and given the energy needs of the country, the government is dependent on the coal sector for power generation, resulting in massive financial and political corruption and unethical business practices. Pro-industry policies and incentives are implemented to get power plants constructed quickly, and environmental laws are manipulated to facilitate speedy clearances for energy projects. Environmental protection is very low on the Indian government’s list of priorities, and is for the most part considered a hindrance to growth.
How do you use the Right to Information Act to spread awareness amongst communities affected by harmful energy projects?
The Right to Information Act has been a critical tool for grassroots activists, such as myself, to demand that the laws of the land are upheld and the rights of the people are protected. It has been my constant endeavor to seek out and reveal the facts about harmful energy projects to affected communities who cannot access this information themselves. This process requires consistent follow up with authorities who often try to block the granting of information. I work to distill and analyze the information so that it’s both locally relevant and nationally significant. Once people know the impact of these projects it becomes a talking point in the community, spurring a sense of urgency and giving people a platform to fight against these projects.
How did you succeed in stopping the coal mine planned by Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) in Raigarh?
After I learned of JSPL’s plans and obtained information about the project, I discovered that there were many illegalities. At this point there was already a negative public sentiment toward JSPL because of the widespread pollution and issues such as employee mistreatment. By reporting critical information about the project illegalities and making people aware of their rights and the false promises of JSPL, I was able to help channel this energy and underlying tension and mobilize the people to fight. Through public opposition, partnerships with environmental justice networks and sustained legal actions, I was able to bring the Raigarh story before the world and succeed in shutting down the project.
Can you tell us about the risks and threats you’ve faced as a result of your work?
Working against a major conglomerate that has no fear of law has kept me under constant threat. I have been physically attacked several times and had false cases of extortion and defamation lodged against me. I was sent to jail for 72 days on flimsy charges of defamation by JSPL. When these attempts could not stop me, JSPL senior officers hired hit men who came to my office and shot me. These kinds of attacks against whistleblowers are not uncommon. The Right to Information Act has become a strong tool for activists to reveal government misdeeds and expose the mighty politicians and industrialists who are central to this corruption. Authorities feel threatened and have organized violent attacks against whistleblowers to protect their own interests. Many activists have been killed since the law went into effect in 2005.