By Aruna Chandrasekhar (@aruna_sekhar) | Business and Human Rights Officer, Amnesty International India

As thick, old-growth forest gives way to eucalyptus covered in coal dust, Raigarh announces itself in other fairly obvious ways. Mining trucks careen off the side of the road, as we stop to ask for directions. “Pass the Jindal power plant, OP Jindal School will be on your left, take the next left onto Jindal road…” If Jamshedpur is Tatanagar, Raigarh is Jindal country.

I am in Raigarh to meet Ramesh Agrawal of Jan Chetna Manch, an activist most often associated with highlighting environmental and human rights violations surrounding coal mines and power plants in the state. Jan Chetna, along with Adivasi Majdoor Kisan Ekta Sangthan, challenged the environment clearance given to Jindal Steel and Power Limited for the Gare IV/6 coal mine, on the grounds that clearance was based on a flawed public consultation,. This led to a landmark judgment by India’s National Green Tribunal that called the public hearing a ‘farce’, a ‘mockery’ and a classic example of violation of the rules and principles of natural justice to its brim’ and cancelled the mine’s environmental permit

On 7 July, 2012, Agarwal was shot in broad daylight by two assailants in his family-run cyber café. The police later filed charges against seven people, including at least two who had worked for a firm providing security to Jindal’s power plant in Raigarh.

“Would you like to see where he was attacked?” asks Rajesh Tripathi, Agarwal’s colleague at Jan Chetana. We walk around the corner from my hotel in the heart of Raigarh, and step into the tiny cyber café operated by Agarwal and his family. Agarwal was an early pioneer in using the internet and information to enable communities, and the café a rare oasis where local activists could document their work.

I take a look at the old desktop PCs and copy machines before I am shown the bullet marks etched in the wall and in the floor, right behind the cash counter where Agarwal was seated that day. “He was here waiting for me to come back from a public hearing,” says Tripathi, “when two men barged into the café and started arguing with him.” “There are only violations, nowhere is there compliance of rules” - Ramesh Agarwal

I take a look at the old desktop PCs and copy machines before I am shown the bullet marks etched in the wall and in the floor, right behind the cash counter where Agarwal was seated that day. “He was here waiting for me to come back from a public hearing,” says Tripathi, “when two men barged into the café and started arguing with him.”

“If papa hadn’t gotten up to calm them down, the bullets would have gone through his stomach and killed him,” says Agarwal’s son, who now sits behind that desk. The café stays open- there are now mounting medical bills to think of, as Agarwal is forced to shuttle from Bombay to Raigarh for medical treatment.

The shooting was not the first incident of intimidation, In 2011, Agarwal and local activist, Harihar Patel, were arrested on false charges including “circulating defamatory material”, “disrupting public order” and “causing alarm and panic among the public” at a public hearing for a Jindal thermal power plant in May 2010. After his arrest, Agarwal was kept chained to a bed in a hospital where he was being treated for hypertension. The police removed the chain only after protests that he was being treated in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner.

Tripathi and I cross the road to the Agrawal residence. When we meet Ramesh Agarwal, he is sitting upright, cane in hand. Tea and biscuits go around and we are laughingly but firmly cautioned by his wife and daughter-in-law against getting him worked up. They chide Rajesh for supplying him with paan (betelnut) on the sly, but developments in Chhattisgarh and Delhi that we bring to the door were a greater source of worry then. Since January 2014, there had been multiple notifications that had scrapped public hearings for coal mine expansion projects of varying sizes

Public hearing in February
A public hearing in Korba, Chhattisgarh in February, 2015

“Public hearings are just elections campaigns”

“There are only violations, nowhere is there compliance of rules”, said Agarwal. While environmental public consultations are often the only forum of dialogue that affected communities and civil society are mandated to have with government and private stakeholders on the impacts of development projects, Agarwal believes that public consultations are usually just “a formality and a gun hearing”, with security forces and outsiders often outnumbering local participants.

Companies often hire their own outsiders to fill a public hearing. “Here, public hearings are just like election campaigns. As soon as the hearing date is declared, companies send their men to all the villages and start distributing liquor, meat and money in the hope that they will speak in favour of the project”.

“A public hearing is supposed to imply the participation of the people. But people often don’t know about the project and how it will affect their lives, their land, their water resources. If they’re not informed and don’t even know the name of the company or the project, where is the question of their participation and their consultation?” he asks.

Current environmental laws say that a month before the public hearing, communities must be supplied with an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. “This 400-odd paged document, full of technical jargon, is often written in English, or in a language that the local community does not speak or read.” Ramesh says, “‘Burning one tonne of coal will produce this much carbon dioxide, this is how far the gas will go.’ You are asking for the public to comment on these things. How is a villager supposed to understand this information? And who is certifying this information?”

There are often little or no attempts to publicise these hearings or impacts verbally or in formats that communities can grasp. In the run-up to a public hearing, Agarwal spoke to a local village chief, who tried to play a CD he’d received from the Pollution Control Board in a CD player. “We had to tell him that this was not a music or a film CD, it contains an EIA report! He thought it was a film!” he said in exasperation.

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A village council meeting in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forest to determine the environmental clearance for the Nakia Coal Block. January 2014.

“Why should a defaulter be allowed an opportunity again?”

While the National Green Tribunal has been one of the last hopes for justice for defenders challenging environmental violations, Agarwal says that violators are seldom penalised. “Even if the environment clearance is revoked, the company can still apply for a fresh environmental clearance,” asks Ramesh. “How many projects will you take to court? Who will take them to court? Villagers are not empowered or that educated to file and fight cases over the long run. If you take NGOs and civil society, how many cases can they follow? So they go unchallenged.”

Similarly, questions of accountability from the government officers and the machinery that clear the project, conduct the public hearing or appraise the EIA report remain unanswered.

“The Ministry of Environment and Forests, which should be a strictly regulatory authority for the safekeeping of the environment, is nothing but a clearinghouse. No cheque or project is bounced there, simply speaking. There’s not even a half percent rejection rate,” says Ramesh. “Neither are we punishing the proponent, nor the EIA consultant, nor the state authorities. But we are punishing the people by letting these companies apply again.”

Through our conversation, Ramesh continues to provide advice on the best path of action to challenge illegal land grab and botched hearings, while his own cases drag on court.

I ask him if there is one thing I could take back to people who believe that hurdles to justice and holding corporates accountable are insurmountable. “Tell them that that communities here will never take injustice lying down. I am living proof of that.”

Excerpts from conversations that took place in the months of February and September, 2014.