“They are ‘Gandhis’ and ‘Mandelas’. They are ‘Rosa Parks’ and ‘Malalas’,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), Michel Forst in his message to the world, ahead of International Human Rights Defenders Day (9 December). “They are also ordinary individuals, lawyers, women activists, community leaders, journalists, unionists and environmentalists who strive to re-claim our rights and promote our freedoms”, he added.
Luckily, India does not have any dearth of such extraordinary individuals. They are spread all over the country, in metro cities, small towns and remote villages, striving for freedom, justice and dignity. Often facing hostile environments, limited access to information and redressal mechanisms, and a lack of institutional support.
Meet five such extraordinary people from Raigarh, Chhattisgarh.
Ramesh Agrawal is most often associated with highlighting the environmental and human rights violations surrounding coal mines and power plants in Chhattisgarh. He founded Janchetna, an organisation involved in training grassroots activists, organizing communities and fighting cases of human rights violations. Winner of the Goldman Prize, or the ‘Green Nobel’ in 2014, he works to ensure people’s voices are heard in public consultations.
In 2012, Mr. Agarwal was shot in his leg by assailants. Though he survived the attack, he is yet to fully recover from it.
Savita Rath is a community correspondent with Video Volunteers and works closely with Jan Chetana, a grassroots organisation which works to expose environmental and human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. She makes films on land acquisition and the failures of government schemes, while travelling from village to village and mobilizing locals faced with these issues. Savita has been threatened with arrest on several occasions for filming public hearings, people’s protests against illegal mining and village assemblies.
Rajesh Tripathi is an activist who works with communities in Raigarh. After the attack on Ramesh Agrawal, Rajesh has been particularly active in spearheading Jan Chetana’s work on the ground. Travelling on a motorbike over Raigarh’s bumpy, truck-laden roads, he reaches out to scores of villages, which are home to social movements. Rajesh plays many different roles- sometimes as the bearer of a notice or project documents that communities cannot access, sometimes as a trainer on how to access rights or legal tribunals- and is an essential link between affected village communities and mechanisms of remedy.
Degree Prasad Chouhan
Degree is a Dalit school teacher-turned- human rights defender, closely working with Dalit and Adivasi communities on issues of land acquisition, displacement, human trafficking and coal mining. He is involved in training, mobilisation and fact finding, and is associated with the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He is studying law in a local college to become a lawyer for underprivileged people.
Baghwati is an Adivasi village-level human rights defender, working on the frontline of agitations and protests against human rights violations in the region. She is involved in mobilizing villagers, especially women. She is associated with local groups in the state and actively participates in meetings and decision making processes concerning not only her village but also the region.