TAI Partner Ramesh Agrawal Wins 2014 Goldman Environmental Award

By Rachel Mulbry (Posted: April 29, 2014)

The Access Initiative is proud to congratulate TAI member Ramesh Agrawal, director of Jan Chetana, on receiving a 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize. Agrawal has worked tirelessly since the 2005 passage of India’s Right to Information Act to hold the coal industry in his home state of Chhattisgarh accountable.

Chhattisgarh contains approximately one fifth of India’s coal reserves, and is already home to numerous large coal mines and processing plants. Residents of the state maintain that the coal industry is responsible for dangerous levels of water and air contamination. However, the political will to control the growth of the coal industry has often been stymied by the financial connections between the coal companies and the politicians themselves. Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL), a company whose work Agrawal and his local supporters directly opposed, is owned by Naveen Jindal, a member of parliament from the Congress Party.

Agrawal challenged the corruption and environmental degradation that characterize the coal industry by using access to information (ATI) requests made on behalf of villagers in Chhattisgarh. Using this method, he could effectively show that companies were consistently failing to properly conduct environmental impact assessments and public consultations. Agrawal’s approach also included an element of grassroots education; he taught community members how to effectively participate in public hearings and to understand the legal language used in the ATI laws.

Agrawal has worked with villages throughout Chhattisgarh to oppose large-scale industrial development for almost a decade. He gained prominence in 2008 when he organized opposition to a coal project proposed by JSPL, which would have processed around 4 million tons of coal per year in the vicinity of Agrawal’s own village of Raigarh. Using the Right to Information Act in combination with other grassroots tactics, Agrawal brought a case against the coal company to India’s National Green Tribunal. In 2012, the case was decided in the villagers’ favor, finding that JSPL failed to adequately consult the local residents about the project. JSPL’s project permits were subsequently revoked.

However, like other freedom of information activists, Agrawal faced intimidation and violence because his name was publically released as the author of the right to information requests related to the JSPL case. In 2011, Agrawal spent over two months in jail after being accused by JSPL of defaming and intimidating the company at a public meeting. TAI partners around the world mobilized immediately following Agrawal’s arrest, sending hundreds of petition signatures and emails to the Indian government. Thanks to the international outcry and the dedication of Agrawal’s lawyers, he was released from jail following a Supreme Court ruling in his favor. Unfortunately, trouble soon returned. In July 2012, soon after the National Green Tribunal ruling, two men entered Agrawal’s small internet café, which also served as the headquarters for Jan Chetana, and shot him in the leg. While Agrawal survived the attack and continues his work today, the incident serves as a reminder of the high stakes of environmental democracy.

Agrawal’s exemplary efforts demonstrate how procedural rights (access to information, public participation and access to justice) can catalyze environmental change. Using Agrawal’s approach as a model, other communities across India are now better able to hold government and industry accountable. The Access Initiative congratulates Ramesh Agrawal for his dedication and his 2014 Goldman Environmental Award.

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vEJf3UZ3WTs