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India anti-mining activist wins 'Green Nobel'

Ramesh Agrawal honoured in US city of San Francisco as one of six recipients of Goldman Environmental Prize.

Last updated: 29 Apr 2014 10:06
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Ramesh Agrawal has been waging a lone campaign against land-grab by powerful mining companies [AP]

The man walked into Ramesh Agrawal's tiny Internet cafe, pulled out a pistol and said, "You talk too much." Then he fired two bullets into Agrawal's left leg and fled on a motorcycle.

The 2012 attack came three months after Agrawal won a court case that blocked a major Indian company, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., from opening a second coal mine near the village of Gare in India's mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh.

For a decade, Agrawal - who has no formal legal training - has been waging a one-man campaign to educate villagers about their rights in fighting pollution and land-grabbing by powerful mining and electricity companies. He has won three lawsuits against major corporations and has been spearheading seven more pending in courts.

"This is the biggest milestone in my life," the activist said of the award.

"When I started this fight, I knew I'd be a target. It will happen again. Let it happen. I'm not going anywhere," the soft-spoken yoga enthusiast told AP news agency in the city of Raigarh.

On Monday, Agrawal, 60, was recognised in a ceremony in San Francisco as one of six recipients of this year's $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the "Green Nobel".

Among the other winners are former corporate lawyer Helen Slottje who fought fracking - the process of pumping chemicals and water underground to break open shale rock formations to extract oil and gas - in New York state and South Africa's Desmond D'Sa who closed down one of the country's largest toxic dumping sites.

The award was established in 1990 with a grant from philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to honour grassroots environmental activists in the six regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and Latin America.

"This is the biggest milestone in my life," Agrawal said of the award, which he flew to California to receive. "But it also makes me sad, that someone in a foreign country who I don't even know is willing to do so much for us, while so many people here don't even know us or want to help."

When I started this fight, I knew I'd be a target. It will happen again. Let it happen. I'm not going anywhere

Ramesh Agrawal, Environment Activist

Battle for existence

Activists, lawyers and analysts in India say, that is changing as hundreds if not thousands of small, scrappy movements are challenging building and mining projects that local residents believe will damage the environment, undermine their livelihoods or even uproot them from their homes.

"People are gaining confidence and losing patience," environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said in New Delhi.

"These are not established activist groups or nonprofits like Greenpeace campaigning on global issues like climate change. These are regular, everyday people worried about their survival, and their voices of dissent are forcing India to change."

Villagers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh won national TV coverage nearly two years ago for their cause by standing neck-deep in water for days to protest large hydro-power dam projects that would flood their farms and homes. Apple growers in northeast Himachal Pradesh are suing dam builders who they say have tunneling plans that will damage their orchards.

India's rapid economic growth over the past decade has boosted the incomes and living standards of millions, mostly city-dwellers.

But the environmental impact has often been ignored, and the rural poor largely left behind. The 400 million Indians who live on less than $1.25 a day are dubious about their economic prospects, particularly those who have lost their land or been forced to live with poisoned groundwater, dirty air and fetid rivers.

"Why should these villagers pay for development that is defined by shopping malls and luxury items?" Agrawal asked. 

Deaths

Environmental activists are also increasingly facing violence - at least 908 have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade, including six in India, according to a report this month by the London-based Global Witness group.

After he was shot, Agrawal's attackers turned themselves in, revealing themselves to be Jindal Steel & Power's security guards. But police never linked the attack with the Indian company.

He also has been jailed for 72 days on what he said were false charges of extortion and defamation that were later dismissed.

In the village of Gare, where Agrawal has helped villagers voice their objections to Jindal's plans for more mining operations, the earth shakes violently for a half-hour each morning as workmen blast a gaping coal pit with dynamite, sending clouds of black dust billowing up.

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The acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air, already hazy yellow from the nearby power plant pollution.

The company has been mining coal in the area for several years, but Gare and the neighbouring villages of Sarasmal and Kosampali have seen little economic benefit.

"For six years I have been sick,'' Sushila Choudhury, 55,  said through bloodshot eyes and the wheezing cough of an asthmatic.

"Why are they doing this to us? We haven't done anything wrong.''

In 2010, Agrawal won his first court victory in blocking Indian company Scania Steel & Power Ltd. from expanding a coal-burning power plant without clearance.

He has been helped by some legal tools along the way. In 2005, India passed a law giving citizens the right to review public records. Six years later, India launched a separate environmental court system that gave any citizen the right to demand a hearing on environmental matters.

Two years ago, the court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Agrawal on behalf of Gare residents to revoke Jindal's clearance for a second mine in the area.

Jindal has since reapplied for clearance to mine in the village, and Agrawal is preparing another suit to block it.

"We have to look after the environment, or there will be hundreds of thousands of people with nothing, no employment, no money, no farmland, no forests," he said. "They will end up cutting each other's throats just to survive." 

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