Update on TAI Partner Ramesh Agarwal
TAI partner Ramesh Agarwal’s case will be argued before the India Supreme Court next week. Agarwal was denied bail at his second hearing before the Chhattisgarh Court on technical grounds unrelated to the specific charges of criminal defamation and intimidation. At a public hearing in May 2010 Agarwal spoke out against environmental law violations by the Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL). JSPL filed a criminal complaint, and a year later, June 2011 Agarwal was arrested.
Environmental advocate Ramesh Agarwal has the strong support of his family and is in good spirits. Ritwick Dutta, a lawyer working with Agarwal says he believes that Agarwal has no plans for giving up the fight for environmental justice in the immediate months, but that this experience has no doubt affected him, and the long-term implications of the ordeal remain unknown.
Agarwal’s imprisonment comes at a time in India of growing anger at corporate and government corruption. The imprisonment of Agarwal and subsequent media coverage of him in chains and handcuffed on a hospital bed has resulted in exposing JSPLs environmental wrong-doing more publicly.
Civil society mobilization around environmental issues is becoming more prevalent in India, though not necessarily through the venue of the public hearing. In recent weeks thousands of women and children protested at the Govindpur village against the Posco Steel land acquisition that would displace villagers. Indian activist, Swami Nigamanand, passed away June 15 after a 116-day hunger strike against mining around the Ganges River in the Kumbh region in Uttarakhand. Dutta explained that many Indians remain uneducated about the public hearing process and what issues are appropriate to bring to the attention of public officials.
“…For a meaningful public hearing, you need someone to guide people [and help] focus on the points that [are relevant],” explains Dutta. Ramesh is an experienced and articulate leader at public hearings, guiding attendees to voice their concerns about issues such as water quality and land degradation, rather than individual problems. Ramesh’s imprisonment for statements made in a public hearing are significant because it illustrates the power of public hearings, but also because individuals who exercise their legal rights at these legal forums are at risk of persecution.
It is vital TAI partners and affiliates increase awareness about the persecution and singling-out of environmental advocates. Advocacy groups need to prepare and plan for legal action to be taken against them, but this is difficult without a legal support system in place to assist these individuals and groups. Implementing a “rapid legal response network” (remote and/or on-the-ground) is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of persecuted advocates in India, as well as across the world. Many legal resources and services are country-based; Lawyers without Borders tracks detentions and trials across the globe, and there are certain law schools in the United States that provide rapid-legal-response clinics.
The official mistreatment of Agarwal violated his human and civil rights, and the matter is before the courts (petitions have been filed with the High Court of Chhattisargh and the National Human Rights Commission). The Jindal Company has only responded to Agarwal’s accusations, they have not released any comments about Agarwal’s accusations against the company.
Mr. Dutta said that many officials are independently quite supportive of Agarwal, however the political realities of the moment in India and parties involved in the Agarwal case complicate official support. Naveen Jindal, CEO of Jindal Group and member of the BJP political party, is a Member of Parliament, representing the Kurukshetra constituency in the state of Haryana. The conflict of interests of members of Parliament involved with industry must be made transparent and accountable.
It is crucial that the environmental community clearly communicates the message that the persecution against individuals who peacefully and democratically exercise their rights is abominable and undemocratic. It is time that the Prime Minister and the minister for Environment and Forests of India commit to uphold the rights of environmental advocates who exercise their rights in legal forums, like the public hearing, and to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for violating these rights.