Meet

The man with the iron leg

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 27, 2014

Green crusader: Ramesh Agrawal used the power of information againstChhattisgarh’s unregulated coal mines

Two bullets couldn’t stop him; environmentalist Ramesh Agrawal is one of this year’s ‘Green Nobel’ winners

When I meet him in Delhi, Ramesh Agrawal, 60, is wearing a white kurta-pyjama, holding a crutch in one hand and resting the other on his son Raman Agrawal’s shoulder. While not immediately visible, the protrusion on his left leg soon comes into focus. He says, “It’s around three kilos. You can touch it if you like.” I feel the metal plate, which is attached to his thigh and groin by metal screws and reaches his knee, holding his shattered bones together and allowing him to hobble along.

“He was aiming for my chest, but I threw a mobile phone at him and that made him shoot below the waist. My femur shattered and I had to be on bed rest for more than a year,” says Agrawal recounting the night of July 1, 2012, when goons, allegedly working at the behest of a steel conglomerate, attempted to kill him.

Agrawal and his son were in Delhi after a trip to the US where he collected the Goldman Prize 2014 — said to be the world’s largest prize for grassroot environmentalists — along with five other activists. Considered the ‘Green Nobel’, previous recipients from India include Medha Patkar, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, who led the campaign against Dow Chemicals in Bhopal. The committee commended Agrawal for “organising villagers to demand their right to information about industrial development projects and shutting down one of the largest proposed coal mines in Chhattisgarh.”

Another Bhiwani Junction

Agrawal’s family migrated to Raigarh from Bhiwani, Haryana, in 1950. After failed attempts at other ventures, they set up a successful groundnut oil milling business in the town that’s roughly 300km from Raipur. Ramesh and his brother Om Prakash took over their father’s business but Ramesh branched out and set up the town’s first cyber café in 1999. “When I heard internet cables were going to be supplied to Raigarh, I decided to purchase all the necessary hardware to set up a cyber café. Mine was the first one in the whole district,” says Agrawal.

While Ramesh had business acumen, he was also a socially aware citizen. “Right from college, I worked with local organisations in the area. In the late ’70s, I joined Lok Shakti Samiti, which worked for social development of tribal communities in rural areas of the State. That was my first tryst with activism.”

However, Agrawal got seriously involved in development politics when Chhattisgarh was created. “Suddenly there were large scale investments in Raigarh such as coal mines, power plants, etc. Many companies trampled over the fundamental rights of the tribal people and polluted and destroyed our water bodies. I wanted to act against this and therefore formed the Jan Chetana or the People’s Awareness group in 2004.”

People power

Today, Jan Chetana has a considerable following in Raigarh and surrounding areas. Taking advantage of the newly legislated Right to Information Act in 2005, Agrawal sent out questionnaires to the then governmental watchdog, Environment Appellate Authority (EAA; the National Green Tribunal was established only in 2010) and various ministries involved in authorising licences and monitoring projects in and around Raigarh.

The replies to his RTI queries formed the foundation of the protests against the State’s ill-considered development projects. As he says, “We started finding out many things that the government and the companies didn’t want us to know. For example, companies often prepare and produce false documents regarding the decisions of the gram sabhas (a meeting with local residents asking for their consent) and nobody knows this.”

The efforts of Jan Chetana and other environmental activists went in vain largely, until 2009 when they achieved their first major success. “We managed to cancel the environmental clearance for the Athena project (a coal mining project), because we could show that they had not taken into account the effects of the project in all of the villages that surround it.” He adds, “This was a big step because before this judgement we had had little success. At the EAA there was only one person and sometimes it seemed like his only job was to dismiss all the petitions against projects. After the NGT was formed though, things started to improve a little.”

Agrawal’s biggest success was his campaign that led to cancelling the clearance awarded to the expansion of JSPL’s Tamnar Power Plant, a 1,000 mega watt plant to which the steel behemoth wanted to add 2,400 mega watts more of production capacity. Agrawal and Jan Chetana achieved this by sending letters with RTI replies to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “Our work showed that JSPL started the construction work on this project without having any kind of permission or clearance,” says Agrawal.

However, tragedy followed success. On July 1, 2012, Agrawal was attacked while he was alone at his cyber café. A few months later KK Chopra and SN Panigrahi — both working as security personnel for JSPL — were arrested and sent to 15-days judicial custody for the attack.

The Goldman prize recognises and celebrates Agrawal’s steadfast courage. He feels that apart from the prize money of $1,75,000, the award also offers him relative safety because “any further attack on me would become international news”.

What keeps him motivated, despite the dangers? “You go to the temple to worship gods. But helping the poor, is also a kind of worship of the gods. Everybody has a responsibility to help the nation and so I see no other way but to keep doing this.” He adds, “I’m hopeful. Many in the tribal community are learning how to file an RTI and stand up for their rights, so hopefully it wouldn’t be so easy to shove them aside any longer.”

Published on May 09, 2014

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