On 20 July 2010, forest campaigner Amit Jethva was shot dead at point blank range by two assailants on motorbikes as he was leaving Gujrat High Court following a meeting with his lawyer.
In a country facing an acute environmental crisis as it rapidly industrialises, his assassination was no stray incident but one of a rising number of attacks on activists. The headline-grabbing decision to ban the British mining company Vedanta from opening a bauxite mine on tribal land in eastern India was only achieved after an unprecedented amount of national and international media attention.
Elsewhere decisions have not been so favourable. Recently approved plans for a new airport in Mumbai will destroy 170 hectares of critically important mangroves. Conservation groups say alternative sites were not properly considered and that their objections were given little consideration. But being ignored is perhaps better than the fate many environmental activists face in India today.
In January 2010, Satish Shetty, a whistle blower and anti-corruption campaigner, who brought to light land scams in West Indian state Maharashtra, was murdered, while Shanmughan Manjunath suffered the same fate after exposing petrol pumps that sold adulterated fuel. Activists say that in contrast to the image India portrays - of a nation that prioritises environmental issues - the reality is in fact very bleak.
‘Activists in India are constantly at risk. Stories of activists being killed are a moral setback to all of us. Ruffle the wrong person’s feathers and it could be you next,’ says Stalin D, project director at the environmental NGO Vanashakti. Ravi Rebbapragada, executive director of Samata, a tribal rights and environmental NGO, believes that as India continues its rapid industrialisation, things are likely to get worse, ‘as the stakes go higher the risk to the activist goes higher,’ he says.
Anti-mining activist killed
At the time of his death Amit was campaigning to protect against forest encroachment. He was heavily involved in the Gir National park, the only home of the Asiatic lion and a protected forest area in western India that covers more than 1,400 km sq. His efforts to expose illegal mining in the forest were rewarded last week with a special posthumous award. Before his death he had filed a lawsuit (Public Interest Litigation) against illegal limestone mining in the buffer zone around the National Park. His application had named a local MP Dinu Solanki from India’s Hindu Nationalist Party and the case was said to, ‘openly expose his link with illegal mining operations’.
Amit was well-known for standing up for environmental issues and had even taken on Bollywood actor Salmon Khan for shooting an endangered Blackbuck. As such he had many enemies in the government, according to his friend and environmental lawyer Manish Vaidya. His family and friends say he had been under threat ever since he started investigating illegal mining operations in and around Gir National Park.
‘A couple of years back, Dinu Solanki’s men physically assaulted Amit at a family wedding,’ recalls Alpa Amit Jethva, his widow, who says Amit had complained to the police after one incident but nothing happened. Dinu Solanki was unavailable for comment but a police investigation since Amit's death found that he had ‘no role to play’. The police confirmed to the Ecologist that his nephew Shiva Solanki has been charged with conspiracy to assassinate Jethva and a second man with his murder.
Lack of support from police
Activists in India say support is often lacking from the police when they try and initiate proceedings against their attackers. In March 2010, while exposing illegal sand mining in the state of Maharastra, Sumaira Abdulali, a trustee of the Awaaz Foundation, an environmental NGO, was followed, threatened and physically attacked by mafia linked to sand dredging in the area. Sumaira and her team went out on a boat to photograph illegal sand mining in an ecologically sensitive creek, where they saw over fifty dredgers within a span of one kilometre. After they took the photographs and left, they were followed by thugs.
‘They claimed they had bought the creek and we were trespassers,’ says Sumaira. ‘As no one can own public land, this isn’t possible. We were followed down a 10 km desolate road and as we got on to the main road we were faced with a truck parked in the centre of the bridge. Twice, this truck tried to push our car off the bridge. Although two members of the traffic police arrived on the scene, they didn’t stop. Instead, they surrounded the car, broke the glass and attacked us.’
After numerous attacks on her life Sumaira formed the Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists (MITRA) in an attempt to empower activists. ‘Often, it’s a lone activist against the mafia, the politicians, the police and the bureaucrats. Our group ensures that when a complaint has to be made or action has to be taken we support one another,’ she says.
A recent report by the campaign group ‘Reporters without Borders’ highlighted a growing number of attacks on journalists and activists who investigate industrial pollution or deforestation. It claims that government officials corrupted by money from mining or logging were often behind these threats and attacks.
This was backed up by J. P. Dabral, president of the Himalayan Chipko Foundation, an NGO which has exposed illegal logging in the northern regions of India on the picturesque slopes of the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountains. Dabral alleges villagers are allowed to cut a small number of trees but that the timber mafia, with the acceptance of local officials, abuse this privilege and take 200-300 trunks.
‘Many of the members of the forest department are on the take. The system is well organised and there is a set amount of approximately Rs. 70,000 (around £1,000) given to a forest official for approving a file,’ says Dabral, who himself has received many threats. In the event that something should happen to him and to ensure the corruption he has uncovered is not swept under the rug, he keeps video logs at undisclosed locations. When contacted the Forest Department said it was ‘not aware of any illegal logging’.
Obstruction and intimidation
State officials have also been accused of obstructing any investigation of environmental damage. Shubranshu Choudhary, an Indian journalist, has tried to investigate pollution from mines operated by the National Mineral Development Corporation, the biggest mining company controlled by India’s central government. But his efforts were hampered by police and local authorities refusal to allow him to enter indigenous villages affected by the pollution.
There are instances when the law enforcers themselves are the perpetrators of environmental crimes. Samir Mehta of International Rivers (in his previous role as an activist with the Bombay Environmental Action Group) has faced this situation in his work in Matheran, a hill station (town) outside Mumbai. After the town was declared an ‘eco-sensitive zone’ in 2003, Samir had brought to light instance of Municipal Councillors who had indulged in illegal construction in Matheran. These Councillors then riled up public sentiment against him and made the local’s believe that due to his efforts their homes would be torn down.
However, as Samir explains, ‘This was not our intention. We just wanted environmental laws and regulations to be respected.’ Samir was attacked by more than twenty people in a market place in Matheran and had to hide in a local shop until help arrived.
Since the death of Amit, the Indian government has promised to act against violence and intimidation against activists. A bill aimed at protecting whistleblowers is due to be brought forward but activists themselves remain sceptical. ‘In India it isn’t about the laws, it’s about the implementation. The root cause for a lack of implementation is corruption. Only when we can weed out corruption and instil a sense of respect for an activists work, will we be safe,’ says Stalin D.
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