To lose sixteen dedicated and brave environmental justice advocates to targeted violence should be a matter of grave introspection
“India has seen killings spike against a backdrop of heavy-handed policing and the repression of peaceful protests and civic activism,” according to the Defenders of the Earth report released by the UK-based organisation Global Witness.
According to the report, 16 people were killed in India in 2016 alone in environmental cases, which is almost three times more than the 2015 count of six. India ranks fourth in the world - after Brazil, Columbia and the Philippines.
What India has in common with these countries is not just the abundance of natural resources and the potential for their exploitation, but the presence of political regimes which have managed to align state and corporate interests against the interests of the environment.
To lose sixteen dedicated and brave environmental justice advocates to targeted violence should be a matter of grave introspection for our media, within our Parliament and most definitely within our courtrooms.
Of these sixteen deaths, ten are suspected to have been perpetrated by police officers, emphasising the divide between State and environmental interests.
Found hacked to death
In February 2016, Manda Katraka, a citizen from the Dongria tribe in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha was killed in a fake encounter killing by the police, possibly to suppress the tribal protests against mining activities in the region.
The following month Adangu Gomango, a highly respected tribal leader in the state of Odisha, was found hacked to death, outside his house where he had slept the previous night.
The local community seems to be of the belief that Gomango’s work, advocating for tribal land rights under the Forests Right Act, and consequent tensions with several opponents to these efforts, might have culminated in his murder.
In August, Dashrath Nayak and Tudu Mahto were shot and killed during protests. They were among two thousand people who had gathered to protest against Inland Power Ltd in Ramgarh, Jharkhand.
The protesters claimed the company had acquired land without adequate compensation or providing promised employment. The police, according to eyewitnesses, turned and fired on the crowd indiscriminately.
Use bullets against unarmed citizens
In September 2016, several thousand villagers from Badkagaon, Hazaribagh in Jharkhand attended a peaceful, unarmed sit-in to protest against a forcible land acquisition for the National Thermal Power Corporation.
On October 1, 2016 the police arrested, Nirmal Devi, a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who had led the protests.
The crowd attempted to prevent the arrest and in response the police opened fire, killing Mehtab Ansari (30), Ranjan Kumar Das (17), Abhishek Roy, (19) and Pawan Kumar (17). The traumatic event created an environment of fear in the village, and effectively suppressed the protests.
The police justified their actions by claiming the right to self defence, arguing throaty they feared physical harm from the villagers.
A fundamental requirement in claiming self defence is to show that the response was proportionate. It is disturbing that the police seem to use bullets against unarmed citizens with impunity.
Courageous forest officials
There are also examples of the state evicting local communities under the guise of environmental protection, such as the communities living in shanty towns at the border of Kaziranga National Park. There is a dispute over whether the communities are encroaching upon the territory of the park.
Last year, in Banderdubi village, the town witnessed several excavator machines accompanied by around two thousand police offers and several elephants, which had arrived to demolish the houses. Fakhruddin and Anjuma Khatun were shot and killed.
At the same time, several courageous forest officials, who protect the forests from poaching every day, have been murdered in the line of duty.
In Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, a forest official was crushed by a lorry carrying illegally mined sand along the Chambal river, as he attempted to stop the vehicle.
Sand mining is prohibited without environmental clearances under law, but the powerful sand mining mafia continue to engage in widespread illegal quarrying.
Prosecution and subsequent conviction
In Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Dadli Lazar and Sheik Baji Sahid, two forest guards on duty in the Nallamala forest were murdered by a gang of timber smugglers, after having caught them in the act.
Although the guards had called for backup, support arrived too late and the attackers had fled.
In the Chapra forests in Madhya Pradesh, Jagdish Binjwar was killed by locals felling trees in the forest, who killed him with an axe.
Prosecution and subsequent conviction in such cases has been low. However, last month the Gujarat High Court ordered the reopening and retrial of the criminal case against those accused of murdering environmental activist Amit Jethwa in 2010.
Jethwa had filed a public interest litigation in the Gujarat High Court against illegal mining around the Gir National Park, and was shot by hired sharp-shooters outside the courthouse a few days after filing the case.
Speaking up against powerful companies
The main accused are a former Member of Parliament and his nephew. The High Court ordered that a new judge be appointed to try the case, due to the former judge having failed to protect the witnesses from being threatened and the trial having been compromised by the political influence of the accused.
This might seem like a small victory in these trying times. But it is testament to the fact that the judiciary remains our last bastion in ensuring environmental justice.
It also reminds us that members of civil society can still contribute to legal non-profit organisations, in order to maintain the state’s accountability to its citizens.
However, speaking up against powerful companies can have dire consequences, as witnessed recently by the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) threatened by a powerful energy and mining company against journalists who published investigative reports about tax evasion and improper windfalls by the company.
SLAPPs are lawsuits usually initiated by financially and politically powerful organisations, intended to prevent detractors from criticising them by intimidating them with high legal costs and damages for defamation and the possibility of jail time for criminal defamation.
Questioning environmental wrongdoings
To prevent the chilling effect of such SLAPPs, we must continue to financially and vocally support independent journalists, environmental activists, legal non-profits who by questioning environmental wrongdoings ensure that we have a functioning democracy.
Having witnessed such a horrifying year for environment related casualties and human rights violations, it is crucial for the Indian establishment to reflect and decide for itself the parameters of the development it seeks.
On one hand, we see marginalised communities being victimised by the state-corporate nexus, willing to even kill its citizens in extreme cases, with minimal conviction rates.
On the other hand, we see underpaid forest officials falling victim to criminal conflicts over our rapidly declining forest resources while the people who profit from such illegal activities remain largely unscathed.
For all our government’s vision regarding Smart Cities and attracting foreign direct investment, sooner or later it will have to admit the simultaneous reality of sacrificing the rights of marginalised citizens in the trade-off.
The urban Indian elite
The urban Indian elite benefit most from India’s industrial growth while exerting most strain on India’s limited forest, mineral, water and energy sources.
They must therefore to recognise their privilege, and be willing to lend their voices to and in turn amplify the voices of the affected communities.
We cannot aspire to be a developed nation while allowing ourselves to also be the fourth deadliest country in the world in terms of environment-related killings.
Mrinalini Shinde is an environmental law researcher based in Cologne, Germany and has previously practised as an environmental lawyer at the National Green Tribunal in India. Along with legal practice, she has experience working in new media, non profits and start-ups. Mrinalini is Climate Tracker's legal adviser.