With a small internet café as his headquarters, Ramesh Agrawal organized villagers to demand their right to information about industrial development projects and succeeded in shutting down one of the largest proposed coal mines in Chhattisgarh.
With a rapidly growing economy, India faces increasing energy demands—much of which is supplied by domestic coal, the most abundant fossil fuel in the country. Almost one-fifth of coal reserves are buried in Chhattisgarh, where development projects have created conflict between coal companies and villagers living above the coal deposits. Residents are denied access to information about proposed energy projects; land earmarked for energy development is taken away without fair compensation; and villagers are left to deal with polluted air and water from coal mining.
While the public’s right to access information about proposed development projects is written into law, it’s often difficult to obtain. Residents who make requests repeatedly face delays or denials. Any information that is released is often obscure and difficult to contextualize. Worse, the identity of individuals requesting information is made public, making them targets of threats or assault from industry supporters.
The coal industry is able to muscle through projects thanks to its close relationship with the government. Politicians often own stakes in energy companies and as a result, they approve permits for development projects with little consideration of the social or environmental consequences. In fact, environmental protection is seen as an impediment to growth, and sits low on the government’s agenda.
A former social worker in the region, Ramesh Agrawal possessed a keen understanding of the needs and challenges of rural communities in Chhattisgarh. He witnessed local farms and forests turn into industrial plants, and with it an erosion of social justice, public health and the environment.
As the owner of a small internet café in Raigarh, Agrawal was attuned to the power of information and what the internet could do to bring the information to a broader audience. With this understanding in mind, he founded Jan Chetana, a grassroots movement to protect people and the environment from rampant industrialization.
Acting as a watchdog for rural communities who do not have access to computers, Agrawal combed through the Department of Environment’s website to check for new applications for development projects in Chhattisgarh. He informed local villagers about environmental violations and filed Right to Information (RTI) applications on their behalf.
Among these projects was a major coal mine proposed by Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL). Burning more than 4 million tons of coal a year, the mine would be among the biggest of its kind in Chhattisgarh. Starting in 2008, Agrawal organized residents to voice their opposition and filed numerous petitions highlighting JSPL’s failure to hold mandatory public meetings and obtain environmental clearance for the project.
In April 2012, the National Green Tribunal revoked the permits required for the mine to break ground, citing the various violations reported in Agrawal’s petitions.
Agrawal’s work made him a target for industry supporters. Shortly after the coal mine was defeated, gunmen allegedly hired by JSPL broke into Agrawal’s shop and shot him in the leg, shattering his bones. Agrawal survived the attack, but faces a long road to recovery. His attackers have yet to be brought to justice. Despite his limited mobility, Agrawal is helping villagers to assert their rights as landowners and apply for mineral rights to the coal buried under their properties.
Environmental experts credit Agrawal with bringing national and international awareness to the problems disenfranchised communities in India face from the lack of accountability by industrial developers—and a government all to willing to turn a blind eye. His victories in Chhattisgarh are giving hope to other communities fighting unchecked industrial development throughout India.