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April 28, 2014

Bullets Can’t Stop India’s Coal-Fighting Heroes

DSC_0037Indian economic development is at a critical juncture. From slowing economic growth to the depreciating rupee to widespread disgust with rampant corruption, India’s “anything goes” model has failed to provide a realistic, prosperous future for its people. Across the country, local communities have been steamrolled by reckless expansion of coal plants and coal mines that have displaced local communities, destroyed the remaining Indian forests, and ravaged the livelihoods of those left in their wake.

But today, the Goldman Environmental Prize is shining a spotlight on one of the grassroots activists that has fought back against this devastation. Ramesh Agrawal, one of this year’s recipients, comes from Chhattisgarh, India. The tenth largest state in India, Chhattishgarh is a place where the devastating reality of a reliance on coal can be seen every day.

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14042818/e1bbaba8-a95c-4a31-a074-f43e9a259377.png
Photo courtesy of Justin Guay.

“I found it impossible to say ‘This is OK’ while in India’s coal country,” wrote National Geographic contributor Rob Kendrick, who documented coal mining in Chhattisgarh in a powerful series of photographs  . “I’ve worked in India for 22 years and I’ve seen a lot of poverty but always the people were safe, clean, and lived reasonably. This time was different.

“Human suffering happens in many places.This situation is not unique, but entire communities being pushed down so far to provide something that comforts some just seems grotesque. It would be like a farmer growing food for others while seeing his own family face hunger.”

What Kendrick has described is the day-to-day reality for the average Indian living in Chhattisgarh and other coal mining areas -- and the atmosphere that surrounded Ramesh’s community. But the even darker secret surrounding these areas is the horror that awaits activists like him that are brave enough to stand up to big coal and demand justice.

The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to six grassroots activists who made “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” That description fits Ramesh - and the circumstances he and other activists face every day -  perfectly.

Over the years, the residents of these coal towns have witnessed horrors that seemingly have no bounds, from intimidation of locals to the brutal murder of a nun who was seeking compensation for mining-affected communities.

This was the history of coal mining that preceded Ramesh when he first saw the fliers promoting a series of public hearings on a proposed mine expansion. He decided to attend the hearings, and what Ramesh saw shocked him: a wildly powerful and out-of-control industry was using their undue influence to pressure locals and carry out acts of violence on those with opposing views.

Ramesh knew he needed to do something to challenge the overly-powerful coal industry. He dedicated the next several years of his life to fighting the expansion of the industry. It was not an easy task, and his early efforts were met with defeat after defeat.  

But just as countless other activists had before him, Ramesh persisted. After several years and dozens of attempts to secure justice for communities through the local courts, Ramesh received some shocking news -- he won a case.

Having never won a case before, Ramesh had to first call his lawyers to ask what he should do. And even before that, he committed to continue the fight. Before even hanging-up with his lawyers that same day, Ramesh made arrangements to challenge a new mine expansion.

Along with his valiant activism came perilous risks. In 2012, after challenging a powerful local company -- Jindal Power -- local gunmen, allegedly associated with the company, barged into his cafe and shot him. Ramesh was able to think quickly, throwing his mobile phone at his attackers, causing their aim to falter and hit him in the leg. This wound spared Ramesh’s life, but he’s been bed-ridden in the hospital ever since. Even so, Ramesh has continued his work even from the confines of the hospital in his quest to bring justice for Chhattisgarh.

Ramesh’s story is a powerful symbol of a social and environmental crisis coming to a boil. All across India, a coal expansion marked by violent repression  -- where widespread death and arrest has earned comparisons to war zones -- has prevailed as companies with seemingly infinite resources are met with fierce local resistance. This conflict is a direct result of a wave of proposed coal plants and associated coal mine expansions, with eye-popping industry growth rates as high as 800 percent.

But the truth is, this fight against coal expansion is just the latest iteration in a decades-long struggle with development and infrastructure expansion that have disproportionately impacted poor communities. From the Chipko movement to Narmada Bachao Andolan, Indian activists have long fought against the staggering rates of forced evictions and displacement caused by these projects. This displacement paired with the increasing rates of Indian development has created a paradox economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have described as “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14042818/fee1a082-9a20-4f2e-a0b7-b532701c4ae7.png
Photo courtesy of Justin Guay.

It is this long tradition of opposition to highly unequal development that produced an activist like Ramesh Agrawal. Despite his personal struggle and close brush with death, Ramesh survived. His story is now being told around the world, and the exposure and award money from the Goldman Prize will help even the playing field between him and the powerful coal industry. Others have faced entirely different fates.

That’s why Ramesh’s story needs to be just the beginning. Just as the Narmada projects brought the world’s attention to the horrific impacts of displacement from large dams on the Narmada River in India, Ramesh’s struggle exposes the violent repression coal companies impose on citizens each and every day. As the international community awakens to this scourge, India’s soon-to-be elected government will be forced to acknowledge and deal with the problem.

Until then, countless activists will continue fighting, and perhaps dying, to right this wrong.

Sompeta Ignites India's Anti-Coal Movement from Justin Guay on Vimeo.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

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