Lawyers in India advocate for environmental rights, one case at a time.
After six hours in a small basement office here in Delhi, India, I am overwhelmed by the activities of the day. From one minute to the next, it has been unpredictable and unplanned, but surprisingly productive. There is no such thing as a scheduled meeting, and adaptability is key. I’m visiting the office of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), an Indian advocacy and law group that helps people who have been affected by environmentally harmful development projects. The people at LIFE are more than just lawyers to their clients. They serve as the voices of local people in an often voiceless world.
LIFE’s four full time lawyers (Ritwick Dutta, Rahul Chaudhary, Promod Kumar, and Soumyarup Sahu) try over 70 cases a year with the Indian Supreme Court, the National Environmental Appellant Authority (NEAA) and the Central Empowerment Committee (CEC). Their goal is to keep the government accountable for its environmental decisions, and make sure that existing laws are enforced. This work, and the work of so many Access Initiative partners like them, is a fundamental building block of sustainable development.
LIFE attorneys serve as watchdogs when business and the government fail to follow the best practices mandated by law, such as holding public hearings, consultations and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). They perform quite a bit of detective work, piecing together evidence to ensure laws are being followed. They also help teach civil servants how to implement the laws, and help organizations and people connect with one another on cases taking place all over the country.
In one of their cases, runoff from a cement company had created brackish water in neighboring communities. In another, thermal power plants built without environmental testing had hurt local mango farmers. They take on these cases and others like them for only a nominal fee, if they charge at all.
In one such case I attended with Ritwick Dutta, he was appealing to the courts to enforce a law meant to protect Asiatic lions in the Girnar Sanctuary. Dutta’s client, the Gir Nature Youth Club, had used India’s Right to Information Act to obtain information about the building of an Ashram on land designated for wildlife. Through the petitions process, the club discovered that the Ashram had in fact been encroaching on protected forest lands for years, even after the courts had ordered them to stop.
The impact of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Ashram had taken a huge toll on the land, the wildlife in the area and the local community. Even though the courts had previously decided in favor of the Youth Club to preserve the land, local ministers had overruled them and allowed for the encroachment, undermining the purpose and intent of the protected area.
Our session in court that day, like so many others, ended without a final decision. When Ritwick and I returned to the LIFE office, I asked what motivates him to take on cases that can often drag on for years. “It’s interesting and challenging work,” he said. “I want future generations to be able to appreciate how beautiful India truly is. The environment has an inherent right to exist in the form in which it has been created. Since we are not the creator we should not be the destroyer.”
In my job with The Access Initiative (TAI), I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing people around the world. Being based in DC, though, I rarely get to see them in action. Generally, I read their stories on our blog or in reports.
Sitting in LIFE’s office in Delhi, I see the ultimate value of how access laws (access to information, access to justice and public participation) are the keys to empowering people to truly have a more sustainable future.
By putting the pieces of the law puzzle together one case at a time, the lawyers at LIFE help to ensure that the courts take the environment and community rights seriously. Even though they might not win all of their cases, they have at least brought the injustices to the attention of a larger Indian population. They have also given the local people a voice to ensure better standards for the future of their country’s environmental and sustainable development. It’s a process, and a story, that continues to inspire me.
LIFE is one of hundreds of groups in the Access Initiative that are fighting for better governance and environmental protection around the world. For more information about their work and the Access Initiative network, visit http://www.accessinitiative.org.
Browse a slideshow of Monika’s trip on Flickr