Recently, at least three activists have faced attacks on their lives for raising concerns over the adverse effects of power, water and mining projects. On June 22, Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former professor, Indian Institute of Management, was attacked in his home in Devprayag, Uttarakhand. The assailants damaged his house, abused him, threw black ink on his face and threatened to return and burn his house down if Jhunjhunwala did not stop protesting against hydropower projects and dams in the state. The perpetrators are known; their faces were flashed on news channels. But the governments, both state and central, do not find it necessary to arrest them.
On July 6, the Right to Information (RTI) activist and leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Akhil Gogoi, faced what he himself describes as a "murderous attack" in Nalbari, Assam, by people sent by a minister from the Tarun Gogoi-led state government. For years now, Akhil, leader of the largest mass-based anti-dam movement in India, has been raising his voice against corruption. He is also spreading awareness on how big dams in Assam are creating more environmental problems than they aim to solve. To suppress his movement, some politicians and public officials have accused Akhil and his supporters of having connections with the Maoists. Several cases have been filed against him and others and Akhil has been arrested many times. He is admitted in a hospital following the recent attack.
On July 7, environmentalist and another RTI activist, Ramesh Agarwal of Jan Chetna in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, was shot at by an unidentified youth. One bullet hit him in the thigh. Agarwal has been hospitalised since. His 'mistake' is that he has been campaigning for the implementation of basic norms of public hearings and environment impact assessments for power and mining projects. In May 2011, Agarwal was put behind bars following a complaint filed by a big corporation. The state government has been trying to protect the interests of the corporate instead of listening to people's complaints on environmental norms.
This is not the first time an activist has been attacked. In the past, some activists have lost their lives too. What's worrying is that the frequency of such attacks is increasing. This shows that some people want to silence activists and that they are getting help from governments to execute their nefarious plans. Protests against the undemocratic imposition of the so-called development projects are on the rise too. From Kashmir (NHPC is unable to take forward the work on Uri 2 projects for months now due to agitations) to Kerala (opposition from locals has stalled the Athirapally hydropower project on the Chalakudy river), from Gujarat (agitation against the 4,000 MW Mundra thermal power project) to the North-east (work on the 2,000 MW Subansiri hydropower project has come to a halt due to a campaign led by Akhil), protests are spreading far and wide in the country. These protests are not against just big projects; people are also opposing relatively smaller projects which are affecting their lives. Therefore, we need to understand that adverse effects of projects, not their size, are inviting opposition.
The reasons that are triggering protests range from inadequate social and environmental impact assessments - there's none for projects below 25 MW - sham public hearings, absence of compliance of laws, benefits bypassing the poor and lack of democracy in planning and decision-making processes.
We need urgent, effective action from project developers and state and central governments. There is also an urgent need for action from the judiciary, media and civil society. By not taking any action against the perpetrators, the UPA and the BJP, it seems, are busy strangulating RTI and the National Green Tribunal. It must be understood that terror can't bring about development or suppress dissent. Instead, such attacks will fuel more protests in times to come and will engulf the rulers too.
Himanshu Thakkar is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. The views expressed by the author are personal.