Nearly a week after receiving this year's $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the "Green Nobel", 60-year-old Ramesh Agrawal continues to betray a strong sense of surprise.
Ramesh Agrawal received the award for helping villagers fight coal mining in Chhattisgarh. (Darpan Singh/HT Photo)
"I have been fighting against coal mines and thermal power plants, primarily in my native state Chhattisgarh, for the last 12-13 years. Frankly speaking, I had not hoped even for a small award. It was a complete surprise," Agrawal told HT in an exclusive interview.
Agrawal is the fourth Indian, and the first since 1996, to have been conferred this prestigious global award.
In his first abroad trip, he got the award at a function in San Francisco on April 28. There was another felicitation event in Washington on April 30.
"I reached Delhi on Monday morning via Istanbul but missed my connecting flight to Raipur and chose to spend some time in Delhi," he said on the sidelines of a felicitation event organised by the lawyers of National Green Tribunal.
Agrawal got the award for helping villagers in Chhattisgarh fight a large coal mine, using a small internet cafe as his headquarters. He is among the six environmental activists from around the world to have won the Goldman Prize.
He was shot in his leg in 2012 for his campaign. He has a steel rod in his femur and uses a cane for support while walking.
Did the attack not shake him? "I always knew anything could happen. The corporate investors have a three-pronged strategy. They would first try to buy you, then try to implicate you and, if nothing works, try to get rid of you. I have no fears."
In 2011, he said he was jailed for several weeks on "fabricated charges of defamation".
The award that Agrawal and others received was established in 1989 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman and winners are selected by an international jury.
"I don't deserve the award. I am only a medium. This award goes to many, the entire community which is fighting out there against injustice, unsustainable developments and greedy businessmen," he said.
"I'm grateful to my lawyers at the tribunal here who supported our cause. They worked for free. I only sent papers, they fought cases. You can't fight such battles without people's unconditional support."
Apart from Chhattisgarh, Agrawal has also been active in tribal pockets of Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar where coal is found in abundance.
"Innocent tribals are fooled into believing that the corporate world will build schools and hospitals for them. The poor who are dependent on agriculture for survival lose their land. The land-for-land promise is never kept. Peanuts are given in the name of compensation. It's time we fought the big guys," he said.
Agrawal says laws in Chhattisgarh prevent non-tribals from buying land from tribals.
"But companies use 'dummy tribals' to acquire land. Poor people do not even notice when their land is snatched from them."
"During mining, large quantities of water is used and then dumped into local water bodies. Even animals do not like to get close to that water. Groundwater levels go down drastically. Only air comes out of handpumps," he said.
Agrawal has been organising villagers to demand their right to information about industrial development
Any advice for green crusaders in Delhi?
"There is so much air pollution in Delhi. The moment I came out on the streets I had a bout of headache. Vehicular pollution is so visible. CNG made some differences but we have surrendered the gains. It's very disturbing to see one family using five to six cars," he said.
He suggested Delhi must crack a whip on private cars and upgrade public transport.
Agrawal says tonnes of arsenic go into Yamuna from power plants in Delhi.
"Other countries are shutting coal-based power plants. But we're clearing them in haste. Coal-based power plants [like the ones in Delhi] are more harmful than mines themselves. Delhi must burn its last lump of coal," he said.