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Gujarat’s Mundra fisherfolk prepare for long battle

Mundra fisherfolk want IFC to compensate them for the environmental destruction and loss of livelihood they allege was caused by a Tata Power plant funded by the Washington-based organisation; they also want corrective measures put in place to repair the damage.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2019 17:51 IST
Priyanka Ishwari
Priyanka Ishwari
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mundra fisherfolk,Mundra,Gujarat
Budh Ismail Jam, 60, was the lead plaintiff in a case demanding compensation for fisherfolk.(Photo credit- Joe Athialy)

Almost two months after the US Supreme Court ruled in their favour by lifting the immunity enjoyed by international organisations from being sued in the US, fisherfolk in Gujarat’s Mundra are preparing for another legal battle.

Celebrations over the February 27 victory have given way to collecting funds, gathering evidence and doing more research to back a fresh lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector lending arm of the World Bank.

Mundra fisherfolk want IFC to compensate them for the environmental destruction and loss of livelihood they allege was caused by a Tata Power plant funded by the Washington-based organisation; they also want corrective measures put in place to repair the damage.

The SC verdict has cleared the decks for them to sue IFC in the District Court of Columbia, which means they will have to wage a legal battle all over again, after spending four years on it the first time around.

“We are working on taking the case to the lower court within a few weeks...We are trying to collect data on how much we incurred in losses since the plant started its operations,” said Bharat Patel, general secretary of the Machimaar Adhikaar Sangharsh Samiti (MASS), which has been spearheading the cause of Mundra’s fishing families.

The association was one of the plaintiffs that challenged IFC’s immunity from being sued in the US. The District Court ruled in July 2015 that the International Organisations Immunities Act (IOIA), 1945, granted IFC absolute immunity from being sued; an appeals court upheld the verdict in IFC’s favour in July 2017, forcing the plaintiffs to move the US Supreme Court. They had first filed a case against the IFC in the District Court of Columbia in April 2015.

Vindication came in February 2019, when the US Supreme Court ruled, “IFC was entitled under the IOIA only to the limited or “restrictive” immunity that foreign governments currently enjoy” and not absolute immunity from suits.

As they prepare for a renewed fight against IFC, the fisherfolk are up against a potential financial crunch.

We are trying to collect funds to get a team of lawyers from the United States to come, visit our farms and the marine areas surrounding the plant for observation and evidence gathering. But it is hard to come by that much amount of money since we are a small, donor-based association,” Patel said. He estimates that they need a minimum of Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh to support the travel and a week-long stay for two lawyers.

US-based NGP Earths Rights International (ERI) provided MASS free legal assistance in the US and its lawyers would be fighting the case on behalf of the Mundra residents once again.

“These kind of cases take a very long time. We can’t predict how long. World Bank could appeal against an unfavourable judgement,” said Marco Simons, general counsel of ERI.

Tata Group maintains there is no truth to the allegations of environmental destruction and loss of livelihood. It said the firm had complied with all the environmental norms and met the stringent recommendations of IFC and other lenders so as to comply with international guidelines.

A World Bank spokesperson said the organisation would not comment on the specifics of the issue. “We respect the SC ruling, and we will continue to deliver on our mission to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity,” the spokesperson told HT.

First Published: Apr 29, 2019 05:26 IST