Meet the two Indian lawyers who have just won an ‘alternative Nobel’
Ten years after their fight began, 12 villages in the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha cast their vote in India’s first environmental referendum. It was 2013. They’d waited years to have their say. Now, unanimously, they voted against a massive bauxite mine proposed by Vedanta to feed its alumina refinery in the region.
The ₹50,000-crore project had been taken up in partnership with the Odisha government but was opposed by the Dongria Kondh tribe, to whom the hill is sacred. A David-vs-Goliath fight ensued, with the UK-based mining giant on one side and the tribals, activists and their lawyer on the other. The fight went to the Supreme Court, which eventually ordered the Odisha government to seek the consent of the villages that would be impacted by the project.
The 8,000-member tribe had won. Their lawyer was Ritwick Dutta, co-founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), which recently won one of this year’s four Right Livelihood awards. Also called the alternative Nobel, the awards were introduced in 1980 by German-Swedish philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull and are given out annually “to honour those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today”.
When he took on the Niyamgiri case in 2004, Dutta says he had no real idea what he’d be up against. “It was one of my first cases and overnight I had to face big-shot lawyers who were appearing for the Odisha government and Vedanta,” says Dutta, now 47. “It was my first foray into issues where the intersection of wildlife, forest and tribals with corporate irresponsibility comes in.”
At the time, he had done stints at World Wildlife Fund and with human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves.
Taking on Vedanta brought in more work of a similar kind. By 2005, Dutta and his former law-college mate Rahul Choudhary teamed up to take on cases exclusively in the fields of environment law, rights and displacement. This initiative would become LIFE, registered as a trust in 2008. Dutta is managing trustee and focuses on business and litigation; as trustee, Choudhary, 47, spearheads on-ground efforts and case-related research.
“We didn’t have a grand vision for the institution, but we also knew we were not like other firms and didn’t want to name it after ourselves,” laughs Dutta.
LIFE has since gained a reputation for representing local communities in fights against developmental projects that will not benefit them and will degrade ecosystems they depend on, worship or wish to protect. On the other side of the ring are usually governments and mighty corporations. Some of the cases LIFE has fought and won have involved steelmakers POSCO (a project that was to bring in India’s largest foreign direct investment), Jindal Steel & Power, and the French industrial house Lafarge.
LIFE runs on payments from litigants who can afford to pay, and research and outreach grants from around the world. The 1 million krona ( ₹85 lakh) prize that comes with their Right Livelihood award will now be added to the kitty.
Since 2005, LIFE has taken on more than 600 cases and won some landmark judgements. These include rulings against: a hydroelectric power project in Himachal Pradesh that was opposed by local apple growers; a thermal power plant in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, opposed by Alphonso mango growers; a steel plant opposed by betel leaf farmers in Odisha; a hydroelectric project that threatened the habitat of the black-necked crane in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a case in which the lawyers represented a group of Buddhist monks.
It’s a small team fighting the large battles: 21 people, including scientists, researchers and nine lawyers.
The effort wouldn’t be possible, Dutta points out, without brave litigants who have been threatened, arrested and shot at for their efforts. Where LIFE triumphs, he says, is in staying the course in a legal system that can feel broken, outdated, misused and manipulated. And in untangling the tangles to simplify what belongs to whom, and who should have the last say.
“It doesn’t always work, but our idea has been to simplify the debates and discussions into arguments that are easily understandable,” Dutta says. “In the case of the apple growers of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, we got a landmark verdict against the hydropower project because, very simply, they hadn’t obtained the growers’ consent.”
Dutta also likes to emphasise that no one is anti-development by default. Coverage of protests and court cases can contribute to a sense that farmers will oppose anything near them, and environmentalists would like all industrial activity to stop, but that is far from the case, he says. No more than 1% of the lakhs of projects cleared at the central and state levels in India each year meet with public objection. A fraction of those makes it to the courts. And of the cases that make it to the courts, quite a few are settled in favour of the industrial project.
“We realised that to actually make an impact, we would need to scale up and make peace with losing,” Dutta says. “When we started, we’d file about 50 cases a year and lose most of them on a technicality — either the case was filed too late, or the petitioner didn’t qualify as an aggrieved party.”
But the few cases that are won help set precedents to bring about meaningful change.
And even when they lost, they were making an impact. “We lost the Ashapura mining case in Maharashtra because we missed a filing deadline, but it was hard for the media and government to ignore the fact that their Environment Impact Assessment report was a copy paste of a report for a Russian bauxite mine, complete with names of rivers and animals from Russia,” Choudhary says.
Increasing the volume of cases also serves another purpose: Everyone involved learns about the intricacies involved, including the judges.
Of all their achievements, Dutta says one of their greatest has been that they have found ways to put the power in the hands of the people.
Today, LIFE’s work also includes conducting training and capacity buildings workshops with local communities. In coastal regions, they teach fisherfolk about their rights under coastal regulation zone norms. “We tell them what is permissible, what is not, how to look out for a violation and where they should go if they spot one.” They work with Biodiversity Management Committees at the local level.
“I believe LIFE’s unique attribute is its emphasis on promoting what it calls ‘environmental democracy’ through its legal work,” says Souparno Banerjee, outreach director at the think tank Centre for Science and Environment. “For a nation which continues to labour under inequity at every stage, at a time when we are buffeted by multiple crises ranging from climate change to zoonosis-driven pandemics, institutions like LIFE need to be nurtured, strengthened and supported.”
As the Right Livelihood awards statement put it: LIFE was chosen for its “innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.”