The murderous attack on green activists in Meghalaya is an assault on our collective future
Social activist Agnes Kharshiing is a well-known name in Meghalaya. Along with being a human rights activist, she is also an environment defender of repute. On November 8, Kharshiing and another activist, A Sangma, were in the East Jaintia Hills district to track and document cases of illegal mining. (In 2014, the National Green Tribunal imposed a blanket ban on coal mining, once the driver of Meghalaya’s economy.) While the two activists were conducting their investigations, a group of 30-40 people encircled their car and attacked them brutally. Both are in hospital with severe injuries. Sources, a Hindustan Times report said, point towards coal mafia being involved in the attack as Kharshiing had shared several pictures of trucks ferrying coal illegally and their dumping grounds. However, authorities are yet to confirm the identity of the attackers.
According to ‘Defenders of the Earth‘, a report released by international NGO, Global Witness, in 2017, being an environmental activist in India is a dangerous occupation. While Brazil tops the 2017 list with 49 deaths, India is ranked at fourth with 16 deaths. India got a special mention in the 2017 report as one of the countries where the situation is getting progressively worse, along with Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But those who follow environmental issues will argue that the number of deaths (16) does not reveal the true picture: In the recesses of this large and diverse country, many cases of attacks, harassments and threats go undocumented, and attackers go unpunished.
Unlike the police firing on people protesting against Sterlite in Tamil Nadu or, for that matter, the protests of Dongria Kondhs against Vedanta in Odisha, the attacks on Kharshiing and Sangma went unnoticed on prime time.
But what is happening in Meghalaya is a story that applies to all of the country.
The principle of intergenerational equity says that natural resources are a shared inheritance where the State is the trustee on behalf of the people to ensure that future generations receive the benefit of inheritance and, therefore, the State must do all it can to ensure that it is not pilfered. But the principle is broken routinely: Illegal extraction of natural resources is rampant across the country because lack of administrative and political will.
This mismanagement of natural resources will lead not only to environmental problems such as land degradation, soil erosion and pollution, but it can also create serious social and economic tensions. And these will not be restricted to a particular region, it will have a ripple effect across the country, something which environmental defenders such as Kharshiing and Sangma can see clearly, but those in power (wilfully) refuse to.