Award-winning Indian environmental campaigner Ramesh Agrawal talks about his campaign against large scale mining corporations
“When I saw they had a gun, I thought, ‘My time is up’.”
These were the words uttered by environmental activist Ramesh Agrawal that left the audience aghast at a talk on coal mining in Sydney’s North Shore.
Agrawal, who arrived in Sydney from Chhattisgarh, spoke of his torment in being shot at due to his project’s success. With the help of villagers, his project shut down one of Chhattisgarh’s largest proposed coal mines by Jindal Steel & Power – a multinational Indian mining conglomerate.
Agrawal went on to describe the shooting incident. “I was working in my office at the Internet café. Some 12 people walked in and (one of them) asked me about the price of computers. Suddenly, they pointed a gun at me and said (I had been) talking a lot. I threw my mobile at the gun but the bullet scattered my body. I managed to use a landline phone before falling down unconscious, calling my daughter to say I had been shot. I was taken to hospital, and since then have had over 15 operations.”
As a winner of the Goldman Environment Prize (known as the ‘Green Nobel’), Agrawal was invited to Sydney by Lock the Gate Alliance, a grassroots organisation campaigning against unsafe coal and gas mining. His confronting yet heartening talk delved into environmental degradation and coal mining.
Of particular interest are his collaborative efforts with his community to campaign for access to information, as villagers are currently denied knowledge about industrial developments, and instead, are left with polluted air and water. His talk also mentioned how Jindal Steel & Power (which now owns Wollongong Coal), is seeking to mine in Sydney’s drinking water in the Wollongong-Illawarra catchment area, which would contaminate and destroy access to clean water here in NSW.
Agrawal’s vision for an environmentally sustainable future began in 2000, after the state of Chhattisgarh was formed.
Agrawal told Indian Link, “There was a sudden rush of industries like coal mines, power plants and steel plants. Our state becomes the first choice of investors as we have cheap land, huge water and mineral resources, and above all, lucrative policy of state.” However, civilian lives were gravely affected with the unplanned and unregulated industrialisation. This is when Agrawal felt the need to initiate a movement to protect the interests of the people and the environment.
“There’s high pollution, forced land grabbing and degradation of forest, but no one to hear us,” he explained. “The only solution seems to educate and create awareness so the people know of their rights and come together to fight against injustice. We started our campaign with the name Jan Chetana, which means ‘people’s awareness’.”
Besides discussing the shooting and corporate misconduct, Agrawal also narrated his experience in struggling to surmount the corrupt legal system in India that lead to grave injustices against him including imprisonment for 73 days in a ‘bribery’ case. The Jindal mining company put this case forward themselves: after failing to bribe him, they were able to get him placed on unsubstantiated defamation charges.
The inept judicial and governmental systems in India, which also have strong support from the puissant coal and steel industries, were unable to achieve an equitable outcome for Agrawal and the community.
During the talk, Agrawal said, “The Government of India approved the construction of coal mines. The community people asked what’s next and I said the only option is to go to court. We went to the court and it took five years. A long battle, finally the highest environment court passed the order in community favour to grant permission to mine there. Mine was going away.”
Nonetheless, Agrawal aspires to continue his Jan Chetana campaign in the future across the globe. “India is not only the country facing coal mining problems but there are other countries including Australia,” he says.
“Pollution must be seen as cross border terrorism and people around world should come together to save our planet.”
Despite the fact that Agrawal has still not fully recovered, or that his attackers are yet to be prosecuted, his optimistic spirit and outright obstinacy has allowed him to continue his efforts and educate the public on coal mining.
Agrawal expressed how, “Blessings of my community helped me recover, even though I am still not fully recovered and am still under treatment. I never think of giving up, even after jail for 73 days and even after being shot. I’m not strong enough (any more) and I have to walk with the help of crutches. But I am still working.”