RITWICK DUTTA

India,

Ritwick Dutta is restoring transparency and accountability to India’s Environmental Impact Assessment processes in order to protect the environment and at-risk communities from encroaching big industry. Through what he calls “environmental democracy” Ritwick gives citizens the tools to assess the impact of industrial development projects and challenge destructive practices.

This profile below was prepared when Ritwick Dutta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

INTRODUCTION

Ritwick Dutta is restoring transparency and accountability to India’s Environmental Impact Assessment processes in order to protect the environment and at-risk communities from encroaching big industry. Through what he calls “environmental democracy” Ritwick gives citizens the tools to assess the impact of industrial development projects and challenge destructive practices.




THE NEW IDEA

Through a process he calls “environmental democracy,” Ritwick gives ordinary citizens in India an unprecedented voice in the authorization of major infrastructure projects. Working with partner environmental groups and communities in India's leading biodiversity “hotspots,” he trains participants to read and interpret the complex legal reviews that accompany each project, giving residents the tools they need to understand the immediate and long-term implications of proposed developments. He then works to demystify pertinent laws and processes for legal action, empowering citizens to take full advantage of the country's legal system.

Ritwick complements these efforts with direct outreach to forest agents and governmental departments, recognizing that they too must fully understand the law and its many implications in order to effectively uphold it. Finally, Ritwick works to bring change within judicial system itself: He has revived the previously defunct National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), originally created to evaluate the impact of such projects. Ritwick and his team of environmental lawyers have filed eight of the nine litigations reviewed by the NEAA, pioneering a decisively results-driven approach to environmental advocacy in India.

Ritwick’s efforts to create a cohort of informed citizens on the one hand and an effective system for legal redress on the other have had a tangible impact on project development in India. His organization, Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, and its legal team—among the only practicing environmental lawyers in the country—have already been responsible for numerous policy changes and the stalling of a mega mining project in the state of Orissa, in what has been hailed as the biggest such victory in the history of environmental suits in India.




THE PROBLEM

India’s unprecedented economic boom has fueled a considerable rise in large-scale infrastructure projects across the country, ranging from big dams that generate energy and support irrigation systems, to the construction of new highways and airports. Meanwhile, industrial demand for resources continues to grow, increasing the number of mining and forest clearing projects across the country.

In its haste to promote development, the government has designated particular areas “Special Economic Zones (SEZs),” enabling it to fast track many of the Environmental Impact Assessments required for these projects. Bypassing various environmental standards, the SEZs have spread onto what were once valuable agricultural lands, coastal fishing areas, and even mangrove forests and other former conservation zones. Faced with an influx of private investment, the government has weakened its environmental regulations, often looking the other way as industry tramples existing laws and policies. This decline in environmental management has led to an alarming lack of transparency, accountability, and community participation in environmental governance.

The large sums of money passing from industry to the government have fueled widespread corruption. The Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE), tasked with managing environmental regulation, has adopted a decidedly pro-industry stance. While the law requires that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) undergo a public hearing before the project commences—in theory granting the public the right to approve or veto the construction—these hearings are today largely for show. The EIAs are doctored, and at times, bear little relevance to the area in question. In one such case, Ritwick found a report that proposed saving Siberian wolves in South India, having been copied word-for-word from an outdated Russian document. Despite the obvious plagiarism, the government machinery approved the assessment, providing the local communities with a condensed Executive Summary written in English. Told only of the short-term benefits of employment, the local residents had thus given their consent.

Aside from the problems arising from corruption and mismanagement, the system is itself flawed. In order to veto an environmental clearance, members of the public must file an appeal within thirty days of the project receiving clearance from the MoFE. Within days of clearance, a notice is published in a local newspaper in the designated area announcing a public hearing. Yet in a country with twenty-two registered languages and more than 2,000 local dialects, these announcements often go unnoticed by local residents. Moreover, in the fall-out of the Narmada and Tehri dam projects, which caused massive devastation in two highly populated areas, the government and private industry alike have turned their focus toward low-density regions, home to many of India’s most isolated tribal communities. And even when a community does manage to lodge a complaint at the hearing, they are then required to travel to Delhi in order to press their case with the courts and relevant environmental authorities. Such complicated bureaucracy puts the needs and concerns of citizens last.

As a result, India’s rural poor—and the environmental resources they depend on—are bearing a highly disproportionate share of the burden for the country’s rapid industrialization.




THE STRATEGY

Ritwick first provides affected communities with a clear understanding of the environmental and human implications of large-scale development projects. He thus enables them to decide for themselves whether a particular project is beneficial, detrimental, or permissible in modified form, and finally gives them the tools they need to access legal redress.

Ritwick and his team have built an up-to-date database of all the major projects under construction as well as those in the pipeline. Bringing together community leaders and citizen organizations working in each particular area, Ritwick leads them in discussions about a project’s possible implications—favorable or otherwise—and trains them how to read and interpret complicated EIA reports. He then works with those assigned to participate in the public hearings to teach them the intricacies of the law and systems for redress.

A trained lawyer, Ritwick’s efforts rely on the creative use of the law. In the case of the Orissa mining project proposed by Vedanta Alumina Co., for example, Ritwick realized that traditional legal appeals were unlikely to withstand the enormous number of vested interests riding on the project. Having discovered that Vedanta was holding its annual shareholder meeting in London, Ritwick convinced two tribal leaders of the affected community to buy one share each of the company, and then raised the funds to send them to London. Arriving in full tribal regalia, the leaders then presented their case before a large international audience of shareholders, investors and policymakers. This created a major stir in the media, leading to front-page coverage of the story and photos the next day. As a result, Vedanta's main investment partner, the Norwegian Pension Fund, quickly pulled out and the project is now in the courts. Indeed, legal experts believe that the Supreme Court could end up setting a precedent with the case, influencing other such large-scale cases for years to come.

Ritwick has also made considerable gains through concerted advocacy and legal reform. By relentlessly petitioning, he has effectively garnered increased power for the Central Empowered Committee, established in 2002 by the Supreme Court to evaluate the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects. Determined to maintain constant pressure on the government, Ritwick makes sure that multiple cases are before the court at any given moment. By ensuring that environmental cases are constantly in the limelight, he thus hopes to create a favorable climate for quick redress.

His efforts to provide improved access to information have led him to publish several booklets in local languages, explaining key legal doctrines and environmental issues. He has found new uses for the Right to Information Act (RTIA), made effective nationwide by Ashoka Fellow Arvind Kejriwal, and now trains activists to use the RTIA to challenge destructive industrial projects.

Because so much of Ritwick's work depends on careful understanding of each of the EIA reports, he and his team have built up a database containing more than 150 cases. Through careful analysis, he identifies holes or other potential weaknesses in the reports, taking particular care to understand the full implications for the communities involved. He has partnered with the U.S. organization E-Law, which maintains a database of such reports from around the world, to help with cases of misrepresentation and plagiarism. In addition, he has collaborated with a variety of other organizations working on environment and forest issues across India, providing legal training in exchange for environmental guidance. These partners include the Wildlife Trust of India, the Himalayan Environmental studies and Conservation Organization, as well as Greenpeace India, World Wildlife Fund, Traffic India, and Mines, Minerals and People, each of which provides essential support in their respective areas of expertise.

Finally, Ritwick is building a base of allies within the government itself. He leads a variety of training programs with government officials and forest agents, teaching them about environmental hazards and their roles and responsibilities as enforcement agents. He works, for example, with forest officers with ten years or more experience at the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, providing them with regular refresher courses. Thanks to his efforts, many have since become sympathizers with the cause, and now provide invaluable information as soon as a project is planned. His work with field agents have likewise played an influential role in shaping government policy, and led to a marked decline in corrupt practices.

Of his eight-member team, four are full-time environmental lawyers. His strategy to attract, nurture and retain human resource is unique: he handpicks fresh law graduates from the best law schools, and gives them the freedom and work experience to compete with higher paying law firms. Already, he has launched an internship program for young lawyers and has about nine such young professionals training with him.

Ritwick hopes to one day create local-level bodies comprised of ordinary residents that will monitor project proposals, ensuring that damaging cases can be stopped even before they start.




THE PERSON

Growing up near a popular elephant corridor, Ritwick saw the destructive impact of large-scale dams and major development on forests and wildlife firsthand. As a result, he was determined early on in life to right such wrongs.

Having gone on to a career in law, he began work under the guidance of Ashoka Fellow and human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves. With a true passion in environmental law, however, he set up LIFE in early 2003. He used an initial grant of 5,000 pounds to take cases before the Central Empowered Committee, and to fund further research and investigation. Within a few short years, he received the Rufford’s Innovation Award and a prize of 50,000 pounds for conceiving the Environmental Impact Assessment and Resource Centre in India. Recognized in part for creating the first online database of EIA reports, he used part of this grant money to help other citizen organizations working on environmental issues.