Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), an Indian non-profit organisation, was recently awarded the prestigious Right Livelihood Awards of 2021. The award is known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize. The Stockholm-based Right Livelihood said LIFE was being recognised “for innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India”.
Founded by lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary in 2005, LIFE has been instrumental in facilitating public participation and access to justice in environmental litigation across regions in India.
In a conversation with The Quint, Dutta says, “We must not forget that only ‘thinking’ is not going to change the world or improve the environment or protect the rights of communities — it is important to think and act.” Edited excerpts:
What does the award mean to LIFE?
The award is a recognition of the work done by LIFE in promoting environmental democracy and rule of law. Ever since its inception, LIFE’s focus has been on facilitating access to justice, public participation and access to information. This award is a recognition of not just the work of LIFE but of countless individuals across the country who use the law and legal tools to protect their forests, rivers, wetlands, grasslands and coasts on which their livelihood, culture and identity depend.
The award recognises that environmental issues and concerns are deeply connected to livelihood issues. There is a tendency among those in power to dismiss environmental concerns as one limited to protecting ‘tigers and trees’. Our experience shows that the strongest defenders of the ecology are those whose livelihood depends on the ecology. The Right Livelihood Award, by conferring this award on LIFE, has in fact recognised the struggle and courage of grassroots environmental movement in the country.
Can you mention some of the key legal victories of LIFE?
One of the early successes of LIFE in environmental cases has been the case against the British mining company Vedanta in the state of Odisha, which became a precedent-setting judgment, since the Supreme Court recognised that the local community’s consent was required for such a project to commence. The judicial precedent requiring consent and consultation was later applied by communities through assistance by LIFE in a series of other cases involving ecologically destructive projects.
LIFE assisted communities against the Korean Steel Company plan to set up a steel plant in violation of India’s environmental laws and the French Cement Company Lafarge’s plan to mine in Himachal Pradesh ultimately led to their withdrawal. LIFE, through the creative use of litigation, has ensured that the power to protect and conserve biodiversity rests with the local communities and has secured court decisions that led to the setting up of 2,55,000 Biodiversity Management Committees in the country. At the same time, it helped secure a judgment that ensures that local communities that have conserved biodiversity are entitled, as a matter of right, to a ‘fair and equitable sharing’ of benefits that arise from the use of biodiversity when they are used by corporate entities.
In April 2016, lawyers from our team represented local communities and helped in securing a court order to review a hydropower project in Tawang in the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the ground that the project developers misled the government by concealing crucial material information. The case was groundbreaking because it was the first time in India that a project was directed to be reviewed on wildlife and cultural grounds. The National Green Tribunal was satisfied that the project would threaten the existence of the vulnerable black-necked crane, which is revered by the local Monpa tribe. In 2018, we were able to help the tribal communities of Lippa in remote the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh in securing a judgment from the NGT making it mandatory for the entire proposal for building a dam to be placed before the village council for its approval under India’s Forest Rights Act.
What are the key challenges in environmental litigation?
The odds are heavily stacked against the litigant. There is a general impression that almost all projects are challenged before the courts — the reality is completely the opposite. While the number of approvals runs into hundreds of thousands, the number that are legally challenged do not cross double-digits. Even those that are challenged are mostly dismissed on hyper-technical grounds even by the National Green Tribunal. In those rare cases where destructive projects are stopped by the NGT, the project proponents rush to the Supreme Court and get a stay order. It is, therefore, a miracle when affected people get relief in some cases.
Added to this is the fact that despite specialised environmental courts, not many are interested in pursuing environmental law as a career. The fact is that environmental litigations take time. The Vedanta case took more than a decade in four different courts and tribunals, the case against the Thermal Power Plant in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh, has been ongoing for more than a decade, litigation on the Lower Demwe Hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh took nearly 8 years. Thus, there is a need for long-term engagement of lawyers in environmental law if they really want change.
On another note, law schools in India are yet to train their students in environmental law. It is rare to find law graduates from premier law schools in India who have even a basic understanding of environmental law.
What is LIFE’s strategy in promoting environmental justice and democracy?
LIFE believes in using a creative mix of research, capacity building, evidence-based advocacy and litigation in bringing about change. We believe that it is important to undertake in-depth research to understand where the problem is. However, LIFE does not aim to become a ‘Think Tank’ — we must not forget that only ‘thinking’ is not going to change the world or improve the environment or protect the rights of communities — it is important to ‘think and act’. Therefore, advocacy, as well as litigation, are important tools. We believe also in training and capacity-building since laws have to be communicated to those who are to implement or are to be impacted by them.
Our approach can be best seen in the case of the implementation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. The law was passed in 2002, and for nearly a decade and a half, there were only discussions in academic institutions and ‘think tanks’ on how to implement it. In 2016, we initiated our work on the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. We found that less than 5 per cent of the 2,77, 380 local bodies in India had constituted Biodiversity Management Committees despite the fact that the law required them to set these up. As a result of four years of litigation before the NGT, today, 2,75, 382 Biodiversity Management Committees have been set up, which is 99.3 per cent of the total number of local bodies. Though many are not fully functional, a process of democratising biodiversity conservation has been initiated.
Currently, through litigation before the NGT, we are trying to ensure that every state in India has a State Action Plan to deal with air pollution. Despite the statutory requirement that every state should have formulated and implemented a State Action Plan to mitigate air pollution, not even a single state has even started the process.
How big is the Team at LIFE and what is its USP?
LIFE is a fairly small team that comprises lawyers, environmental scientists, GIS specialists, and others. We work out of offices in New Delhi and Kolkata on various environmental issues. In a way, we are unique since we are among the very few environmental organisations that work on issues that range from air pollution to wildlife conservation in terms of diversity. On the one hand, we train communities in asserting their rights under the Forest Rights Act, and on the other, we train forest officials in effectively applying wildlife laws to prevent poaching of wild animals. Our research and action areas include the efficacy of mechanical sweepers to clean streets, the impact of sand mining, to ensuring that Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) technology is installed in coal-fired power plants.