April 2010: Confucius once said, “The superior man seeks what is right; the inferior one, what is profitable.” At the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), it is precisely this – the future of our natural resources which will safeguard our tomorrow vs. the short-term gains of misguided developmental projects – that a team of dedicated lawyers fight for.
LIFE was set up in 2005 by Supreme Court advocate and environmental activist Ritwick Dutta along with Rahul Choudhary, an accomplished lawyer with 10 years of experience under his belt. Dutta was the recipient of the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wildlife Service Award in 2007 and the Carl Zeiss award in 2005 for wildlife conservation.
The aim of the organisation is the establishment of environmental democracy through the use of judicial and quasi-judicial forums. Its members work with national and local groups, concerned individuals and committees to ensure the protection of our steadily dwindling ecosystems. Its modus operandi is a combination of litigation, investigation, information dissemination, training citizens and supporting campaigns and movements. Though LIFE does not litigate on its own, it assists and supports groups which wish to take up issues before various courts.
The law is one of the most powerful tools in the hands of aware and motivated citizens and India’s wildlife laws in particular, are regarded as one of the most comprehensive in the world. Unfortunately, people are slow to use these constitutional advantages to the benefit of the environment and wildlife.
LIFE has a long registrar of cases it has helped fight and won. One of the most challenging issues it has been working on for the last four years is against mining in the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa. These hills are not only of immense ecological importance, they are also home to the Dongaria Kondha tribe. The Dongarias are a tribe far ahead of their time in terms of their attitude towards the environment and, their rehabilitation heralded doom for the Niyamgiri hills. The Supreme Court had granted permission to a British mining firm, Vedanta Resources to proceed with mining operations in the area. LIFE is currently fighting the case on the grounds of the shoddy EIA report and hopes to set a precedent for future environmental reports. It has also challenged mining projects based on false data in EIAs in Goa, Orissa and Karnataka. In fact, its analysis of the EIA report of the Ashapura Minechem Ltd’s bauxite mine in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra revealed that the whole document was plagiarised from a Russian EIA report!
LIFE’s revival of the National Environment Appellate Authority helped in its struggle and it is now looking to revolutionise the stagnating committee to ensure that an effective grievance redressal mechanism is put in place to combat the steady influx of bias in EIA reports. It is also closely associated with the EIA Resource and Response Centre (ERC), that has created a database of EIA reports and is currently working on creating a cadre of scientific experts who will be able to credibly critique the reports. The ERC also conducts training programmes on the use of the Right to Information Act with respect to environmental issues.
From dams in Sikkim (Teesta III, IV), Arunachal Pradesh (Middle Siang), Uttarakhand (Lohari Nag Pala) and Andhra Pradesh (Polavaram) to hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and thermal power plants in western India, LIFE has challenged a number of environmentally-disastrous projects. It has performed a unique and invaluable role, offering otherwise inaccessible legal support to environmental NGOs, tribes and displaced communities. Its two publications, The Supreme Court on Forest Conservation, published by Universal Law Publishers in 2006 and The Citizens Guide to Participation in Environmental Decision Making, 2006 are definitive references to the Indian Constitution as an effective tool against environmental degradation and climate change.
LIFE also serves as the India Secretariat of The Access Initiative (TAI) that is the world’s largest civil society network working to ensure that people have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.
LIFE is also jointly working with law students at the Environmental Law Clinic, Faculty of Law, in the University of Utah in the U.S.A. to prepare legal briefs for cases. In this two-way process, lawyers in India get assistance in terms of U.S. case laws as well as scientific papers while law students in the U.S. gather international experience. LIFE works in close collaboration with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) which is a select network of public interest environmental lawyers. Scientists of ELAW have been instrumental in critiquing various mining and dam projects which have been used successfully before the various Courts as well as in assisting affected communities.
In the words of Ritwick Dutta,” I find today that a new category of people are willing to challenge ecologically-destructive projects and they are not just NGOs. They range from panchayats who are affected by the grant of mining leases in their villages, to the horticulturists who fear loss of production due to emissions from thermal power plants. This to me is important, since environmental concerns are not limited to a minority of people but encompass the wider population. They are more than willing to take up issues before the Court and other authorities and in their struggle lies the hope for the last remaining natural areas in India.
“It is devoted and committed organisations such as LIFE that go beyond the call of duty to remind the government of Sophocles’ words, “Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law” that are the need of the hour.
For more information on LIFE, contact:
Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment,
C-86 LGF East of Kailash,
New Delhi –110065.
Telefax: 011 – 46570551, 9810044660.