Ramesh Agrawal: Fighting Jindal’s bullets with information and solidarity

As he hobbled up to the stage with a walking stick on one side, and supported by his son on the other, the crowd cheered loudly. Ramesh Agrawal was one of the amazing people who won the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize this year. He was honoured at a ceremony in San Francisco, where JA staff where present. We also met and interviewed him a few days before the prize was announced.

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Photo courtesy: Goldman Environmental Prize

Ramesh Agrawal, who is respectfully called Rameshji in India, is from an organisation called Jan Chetna Manch, meaning a platform to raise peoples’ consciousness.

 

He lives in Chattisgarh state of eastern India, which is rich in mineral resources and because of this there has been a huge attack on the lands and resources of the local people by the state in conjunction with corporations. It is a state with a high percentage of tribal communities.

 

Through a small internet café which Rameshji runs, he organised local communities to use the right to information as a powerful tool to learn about and challenge ‘development’ projects planned in their areas. One of the main companies who he has been targeting is Jindal Steel & Power, the same company which is also currently mining coal in Tete province, Mozambique.

 

In July 2013, Jindal sent its goons who went into Rameshji’s internet café, shot at him and left him to die. They commented that he had been writing too much these days and needed to be taught a lesson. Somehow Rameshji managed to make a phone call and get help. But he has been severely harmed by the bullets that entered his body.

 

This wasn’t the first time Rameshji had been targeted by the state-corporate nexus. In May 2011, he was arrested on falsified charges of extortion and defamation. At 4am his house was surrounded and he was arrested and jailed for 72 days without bail. Surprisingly, the charges against him had been filed a year ago, in 2010. Yet he was arrested only a year later, making a mockery of the justice system.

 

Why was he being targeted? Rameshji was actively using information to organise people and to oppose irregularities in Jindal’s coal blocks in the state. They were doing construction on government land without proper land acquisition and without an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

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Photo courtesy: Goldman Environmental Prize

This is really striking because Jindal in Mozambique has been operating in similar ways. They have been mining coal without an EIA and with communities still living in the mining zone; they are having health problems and even their right to movement has even been severely hampered.

 

Rameshji told us that Jindal’s coal mining is causing pollution and coal ash in the air. This has impacted the lives of people. They are unable to make their traditional food badi anymore because they have no place to dry it without contamination from the coal ash. It is interesting that communities are facing such a similar situation in Mozambique where they have no place to dry their mandioca without coal contamination.

 

Of course the threats of Jindal are well known in Mozambique too. Rameshji explained that Jindal’s policy on those calling out for justice is clear: bribe them, threaten them to make them back down, or if that fails then remove them.

 

Jindal is politically well-connected and they run an active public relations to portray a ‘clean image’. This is also their weakness, that they are quite concerned about their image with banks, share markets, consortiums, etc.

 

Through talking to Rameshji, we learnt of the struggles of communities in India against Jindal which are so similar to the struggles of communities in Mozambique against the same company. We need to strengthen communities on both sides to gain information and to fight for their rights together.

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Photo: Justiça Ambiental

 

 

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