Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Indian Environmental Activists Risk Death in Exposing Illegal Activities

Amit Jetwa, an environmental activist who was killed on July this year after exposing Gir Forest's illegal limestone mining

India has been viewed as a land of cultural and natural beauty. It is also one of the few biologically diverse places in this world that house a rich variety of wildlife found nowhere else. Part of this unique diversity are several wildlife habitats, which include dry deciduous forests, dense tropical forests, harsh deserts, majestic snow-covered mountains, lush wetlands, and coral-rich seas. However, many of these biomes are at great risk of exploitation by people. Which is why environmental activists have stepped in to uncover illegal activities by various groups specializing in mining, logging, and other environmental catastrophes. However, many of these activists risk life and limb when exposing these malicious acts.

One recent incident occurred on July 20th 2010 when forest campaigner Amit Jetwa was brutally assassinated outside the Gujarat High Court by two assailants on motorcycles. Mr. Jetwa was famous for being involved in Gir Forest National Park, and exposing its illegal limestone mining. His efforts resulted with a special posthumous award. Before his death, Mr. Jetwa had filed a lawsuit against against the mining activities around the buffer zone of the national park. He had been strongly active in standing up for India's environment issues. One of his well-known past attempts was taking on Bollywood actor and heartthrob Salman Khan for illegally shooting a blackbuck. However, his actions led to strong enmity from the Indian government according to his friend and environmental lawyer Manish Vaidya. His family and friends had even stated that he had been getting threats ever since he began investigating mining operations in and around Gir Forest.

Mr. Jetwa's death was one of the many brutal incidents against activists. In January 2010, Satish Shetty, a whistle-blower and anti-corruption campaigner was murdered when he exposed light land scams in Maharashtra. In 2005, a marketing manager named Shanmughan Manjunath was killed after exposing gasoline pumps that sold adulterated fuel. In the words of activists, the image of India as a nation that gives environmental issues a top priority is overshadowed with bleakness. One of the contributions to the lives of Indian activists at risk is lack of police support. A classic case for this issue was seen in March 2010 when Sumaira Abdulali, a trustee of an environmental NGO called Awaaz Foundation, was pursued, threatened, and beaten by mafia connected to illegal sand mining in Maharashtra. After that, she and her team went down to an ecologically sensitive creek area where the sand mining occurring to photograph the activities. Later, they were followed by thugs who followed them for about ten kilometers until the team was met with a truck parked in the center of a truck. The truck tried to push the car containing the members of Ms. Abdulali's team, but were intervened by two police officers at the scene. Unfortunately, they attacked Ms. Abdulali and her team instead of placing arrests on the people involved in their attempted murder.

The second major aspect is government corruption. This reason appeared in a recent report by a campaign group called Reporters without Borders, which threw light in a growing number of attacks on activists and journalists who investigate industrial deforestation and pollution. It claimed that government officials corrupted by money from logging or mining were often behind these attacks and threats. One person who supported this report was J.P Dabral, president of the Himalayan Chipko Foundation, which has uncovered illegal logging in India's Himalaya region. Mr. Dabral asserted that local villagers cut a small number of trees, but the timber mafia abuses that policy and takes 200-300 trunks thanks to acceptance by government officials. Also, state officials have often been accused of curbing any environmental damage investigation. One incident involved a journalist named Shubranshu Choudhary, who tried to investigate pollution coming from mines operated by the National Mineral Development Corporation. Unfortunately, his efforts were foiled by police and local authorities who refused to allow him to enter indigenous villages affected by the pollution. There were even instances when law enforcers were the perpetrators of these environmental crimes. This was seen in the story of Samir Mehta. Mehta, who previously worked as an activist with the Bombay Environmental Action Group, exposed that municipal councillors indulged in an illegal construction in the hill station (town) of Matheran which was declared an "eco-sensitive zone" in 2003. In retaliation, the councillors turned to locals against him into believing that he was attempting to tear down their homes. He ended up being attacked by more than twenty people in a market place, and had to hide inside a shop before help arrived.

This is really disturbing and appalling to me to know about what is happening to these environmental activists. But what makes these incidents worse is that they are government-related. This report, in my opinion, gives a clear view about what flaws are riddled in the Indian government. India has always been seen as a land rich in culture and environment. Unfortunately, the environment is under tremendous threat by all these powerful corporations that are infamous for degrading various natural habitats that house some of the most unique wildlife seen in the world. Even shocking is that these corporations are backed by local governments. I am, however, glad to see that the Indian government has agreed to act against the violence and intimidation targeted towards the activists. But at the same time, I feel that it should listen to the stories brought by these activists concerning the nation's environment. Also, the local state governments should be aware about such corporations wanting to corrupt them with money and should partner up with environmental activists in order to take them down. That way, India will be perceived as an environment-friendly nation to take a stand against the real corruption taking the advantage of the nation.

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  1. Hello Rahul. Well written article. Would like to discuss a little bit with you via email regarding the article.

    1. Thank you. Can you send me your email address?