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Indian Right Livelihood winner says climate, rights entwined

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
September 29, 2021

Delhi-based lawyer Ritwick Dutta told DW that he foresees an increase in environmental and climate action. He also called on legal entities to take greater and immediate action on the issue.

Ritwick Dutta und Rahul Choudhary, founders of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment
Ritwick Dutta (l) believes that there will be an increase in environmental pressure groups in the coming yearsImage: Arihant

Ritwick Dutta, a founding lawyer of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), which works with communities through a grassroots approach, was thrilled to receive the Right Livelihood Award.

"Our work is not so publicized and to be honored in this way is definitely a recognition of the fight against some of India's most significant environmental threats," Dutta told DW, soon after receiving the award on Wednesday.

Other recipients of the award include Cameroonian women's rights activist Marthe Wandou, Russian environmental activist Vladimir Slivyak and Canadian indigenous rights defender Freda Huson.

LIFE was founded by Dutta and his partner Rahul Choudhary in 2005. Today, the organization's attorneys are among India's leading public interest lawyers, who have helped communities fight against some of the country's most significant environmental threats.

Major environmental victories 

These include preventing the construction of ecologically destructive projects in violation of the law, deforestation and making industrial polluters pay for the damage caused to the environment and public health.

How to stop the world from burning

The organization has taken on not just federal and state governments, but even large private corporations. For instance, in 2010, it helped stall a large-scale bauxite mine project by Vedanta, a British company, in the eastern state of Odisha.

With help from LIFE, the case was brought to court by the Dongria Kondh indigenous community, whose land would have been devastated by the mine. In that case, India's Supreme Court ruled that the community's consent was mandatory before a mining permit could be granted to Vedanta.

The case is often cited as the most significant victory in the history of environmental lawsuits in India.

Again in 2016, LIFE attorneys represented local communities and helped secure a court order to halt a hydropower project in Tawang, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the grounds that the project developers misled the government by concealing crucial material information.

Dutta believes that an environmentally conscious citizenry is growing.

"There is no doubt that communities impacted by environmental degradation are no longer remaining silent spectators or tolerating injustice. They are willing to explore legal and other statutory bodies for seeking redressal of their grievances," he said.

"They may not always win, but the fact that they have the capacity to question those in power is a significant advancement."

Ecology, health and rights interwoven

In Dutta's opinion, the environmental movement in India is centered around ecology, health and human rights.

"It is actually a mix of all three. Ecological degradation leads to poor health conditions; the degradation of the environment takes place by violating civil rights. It is not possible to distinguish between them since they are integrally related," claimed Dutta.

Right Livelihood winner Marthe Wandou speaks with DW

The lines, he says, might be blurred sometimes. Therefore, it might become difficult to distinguish between environmental and human rights movements.

"In India, the fight to save forests and rivers is also the fight to protect the livelihood, culture, and identity of forest dwellers and fisherfolk," he added.

In their many years working on the ground, Dutta maintains that it has not been an easy process, as the role of LIFE has been to understand the concerns of the affected communities and locate the violation of the laws and legal process.

"We provide scientific support to communities and help them understand technical reports such as environmental impact assessments. We have challenges," said Dutta.

Standing up to powerful interests

According to Dutta, not only are there few public interest environmental lawyers, but there is also a more serious shortage of public interest scientists.

"India's vast scientific expertise is rarely there to support communities struggling to protect the environment," said Dutta.

He added that when it comes to deciding between development and environmental protection, climate action has traditionally taken a back seat, but current circumstances are forcing many to reconsider. 

"We cannot ignore the issue of climate change any longer. We have to do away with the rhetoric of saying that the environment has to be protected for the next generation. It is this generation that is already facing the brunt of climate change. Thus, it is time courts take the issue of climate change seriously," he said.

India: trees as family members

Dutta maintains that despite increased development of global environmental jurisprudence, courts in India have been fairly conservative when it comes to questioning the decision of the government.

"The excessive faith in the 'wisdom of the experts' does no good to either the environment or the people. The courts need to be more proactive if climate change is to be tackled," said Dutta.

In the coming years, Dutta believes there will be strong pressure groups that will fight for action against major environmental issues such as air pollution, poor management of waste, growing water scarcity, falling groundwater tables, water pollution, preservation and quality of forests, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation.

LIFE is the third environmental group in India to receive the RLA. In 1987, the Chipko movement was awarded for its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically sound use of India's natural resources.

Four years later, Medha Patkar, Baba Amte and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement received it for their inspired opposition to the disastrous Narmada Valley dams project and their promotion of alternatives designed to benefit the poor and the environment.

"I am in august company. And I have no words to express this acknowledgment of our work," Dutta added.