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LAND &
ENVIRONMENTAL
JUSTICE

India

Our Journey in 2019 & 2020

On paper, mining, industrial development, and other private and public projects in India must adhere to strong regulations that serve to mitigate their environmental impacts. In practice, there is a very poor record of compliance and enforcement. From poisonous chemicals dumped into the waters of fishing communities, to hazardous emissions polluting the air, unlawful practices are endangering the health and livelihoods of local communities and damaging the environment.

One key reason for this systemic failure is that the people facing environmental harm have almost no role in either the creation or implementation of the rules and systems that are meant to protect them.

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The Environmental Justice program at the Centre for Policy Research in India is an action research initiative supported by Namati that works to close the enforcement gap by training and working with local field researchers. These field researchers, whose approach follows the community paralegal method, work across four states to support affected communities to understand and use the law to find remedies when projects violate regulations.

Our ultimate goal is to create, in partnership with field researchers and affected communities, a fundamental shift in the current environmental regulatory framework: from technocracy towards a system in which the insight and leadership of communities is central.

Over the past two years, field researchers and the communities engaged local regulatory institutions to address over 200 instances of industrial non-compliance. Together, they evoked positive institutional responses in more than 160 cases. Government regulators, for example, conducted joint site inspections with affected communities — a significant shift from the typically top-down monitoring and enforcement practices. These efforts led to remedies of more than 70 violations, while other cases remain open — the pandemic having severely curtailed our ability to engage with communities and government institutions alike.

In 2019, we also began experimenting with collectivizing similar cases within each state as a means of bringing about improvements to the regulatory system as well as remedying the violations in question. This experimentation slowed with the onset of the pandemic as it required bringing communities together to discuss and strategize, but we plan to dig in deeper when it is once again safe to travel and gather.

Drawing on grassroots casework, the program worked to shape research and policy efforts at both the state and national level in 2019 and 2020.

Field researchers in Karnataka, for example, undertook a ground-truthing exercise in 2019 to better understand the impact of the expansion of National Highway 66 on local communities. The results were published in a report and featured in The Hindu, one of India’s leading papers.

In March 2020, just as the world began to lock down, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change released a Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification for public comments. The Draft proposed to make several consequential changes to the EIA Notification of 2006. As a part of our work tracking changes to environmental regulations, the team published a number of articles and a working paper, pointing out specific gaps in the draft. These were covered in covered in national media, helping shape informed public discourse.

In 2021 we aim to deepen our legal empowerment efforts in all four states, bringing people together from across their specific cases, but the recent explosion of COVID-19 has set us back significantly. Many team members have either fallen sick themselves or are caring for loved ones.

A woman collects water from a local water pump in a village in Gujarat state, India

Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance

 

In 2019 and 2020, paralegals supported communities to address instances of environmental non-compliance by companies and public projects. Together, they achieved remedies that directly improved the livelihoods and wellbeing of thousands of people.

 

 

Forty Years of Toxic Dust: How a Rural Community in India Displaced a Refinery

You could see it from the Dwarka-Khambaliya National Highway. Mountains of crushed aluminum-rich ore, uncovered. Chimneys spewing thick, dirty-looking smoke.

Everything within half a kilometer of the bauxite refinery was covered with a layer of toxic reddish dust — a school, government hospital, farmlands, and the village of Harshadpur included.

Biren Singh’s* house, a modest concrete structure, was located 100 meters from the refinery’s low perimeter walls. “We faced a lot of trouble because of the dust,” says the farmer and father of two. “It was difficult to breathe properly. [It] spoiled our crops; the dust would sit on the flowering crops and would stunt their growth. …We would not even hang our clothes to dry because within a few hours they’d be laden with dust.”

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Nearly every household in Harshadpur was impacted. They had lived, worked, and schooled amongst the toxic dust for over 40 years.

Community members repeatedly raised their concerns with authorities, but to no avail. “We had done so much: gone to the District Collector, spoke to the company directly, approached the gram panchayat [village council] but we never got any response,” recalls Biren. “Sometimes I used to think that this problem would never go away.”

That mindset shifted when a friend of Biren’s from another village referred him to a community paralegal working with the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice program. The two connected and the paralegal explained to Biren that industrial units like the bauxite plant are legally obliged to adhere to certain environmental safeguards. Further, if anyone believed a company was not complying with these rules, there were regulatory institutions they could approach.

“I got angrier after knowing that this was all illegal,” says Biren. “But I was also a little hopeful because I knew when one uses a legal route one can get justice.”

In the weeks that followed, Biren and the paralegal identified, secured, and read through documents to find a legal hook. They found it in the company’s Consent to Operate. The letter, issued by the Regional Pollution Control Board (PCB), clearly stated that the company had to abide by the Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act of 1981.

The pair proceeded to take photos showing how the unit did not comply with numerous clauses in the Act and submitted their evidence, along with a letter of complaint, to the Regional Pollution Control Board. After a number of follow-up letters and visits, the board issued a “show-cause notice” requiring the company to explain their lack of compliance.

The company did not respond, and the PCB took no further action.

A pile of debris can be seen behind the low walls of the bauxite refinery while black smoke emits from one of the chimney

 

Biren determined that they needed to apply more pressure. He gathered approximately 30 affected community members and together they wrote a letter — and they kept writing letters until finally, the PCB took action.

But despite repeated site visits by the PCB, the pollution continued unabated. Under continued pressure from the community members, the PCB eventually issued the company with a closure notice. Five days later it was inexplicably revoked.

Biren was undeterred. “I did not think of giving up, because after using the legal route at least the institutions and the company had started to respond to our concerns. That was a huge change from our past experience. So I knew that even if this process is slow, this is what will get me and my community some relief.”

The community representatives reconvened to rethink their strategy. With the paralegal’s support, they read the laws again and identified a different approach. Under Gujarat’s State Pollution Control Boards Rules, the “vigilance committee” could be invoked in emergency situations where timely inspection is critical to resolve a problem of pollution.

Their new strategy worked: within two months of receiving the community’s letter, the committee had conducted site visits and found the company to be in gross violation of the law. The Regional PCB issued a “direction of action and closure notice” shortly thereafter.

This time, the company complied. It shut down the refinery for a month while it implemented the required safeguards, including building higher perimeter walls and fixing the air filtration systems on their chimneys.

The community was thrilled. The dust that infected their lungs, hung on their crops, and invaded their homes was a fraction of what it used to be. But having long thought that it was their fate to live amidst the toxic dust, they remained cautious. Biren and the other community representatives continued to monitor the plant and follow up with the regulatory institutions to ensure the problem did not resurface. Within six months, the company announced that it would be moving the unit from the residential area to a nearby industrial complex.

It was a huge relief to the residents of Harshadpur but, as Biren says, their joy was not in reaction to the outcome alone. “This process helped us get a proper channel to voice our concerns. Earlier we did not know who to share our miseries with, but now we know the officials who are responsible to work for us. God forbid, if this issue reoccurs, I know exactly where to go and who to write to about my problem.”

*name changed to protect identity 

Two bauxite refinery chimneys emit thick smoke, leaving a layer of toxic dust behind