Namati's CEO and legal empowerment advocate Rhonda Hamilton were on CNN International's Amanpour to discuss environmental justice. Watch the interview here.
The residents of Nana Mandha village in Gujarat State are primarily farmers, herders, and shepherds of modest means. Situated near India’s western coast, the small, sleepy village is surrounded by sprawling facilities of power and steel industries. A giant coal power plant stands near the entrance to the area, separated from the village by only a thin patch of road.
Living in Nana Mandha, under the shadow of the coal plant, is Aslam*.
In early 2017, Aslam noticed that in building a large conveyor belt to transport coal from the jetty, the power plant had left materials, equipment, and debris scattered across the village’s common grazing land. “When I saw [it], I thought ‘Today if they have encroached certain portion of our grazing land soon they will encroach our entire grazing land, and then what will happen to me and my fellow villagers?’” recounts Aslam.
Almost 700 herders relied on the common grazing land to feed their cattle during the monsoons and winter months. It is critical to their livelihoods and consequentially, to their families’ wellbeing.
Aslam brought the issue to the Gram Panchayat (village council). They were aware of the problem and had, in fact, approached local politicians and the district collector about it, but to no avail. The coal plant, they told Aslam, was just too powerful. Nothing could be done.
As the weeks went by the coal plant encroachment’s grew. Many of the 700 families who depended on the land migrated. Those who stayed were forced to spend a significant portion of their income on feed for their cattle or divert a portion of their small fields to growing fodder, rather than crops to sell or eat. The economic burden of the situation was heavy; families struggled to make ends meet.
Aslam decided to reach out to Jayendra, a community paralegal with CPR-Namati, for help. He and a number of other villagers had started working with Jayendra at the end of 2016 to address the very same power plant’s lack of compliance with government coal handling guidelines, which resulted in coal dust settling on and spoiling their crops.
While Aslam understood the Gram Panchayat had made attempts to address the grazing land issue, he had seen the benefit of taking an evidence-based legal approach in the coal handling case and had a feeling there might be a legal hook for this new issue as well.
Together, Aslam and Jayendra read through contracts, acts, and court orders, and confirmed that the law was on their side. They found legal documents clearly stating that the power plant had legally acquired 2 acres, while their ground-truthing efforts showed they were, in fact, occupying 12 acres.
They also identified legal hooks such as the Panchayat Raj Act of 1994 which states that Gram Panchayats, as the custodians of the Common Land falling under their jurisdiction, are empowered to remove any encroachment on these lands, and a Supreme Court order (Jagpal Singh & Ors vs. State of Punjab & Ors.) that directs various government departments in the district to support Gram Panchayats in removing such illegal encroachments.
Jayendra and Aslam brought their findings to the Gram Panchayat and explained how they could use the law to take on the powerful coal plant. With the realization that they had the authority to act, the Gram Panchayat decided to serve the company with a legal notice to vacate the illegally encroached land.
But this case was not resolved as easily as it sounds. The company repeatedly tried to persuade the Gram Panchayat to drop the case, and the relevant government departments provided them with very minimal support.
The community felt alienated and disappointed by the government’s unresponsiveness but kept working to wrest justice from the lop-sided system. It was easier to persevere knowing the law was on their side.
Finally, in mid-2018, after almost an entire year of issuing legal notices, the Gram Panchayat gave the company an ultimatum: “vacate the land or we, as permitted by law, will confiscate all equipment and materials on it.”
The company vacated immediately.
“It took us time given the case was complex and the company so powerful,” says Aslam, “but we did not give up and won this fight!”
On top of securing the land on which the livelihoods of hundreds of families relied, the case also activated and legally empowered a local institution to safeguard the interests of its people. As Aslam says: “This process helped us understand that the Gram Panchayat holds so many legal powers. Now we all know that the Gram Panchayat can fight for justice.”
The village of Nana Mandha is now pushing the district authorities to map and legally document the grazing land to secure it from any illegal encroachment in the future.