Ramesh Agrawal

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Indian activist Ramesh Agrawal wins 'Green Nobel'

AP | Apr 28, 2014

Shot at by Jindal Steel & Power's security guards for opposing the company

GARE VILLAGE (Andhra Pradesh): The man walked into Ramesh Agrawal's tiny internet cafe, pulled out a pistol and hissed, "You talk too much. Then he fired two bullets into Agrawal's left leg and fled on a motorcycle.

The 2012 attack came three months after Agrawal won a court case that blocked a major Indian company, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd, from opening a second coal mine near the village of Gare in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh.

After he was shot, Agrawal's attackers turned themselves in, revealing themselves to be Jindal Steel & Power's security guards. But police never linked the attack with the company.

For a decade, Agrawal, who has no formal legal training, has been waging a one-man campaign to educate illiterate villagers about their rights in fighting pollution and land-grabbing by powerful mining and electricity companies. He's won three lawsuits against major corporations and has spearheaded seven more pending in courts.

The soft-spoken yoga enthusiast lives in the city of Raigarh, where he hobbles around his modest home with a cane and a metal brace screwed into his shattered femur.

In May 2014 Agrawal (born 1954) was recognized in a ceremony in San Francisco as one of six recipients of this year's $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the "Green Nobel.

Environmental activists are also increasingly facing violence — at least 908 have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade, including six in India, according to a report this month by the London-based Global Witness group.

He also has been jailed for 72 days on what he said were false charges of extortion and defamation that were later dismissed.

The impact of mining operations on Gare village

In the village of Gare, where Agrawal has helped villagers voice their objections to Jindal's plans for more mining operations, the earth shakes violently for a half-hour each morning as workmen blast a gaping coal pit with dynamite, sending clouds of black dust billowing up. The acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air, already hazy yellow from the nearby power plant pollution.

The company has been mining coal in the area for several years, but Gare and the neighbouring villages of Sarasmal and Kosampali have seen little economic benefit. No new schools or hospital clinics have been built, and only a few dozen menial labor jobs were offered after protests by residents, who were once self-sufficient growing rice and vegetables, villagers said.

There are, however, new roads on which dozens of uncovered coal trucks rattle through communities every day with coal dust blowing off the back.

Dr Harihar Patel, the area's only trained doctor for 10 kilometers (six miles), said he's seen a jump in the number of people with asthma and other lung ailments, skin lesions and exhaustion.

Agrawal began researching the rights of the poor in confronting corporations in 2005, after becoming alarmed by the sudden influx of industry into his home state of Chhattisgarh. In 2010, he won his first court victory in blocking Indian company Scania Steel & Power Ltd from expanding a coal-burning power plant without clearance.

He's been helped by some legal tools along the way. In 2005, India passed a law giving citizens the right to review public records.

In 2011, India launched a separate environmental court system that gave any citizen the right to demand a hearing on environmental matters.

In 2012, the court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Agrawal on behalf of Gare residents to revoke Jindal's clearance for a second mine in the area. Jindal has since reapplied for clearance to mine in the village, and in 2014 Agrawal started preparing another suit to block it.

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