At first light one day in July last year, Shivpal Bhagat packed his modest holdall and caught the first bus out of Kosampali—an Adivasi village in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district, fragmented by three coal mines and two power plants. After two hours of trailing coal trucks through patches of sal forest, Bhagat alighted at the Raigarh railway station, and boarded a cramped train to Bilaspur, another two hours away. With afternoon wearing on, he caught the Chhattisgarh Express to Bhopal. The next morning, having crossed the state border into Madhya Pradesh, the train approached Bhopal. Bhagat changed into a white shirt as the train pulled into the city, then squeezed into a shared auto for the last stretch of his journey. Finally, more than a full day after he left home, he arrived at the Bhopal branch of the National Green Tribunal, the country’s only court dedicated to environmental issues.
Bhagat, the sarpanch of Kosampali and an Adivasi himself, is no stranger to the courts. For years, Raigarh’s residents have resisted the exploitation of the area’s massive coal reserves by public and private companies given permission to mine and generate power here by the central government. Getting at the coal often means stripping away forests, farmland and homes, with devastating environmental consequences even before the pollution from the coal dust, fly ash and contaminated runoff that accompanies mines and power plants. Bhagat has long been part of the resistance, in court and on the ground, and has had to fight multiple cases filed against him by the companies, as well as state authorities. This court date, however, was unusual. For the first time, Bhagat would be appearing not before a judge of the NGT in Bhopal, but on camera, via videoconference, before the NGT’s principal bench in Delhi.
The case in question, filed by Bhagat and several co-petitioners, involved the Gare Pelma IV/2&3 mining complex. The complex was operated by Jindal Steel and Power, but, in the aftermath of a 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court that cancelled all prior coal-block allocations, the government handed custody of it to a public company, Coal India. During the video hearing, the Delhi bench accepted that mining at the complex had devastating health effects. It noted that the project did not have the consent of affected villagers, and that in many cases mines had encroached to barely ten metres from their homes. Earlier, the NGT had directed a joint committee with representatives from the coal and environment ministries to prepare a report on the matter. Now, the bench accepted the report’s recommendation for measures to contain pollution, as well as the recommendation that JSPL and Coal India be fined Rs 5 crore each. It ordered “that the recommendations be given effect to in letter and spirit and in a time bound manner,” but it did not specify any deadline, leaving the companies free to act at their own pace while the mining continued.
Environmental justice has always been dauntingly remote for Bhagat and his village, both figuratively and physically. “We went wearing chappals,” Bhagat said, but the lawyer for JSPL was wearing suits worth many thousands of rupees. “Everything he was wearing was special.” The villagers “don’t have the money to pay a lawyer’s fees, or the money to cover our costs up and down.” Since the case began, in 2014, Bhagat had travelled the eight-hundred-plus kilometres to Bhopal four times, supported by community collections towards the case in Raigarh. There is no closer option—the Bhopal branch of the NGT has jurisdiction over all of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, host to many of the country’s most polluting mines and industrial facilities. At the Bhopal bench, Bhagat appeared before a live court until, in October 2017, the last judge to sit there was transferred to Delhi. Now petitioners from the three states address themselves remotely to a judge in the national capital.