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.