The industrialist-politician Naveen Jindal will not be pleased to learn that Ramesh Agarwal, an environmental activist and internet café owner in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, is one of the winners of this year’s $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. Agarwal began his activism in 2005 and won his first legal battle in 2010 when he managed to prevent the expansion of the mining company Scania Steel & Power Ltd. in Chhattisgarh. He has been a thorn in Jindal’s side since 2010, and has taken him to court for irregularities in mining, power and coal projects planned by his company, Jindal Steel & Power Limited. In this extract from our March 2013 profile of Naveen Jindal, Mehboob Jeelani travels to Raigarh to meet Agarwal and learn about his fierce battle against the corporate colossus, as well as the terrible price he paid for his activism.
Back in Raigarh, I walked through an old neighbourhood called Itwaari Bazaar, past little tarpaulin-roofed shacks selling clothes, plastic utensils, socks and bags. After 10 minutes, I came to a two-storey concrete house with two security guards, wearing commando uniforms and carrying automatic rifles, posted at the entrance. The guards had been deputed by the state government to prevent any further attack on Ramesh Agarwal, a local environmental activist and Jindal’s most determined foe.
Inside, Agarwal was lying on a bed with his left leg wrapped in a bandage; two steel rods had been inserted through his ankle and knee. “Two bullets,” Agarwal said, softly. “They shot at me thrice.”
Agarwal’s confrontation with Jindal began in 2010, over the new power plant I had seen under construction in Tamnar. In March of that year, Agarwal sent a letter to Jairam Ramesh, then the Union environment minister, alleging that Jindal had begun building the plant without securing an environmental clearance. Agarwal fed the letter to the local press—Jindal’s friend, Sunil Kumar, published it in Daily Chhattisgarh—and Ramesh dispatched a team of investigators to Tamnar, where they confirmed Agarwal’s allegations. In June 2010, the environment ministry directed the Chhattisgarh government to withdraw its approval for the power project.
For the time being, Jindal remained silent, though Kumar told me he received an anguished phone call from Jindal after publishing the letter. “He said, ‘Sunilji, your story has damaged us beyond repair. We had been good friends, and I respect you so much. Why are you hurting me?’ I said, we have carried the factual details, which have been established by the ministry. Our story is correct. He listened to me quietly and then hung up.”