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How often do we hear of underdogs winning environmental cases in India? Very rarely, and this is because the common perception in India is that industrial units of both public and private sector enterprises are financially, politically, and organisationally strong parties that have the resources to employ a battery of prominent lawyers to win cases against the underdogs.
Their vast resources are equal to might, but sometimes, powerless and subaltern communities manage to pull a fast one over these corporations in the court of law. The case of Ramdas Janardan Koli and Others versus the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and Others is one such case in the history of environmental jurisprudence in India.
On February 27, 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) delivered a landmark judgment in Ramdas Janardan Koli and Others versus the MoEF and Others, in which it directed three powerful public sectors units – the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) – to pay compensation of Rs 95,19,20,000 to 1,630 fishing families of Maharashtra’s Raigad district for livelihood loss due to their project expansion activities.
The petitioner, Ramdas Janardan Koli, and the members of his fishing community argued their case without hiring a lawyer against ten resourceful respondents. Yet, they managed to end up on the winning side. How was this possible?
Background and facts of the case
The petitioner, Koli, is a resident of Uran Koliwada in the Uran taluka of Raigad. Koli was born in Uran to a traditional fishing community. He identifies and is recognised as a member of the traditional fishing community and has been engaged in fishing activities for over six decades.
Representing the interests of four fishing community villages in Raigad – Hanuman Koliwada, Uran Koliwada, Gavhan Koliwada, and Belpada Koliwada, of the Uran and Panvel Talukas – Koli filed a petition under Section 15 of National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act, 2010, seeking compensation and relief for their livelihood loss due to the expansion and infrastructure activities of these widely known public sector units, mainly the ONGC and JNPT.
The main concerns raised by Koli were that the project activities of the ONGC and JNPT had adversely impaired regular tidal water exchanges and restricted the movement of fishermen’s boats to the sea through the creek near the JNPT unit and thus, deprived them of daily earnings from the traditional fishing activities.
Koli also alleged that the reclamation of land and removal of mangroves in the area by the JNPT had substantially reduced the breeding of fish and narrowed the navigational route of the traditional boats, which also added to the community’s misery and loss of livelihood. As such, he sought relief for 1,630 families of traditional fishermen who were affected.
In the beginning, the members of the fishing community had no idea about how to file the case before the NGT. The members reached the NGT office and sought an appointment with the then chairperson of the NGT’s Pune Bench, Justice V.R. Kingaonkar. Both Justice Kingaonkar and fellow NGT member Ajay A. Deshpande acknowledged that there was no statutory requirement to hire a lawyer to file and argue their case and directed the NGT registrar to train and orient the fishing community about the process of filing the petition.
The NGT office facilitated the filing of the application filing, which was then registered as original application number 19/2013, for hearing.
Instead of following the standard procedure of arguing and presenting the case through a lawyer, both NGT members, Justice Kingaonkar and Deshpande, encouraged the fishing community to argue the case themselves. That decision, the members of the community said, encouraged them to pursue the case vigorously.
What occurred between the listing of the petition for hearing and the final judgment is an account of how they argued a highly complex legal and technical case against two influential public sector units, under enormous constraints.
They encountered many difficulties during the hearing, including the misgivings of the respondents’ lawyers who, understandably, questioned their identity as members of a traditional fishing community; and the filing of counter-affidavits on the hundreds of files and affidavits filed by the respondents.
Most fishing community members believed that the NGT would not decide in their favour, even if they had the law on their side. Even rights-based movements in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, most sympathetic to marginalised communities, did not extend their support; other environmental movements in Maharashtra never reached out to them. But Ramesh Koli, an active member of the Paramparik Macchimar Bachao Kruti Samiti of the affected villages, believed that the NGT would decide in their favour.
Such hope was not unfounded. The liberal approach of Justice Kingaonkar and Deshpande gave the fishing community enough opportunities to bring evidence and allowed them to speak for themselves. Further, the fact that they did not adjourn matters as per the whims and fancies of the respondents, undoubtedly raised Ramesh Koli’s hopes.
He played a critical role in persuading his community members that their case had merit and could be won. He took the help of his daughter Priyanka, a graduate in computer science, who translated government documents and hundreds of pages of affidavits filed by the respondents and typed the community’s counter-affidavits in English.
Priyanka would accompany Ramdas Koli and Ramesh Koli to every NGT hearing. She used to translate the arguments of the respondents to both of them who, in turn, would express their views in Marathi for Priyanka to translate and explain to the members of the NGT.
The kind of evidence Koli and others presented before the NGT also mattered. They gathered all the documents and letters exchanged with various departments of the state, including photos and videos of how the JNPT and ONGC’s project activities affect the fishing community’s access to the sea to catch fish. The improvement in the ease of access to information thanks to the Right to Information Act, too, must be noted.
Importantly, they invoked specific legislations – the Mahul Creek (Extinguishment of Rights) Act, 1922, which recognised their identity as a customary and traditional fishing community, as well as their legal rights over the coastal resources; and the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification (CRZ), 2011 which requires an entity to obtain prior clearance from the CRZ authority before project activities are expanded or initiated.
The simple demand of the members of the fishing community was to enforce the existing laws.
In the several hearings before the NGT, the members of the fishing community took on the lawyers of the JNPT, ONGC and the government of Maharashtra by presenting facts on the impacts of the ONGC and JNPT’s project activities on mangroves, the degradation of environment, and the loss of livelihood of their community.
“Without legal practice and lawyers’ support, the evidence and documents submitted and arguments presented by Ramdas and his team to prove their point of view was beyond one’s imagination,” NGT member Deshpande said.
After hearing the arguments of both sides, the NGT members unanimously concluded that the MoEF and Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) both failed in discharging their statutory duties in the enforcement of environmental laws by allowing the project activities of the ONGC and JNPT to continue. The NGT imposed a cost of Rs 1 lakh each on the MoEF and MCZMA for their negligence (more details can be found on pages 69-71 of the judgment).
Justice Kingaonkar, who authored the judgment, put it most poignantly when he said, “The role of both regulatory authorities, i.e. the MoEF and MCZMA is far away from the expectations and mandate cast upon them by the legislations.”
The NGT directed the respondents – CIDCO, JNPT and ONGC – to pay Rs 95,19,20,000, in a 10:70:20 ratio, to the district collector of Raigad. The collector was directed to distribute the amount equally to the 1,630 affected and identified fishermen’s families of the four villages, to the tune of Rs 5,84,000 per family, within three months.
The NGT further emphasised that in case the respondents failed to pay the above amount within three months, then the respondents have to pay interest at 12% per annum till the amount is paid to the affected fishing families.
However, the judgment of the NGT was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court by the JNPT and ONGC, and the matter has been pending in the top court since May 7, 2015.
While the case was decided on specific legal instruments that protect the traditional and customary rights of the fishing community over coastal land and resources, it would be remiss to think that the judgment does not have broader socio-economic and political implications.
Since independence, fishing communities in Maharashtra have suffered, and continue to suffer, systematic discrimination, economic disempowerment and political marginalisation. The judgment, therefore, represents a significant milestone in the ongoing struggle of fishing communities across Maharashtra to protect their traditional and customary rights over the coastal lands.
Although the judgment has been welcomed by environmental groups and practitioners across the country, the Union and state governments and their environmental regulatory authorities have been less receptive to the decision of the NGT. The appeal against the NGT decision by the ONGC and JNPT in the Supreme Court, and the court’s failure to hear the appeal for the last seven years, underscores the struggle of the Uran fishing community, stressing that it still has a long way to go to fully realise the compensation awarded to them by the NGT.
Nevertheless, the courage of Ramdas Janardan Koli is appreciating, coming, as it did, while citizens are blind to procedural lapses and non-compliance by influential corporates and public sector units.
In a real sense, Koli is an inspiration and the conscience of our generation, speaking out when many of us are silent. One hopes the Supreme Court will list the matter for hearing soon and deliver justice unto the members of the fishing community.
Geetanjoy Sahu teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.