CBI Books Environmental Lawyer Ritwick Dutta for Alleged FCRA Violations, 'Stalling' Coal Projects

The CBI, in its FIR, said that Dutta used funds to 'take down India's existing or proposed coal projects' through his NGO, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, in violation of FCRA norms.

New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on April 19 registered a case against environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta on the allegation that he accepted foreign funds – in violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 – from Earth Justice (EJ), a US-based nonprofit that litigates on environmental issues, to “stall” coal projects in India.

Dutta has been litigating environmental issues across the country, from his first case against Vedanta that helped the Dongria Kondh tribals obtain a ban on bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, to violations of coastal zone regulations (such as this one near Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in February this year). Dutta has also co-authored a book on forest conservation with the Union environment minister, Bhupender Yadav.

In 2021, Dutta and co-founder of LIFE Rahul Choudhary won the Right Livelihood Award for their work, specifically its “grassroots approach of empowering vulnerable communities to protect their livelihoods and claim their right to a clean environment”.

The CBI’s first information report (FIR), which The Wire accessed, also alleges that EJ and Sandler Foundation, a US-based charity, are trying to “take down India’s existing or proposed coal projects” by funding Dutta’s NGO, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).

FIR against Ritwick Dutta

The CBI on April 19 registered a case against environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, co-founder of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), for accepting foreign funds from an international nonprofit in violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 (FCRA), to stall coal-related projects in India. This would affect the “energy security” of the country and is therefore against the public interest, it said.

The main allegation is that Ritwick Dutta received Rs 41 lakh as a foreign contribution in 2013-14. He then created LIFE Proprietorship which received Rs 22 crore from Earth Justice USA (EJ) as professional receipt, the FIR said, alleging that “LIFE and EJ are in the process of stalling coal projects in India”.

“It is further alleged that EJ and Sandler Foundation are trying to take down India’s existing or proposed coal projects, and ECF (European Climate) is routing $120,000 via EJ to Life for litigation,” the FIR said.

The Sandler Foundation is a charitable foundation based in the United States. 

The transfer of money to LIFE is in violation of Section 7 of the FCRA, 2010, per the FIR.

Earth Justice does not have a presence in India and was not a litigant – petitioner or respondent – in any of the coal-related cases in India, so Dutta was not providing professional consultancy services to the organisation. However, he gave them updates on the status of litigations related to thermal power plants, the FIR alleged. Earth Justice was continuously following up the litigation cases related to coal in India, most of which were related to excavations or mines, and coal plants, it said.

‘Against public interest’

Email analyses revealed that ​​Dutta, “in association with Earth Justice”, was “discussing strategies to put pressure on Indian or state governments or project proponent”, the FIR also alleged. The email also revealed that they (Dutta and EJ) were discussing projects of “Indian entities in foreign jurisdictions which can be challenged there”. In this context, the FIR specifically mentioned the activities of the Adani Group in Australia, saying, “They mentioned the example of activities of Adani in Australia. It appears from this that they were planning to target Indian entities undertaking projects outside India. Such litigations lead to delay in projects impacting public interest by denying energy security to citizens of the nation. Further, it is also impacting economic interests of nation outside geographical boundaries of India.”

Incidentally, India plans to reduce power generation from at least 81 coal-fired plants over the next four years to switch to cheaper green energy sources, the Union power ministry said in a letter in 2022. In January this year, however, India asked utilities to not retire coal-fired power plants till 2030 due to a spike in electricity demand, reported Reuters.

Dutta had formed another company, Life Legal Service LLP, to receive foreign funds as professional receipts from EJ since the same was not allowed in LIFE Trust under the FCRA rules. “

This appears to be a modus operandi to bring foreign funds in India to avoid scrutiny undertaken under FCRA,” it claimed. There were also “suspicious payments” to a “large number of individuals” from the FCRA bank account of LIFE Trust, the FIR said.

The FIR has even researched “information available about Dutta in the Public Domain”, claiming that he is involved in “criticizing Government Policy” and making allegations against the Government of India “through public media”.

The FIR also referred to Dutta’s work for the Kheti Vikas Seva Trust, which involved filing a public interest litigation against the state government of Gujarat and Adani Enterprises. 

“He appears to he [sic] involved in agitating local farmer against industrialist and industrial policy of Government,” it alleged.

Incidentally, in 2016, a panel appointed by the Gujarat high court pulled up the Adani Group for “extensive environmental abuse” of mangrove tracts in Mundra in Kutch in the state.