On this page, we share proven and replicable advocacy strategies meant to enhance environmental justice. We are grateful to community organizations for giving us direction and support.
Case study I: Connecting environmental rule of law with public health
The issue at hand involved scheduling of public hearing proceedings by the Government, as part of the permitting process for development projects. The concerned companies (operating steel plants and a coal washery) were all seeking expansion of their production capacities, during the pandemic. According the Indian law, these proceedings are mandatory, to ascertain concerns that citizens may have with proposed projects. In this case however, proceedings were organized without enforcing social distancing and other COVID-19 appropriate behavior on site. As a result, thousands of people found themselves highly vulnerable to the virus, raising serious public health concerns. What continues to make this a hard problem to address for any stakeholder is the clash between participation and social distancing mandates.
Members from a regarded organization involved in holding big industries accountable to the people and law approached us for possible legal solutions. We decided to file a lawsuit in the National Green Tribunal.
Research on rulings of the Supreme Court of India showed a close nexus between environmental rule of law and public health, as did a Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change memorandum restricting public hearings to prevent spread of the virus. We strengthened this nexus by relying on (a) a recent Supreme Court order which asked the Government to reconsider organizing a mega religious pilgrimage, considering the dangerous second wave of the pandemic, whilst citing the fundamental right to health of citizens, (b) warnings against public gatherings during the pandemic by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and (c) a Supreme Court ruling which empowered the National Green Tribunal to pass directions to prevent future injury to the environment. At the same time, we also wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, informing officials about the lack of enforced COVID-19 appropriate behavior in these hearings.
Initially, the Tribunal held back from passing any clear directions as a public hearing which we cited had already occurred, however, on a subsequent attempt, drawing the nexus of environmental protection and public health elaborately, the Tribunal directed the Government, including the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to ensure that public hearings be conducted whilst taking strict precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
We learnt that environmental justice litigation is hardly, if ever, solely about environmental law, but needs to account for public health circumstances, and how the Government had been responding to these in real time. Often, these connections, between environmental justice, law, and public health need to be made, though they may not initially seem intuitive. Our ongoing advocacy also shows the critical need of working with and assisting government agencies in identifying potential public health issues concerning COVID-19 and beyond.
Read our lawsuit
Case study II: Building Paper Trails
The issue at hand involved operation of an integrated steel plant (revenue from operations about 1,723 L INR for 2020-21 or about $2.3 M) in violation of permits granted to it by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board. Documents provided by community organizations and independent research of the Center showed that these violations were recognized by both the Ministry (see page 3 of this document) and the Board. Despite being aware of violations, the Board announced a public hearing for large scale capacity expansion of the plant. Community members approached us for possible solutions, with a mandate of holding the plant accountable under environmental laws.
Media coverage on the issue showed the integrated steel plant was connected to a public health crisis in the surrounding areas, due to large quantities of particulate matter settling on all surfaces, including cropland (directly impacting 'parwal' yields, according to local farmworker testimonies). Coverage also pointed towards serious air, water, and soil pollution issues in the entire area surrounding the plant premises. Cross verification from google maps and photographic evidence demonstrated an effluent stream emerging from and a fly ash dump in close proximity to the plant. Incidentally, the plant, and fly ash open dumping site is also surrounded by forest land. We used this evidence as basis for secondary research on impacts of fly ash on the human body, and found international judicial opinion on presence of cancerous trace metals (in coal residuals such as fly ash) impacting various bodily functions.
With this research and evidence in hand, we began sending representations via e-mail to various agencies having a regulatory overlap over the pollution caused by and operation of the plant - District administration, State and Central Pollution Boards, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and concerned representatives in the State Assembly and Lok Sabha. Initially, the district administration responded by postponing the scheduled public hearing till further notice, however, on rescheduling of the hearing, we stepped up efforts and called agency officials and experts from the Central Pollution Control Board to explain the ground situation citing various communications made by us in the past. The Board responded affirmatively, and directed the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board to take action based on our complaints, and report back.
In anticipation of the public hearing taking place, we have also copied our complaints to the experts of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change who are responsible of deciding whether the expansion of this plant is permissible (Expert Appraisal Committee).
In this effort, we aimed to build rapport with agencies and more importantly, to build a paper (e-mail) trail of our communications and corresponding agency action, that will aid community members in groundwork. We learnt that litigation needn't always be the first recourse for communities, and often, working with agencies can help achieve similar outcomes to judicial orders i.e directions for constitution of expert comittees. In this case, the District Administration, Central Pollution Control Board, and Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board were all informed about the issue, and indeed took action, without the need for a judicial order which may have otherwise constituted a committee consisting of these agencies. Informing multiple agencies about environmental issues often helps build momentum in an ongoing advocacy effort which may or may not involve litigation. This also helps leverage the regulatory impact that agencies have on each other in a hierarchy and shared regulatory space.
Most importantly, we learnt that while theoretically, public consultation is crucial to any permitting regime, communities may also choose to register their voice with stakeholders by refusing to participate in or challenge the basis of hearings to begin with.