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Standing up for people's rights

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Standing up for people's rights

Ramesh Agrawal's first tryst with activism was as early as 1970's when he joined Lok Shakti Samiti, which worked for social development of tribal communities in rural areas of erstwhile Madhya Pradesh. He formed the Jan Chetana or the People's Awareness group in 2004 to fight for the fundamental rights of the tribal people.

In the early days Agrawal sent out questionnaires to the then governmental watchdog, Environment Appellate Authority and various ministries involved in authorising licences and monitoring projects in and around Raigarh. The replies to his RTI queries formed the foundation of the protests against the State's ill-considered development projects. As the owner of a small internet café in Raigarh, Agrawal was attuned to the power of information and what the internet could do to bring the information to a broader audience.

Acting as a watchdog for rural communities who do not have access to computers, Agrawal combed through the Department of Environment's website to check for new applications for development projects in Chhattisgarh. He informed local villagers about environmental violations and filed Right to Information (RTI) applications on their behalf.

Agrawal's biggest success was his campaign that led to cancelling the clearance awarded to the expansion of steel major's Power Plant, a 1,000 megawatt plant to which the steel behemoth wanted to add 2,400 megawatts more of production capacity. Agrawal and Jan Chetana achieved this by sending letters with RTI replies to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Shortly after the coal mine allocation was not granted; gunmen allegedly hired by the steel major broke into Agrawal's shop and shot him in the leg, shattering his bones. Agrawal survived the attack, but faces a long road to recovery. Despite his limited mobility, Agrawal is helping villagers to assert their rights as landowners and apply for mineral rights to the coal buried under their properties.

Ramesh Agrawal was recently awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize 2014 considered as the "Green Nobel", for his work. His victories in Chhattisgarh are giving hope to other communities fighting unchecked industrial development throughout India.

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