Ritwick Dutta | The case for our forests

The 40-year-old lawyer has taken the battle for the environment to the courtroom with more than 350 cases


Ritwick Dutta near the National Green Tribunal, New Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Ritwick Dutta near the National Green Tribunal, New Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Freedom to be green | Ritwick Dutta

Sometime in 2001, in the temple town of Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, lawyer Ritwick Dutta had his moment of epiphany. He was trying to assimilate the proceedings of a public hearing for the Kalpakkam nuclear installation. It was, he recalls, “the theatre of the absurd”.

For one, it wasn’t really for the “public”, who were ill-informed, and misinformed. Crucial information, which included the results of a cancer-screening survey of the area, were never made public. The mandatory environmental impact assessment made no mention of the potential impact on health or fisheries, the mainstay of the locals, who made their opposition to the nuclear reactor clear. The already existing facilities (since the 1980s) had created havoc in their lives: Fish catch had plummeted, and terrible afflictions were leaving them impoverished.

What the people wanted was inconsequential. Immediately after the hearing, it was announced that the new reactor would be installed within six months.

Dutta was there as part of a project with the Human Rights Law Network, a collective of lawyers and activists, but he realized that one had to look beyond the obvious. “I was there on a human rights issue. But it was equally one of the environment, ecology, marine life, which would be devastated by the plant,” he says.

He realized that his chosen path, protecting wildlife, had other dimensions. Protecting the livelihood of the local fisherfolk would also conserve the fragile marine ecology. “In that sense our goals were the same,” he says. He also understood the scale of environment injustice, and that environment law required singular focus. It could not be only a subset of human rights, or worse, an act of charity. Dutta calls it the “Haridwar effect, wherein 99 of the cases you might represent are entities with poor environment/human rights track records, but then you graciously do one PIL (public interest litigation) pro bono.”

So he took the decision to finally put to use his law degree, pursued largely so he was fruitfully engaged while he spent time volunteering with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), mainly frequenting shady bazaars, more often than not disguised either as a flashy babu or a scruffy vagabond in the hope of getting the inside track on the illegal wildlife trade.

Armed with a diploma in environmental law, his experience in the field and a firm commitment to protect natural habitats, Dutta decided to pursue environment law—taking on companies like Vedanta, Lafarge and Jindal Steel & Power Ltd from 2003 on. In 2005, he co-founded the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) with another environment lawyer, Rahul Choudhary. One of thei​r first successes was in December 2007, when environment clearance for the Rs.9,000-crore Polavaram project was quashed by the National Environmental Appellate Authority on the grounds that no public hearing had been conducted in the areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh that would be affected. Polavaram was to displace 200,000 people.

This success came after many failures. Dutta would, thereafter, strategically take his cases to the National Environment Appellate Authority, which he says had dismissed all the appeals filed in its decade-long existence—till Polavaram.

It was with the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (on forests and wildlife cases) that Dutta was able to garner some support for, among others, the Dongria Kondh tribe that was opposing Vedanta’s proposal for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills they held sacred. Dutta took the case up to the Supreme Court, which asked Vedanta to get approval from the tribals. They rejected it.

In 2007, Dutta set up the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Resources and Response Centre, which provides an accessible database on environment impact assessment reports, along with a critical analysis. A basic flaw in the EIA process is that the reports are prepared by private agents engaged by companies, and hence may not be objective. Many of them have come in for a great deal of criticism. “An EIA for a 3,000 MW hydel project in Arunachal Pradesh listed two species of tiger, two unknown cobra species and a yet unrecorded Brown Pied Hornbill! Given that these were all new to science, I figured it was reason enough to call for a moratorium on the project, and go for a comprehensive wildlife survey!” Dutta says.

Irony and humour are traits that he displays often, along with the ability to see humour in the bleakest of situations. It keeps him sane, he explains.

As does his closet passion for seasonal flowers. “Which guy would admit to liking flowers?” he asks, laughing. He grows and nurtures many varieties. When he was a child, the family stayed for some years near the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, and much as the iconic greater one-horned rhino had an influence, Dutta says the family’s gardener, with whom he spent many happy hours while he tended their garden, had something to do with his life’s purpose too.

With the 40-year-old lawyer taking the battle for the environment to the courtroom, leisure has become a luxury. He has dealt with over 350 cases so far.

For instance, he took on the Gujarat government for its refusal to move Gir’s lions to another suitable habitat (a review petition filed by the state government has been dismissed); and fought the encroachment of the New Kalagarh irrigation colony within the Corbett Tiger Reserve (the Supreme Court has ordered it removed).

He has fought many big-ticket projects, representing local communities against the Jindals’ mining company in Chhattisgarh; horticulturalists opposing Lafarge’s limestone mining in Himachal Pradesh; mango farmers in Ratnagiri battling JSW’s thermal power plant; and dams in Uttarakhand and the North-East, including the contentious Lower Demwe ​Hydro Power Project which will submerge swathes of prime rainforest, and the sacred Parshuram Kund, in Arunachal Pradesh. He has won some battles, but the fight continues.

Dutta dismisses the argument that green laws and environmental activism are hurdles to growth. “That’s a myth that is being perpetuated. Virtually all projects—over 95%—are cleared; every day over 330 acres of forest land is diverted in India,” he says. The cases that come for legal challenge are less than 1% of those approved.

He is the most active lawyer in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) set up in 2010. “Getting a functional environment court in the country was a struggle,” says Dutta, who has been training people across the country on the NGT Act. “Setting up an institution is the beginning; it has to be utilized, made effective so that it serves its purpose.”

What drives Dutta is his determination to protect the last remaining natural wild habitats, and what he calls “environmental democracy, a process to arm communities with knowledge, and to give them a voice in projects which impact their lives and livelihood.”

“It is not just about the environment any more. The way approvals (to projects) are being granted speak of poor governance.” He cites the case of the Mahan mines on the periphery of the Mohan Ban Reserve Forest in Madhya Pradesh, which he says will devastate more than 1,200 hectares of the finest sal forests, rich in wildlife, for coal that is not expected to last more than 14 years.

“Essentially, we are going against our own Constitution, which upholds freedom of expression, and the duty to protect the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures,” Dutta says.


Prerna Singh Bindra is a wildlife conservationist and editor of TigerLink.

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