Noted environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta received the Bhagirath Prayas Samman at the recently concluded India Rivers’ Week. We catch up with him on his journey so far and how we can further expand the constituency of environment.
Q. Who was your idol and what did you learn from him/her?
I had no idols because there were no environment lawyers when I started. Most of the cases on environment protection were filed by lawyers themselves. So, they did not represent voices of common people but amplified their personal desires. Those who did represent others had a very little share of environment cases on their lists and they also appeared for violators in other cases. So, they were not concerned about the environment but only in the business of making money, whatever the source be. Another segment was of human rights lawyers taking up environment causes, which meant they had no specialisation.
So there were multiple problems. We had to increase the volume of environment cases because violations were plenty, we had to be consistently on the side of the environment and avoid governments and corporates and we also had to free the subject from being a subset of human rights. I am proud that my group–Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE)–has been able to do all these over the years. We are pursuing 140 to 150 cases at any given time and the subject has moved out of the human rights umbrella to be an important field in itself.
Q. What got you interested in environmental law?
I was always fascinated by wildlife and forests. I had no interest in pursuing conventional law practice in courts, but since there was no other long-term goal, I got enrolled in law after a graduation in sociology. During the course, I volunteered with TRAFFIC, a joint programme of WWF and World Conservation Union. There, I investigated the legal aspect of wildlife trade. That was the first time I thought of combining my interest in the environment with my academic achievements in law.
Q. How can decentralisation of environmental law be achieved so that people from within the affected community can take up the cases to courts?
There are a few initiatives being taken at certain places but they are yet to gain a substantial momentum. People in villages and small towns know more about environment law than those in cities because they are directly facing the impacts of development projects like mining or hydropower. I am sure that with time, more environment lawyers from these places will emerge.
Q. At a time when environmental laws seem to be facing an imminent threat of dilution, what can be done?
I always tell people that law and courts should be the last resort. First, they need to unite, spread the word and protest. The government is planning to put the building and construction out of the purview of the environment impact assessment. People need to be vigilant about such changes and understand how these impact their lives.
Q. What role has media played so far in environment protection?
Media has a very important role to disseminate information to those far away from the place of action. But it mostly covers a topic in response to a crisis which may be forest fires in Uttarakhand or air pollution in Delhi or floods in Chennai. What we need is more consistency so that the issues remain in focus. Though I understand that media has its own limitations as it has to cater to the interests of the audience, but I also believe that you can make an engaging content to bring forth environment issues instead of waiting for a ‘breaking news’. Most importantly, media needs to simplify the process so that people connect the dots to know how submergence of forest in far off land will impact their lives or how an electric car is still running on power produced by a big plant running on coal.
Q. What do you think about the functioning of the National Green Tribunal and how can it be improved?
I feel the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is trying its best despite limited government support. We definitely need to fill in the vacancies and form more NGTs in different regions, but the fact that people know and talk about the NGT means it has done something good. Even though the implementation of its orders will always be an issue, the NGT has made a great impact in a short time. If you look at it, no other authority, whether it’s the National Human Rights Commission or the River Ganga Rejuvenation Authority, is as famous for its strong work as the NGT. Thankfully, it’s protected by statutory law and the government will think twice before devaluing it.
Q. What message would you give to people facing the environmental crisis?
I would say one should not take the environment for granted. It’s not a luxury but a question of survival. And let’s stop this campaign about leaving a legacy for the future generation. We need to protect it for ourselves first. Our life is at stake whether it’s through air pollution or contamination of water bodies. We need to have a selfish interest in protecting the environment and play a much more vigorous role .