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Indian man confronts mining industry, wins prize

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 28, 2014 at 6:31 am •  Published: April 28, 2014
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GARE VILLAGE, India (AP) — The man walked into Ramesh Agrawal's tiny Internet cafe, pulled out a pistol and hissed, "You talk too much." Then he fired two bullets into Agrawal's left leg and fled on a motorcycle.

The 2012 attack came three months after Agrawal won a court case that blocked a major Indian company, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., from opening a second coal mine near the village of Gare in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh.

For a decade, Agrawal — who has no formal legal training — has been waging a one-man campaign to educate illiterate villagers about their rights in fighting pollution and land-grabbing by powerful mining and electricity companies. He's won three lawsuits against major corporations and has spearheaded seven more pending in courts.

"When I started this fight, I knew I'd be a target. It will happen again. Let it happen. I'm not going anywhere," the soft-spoken yoga enthusiast said in an interview this month in the city of Raigarh, where he hobbled around his modest home with a cane and a metal brace screwed into his shattered femur.

On Monday, Agrawal, 60, will be recognized in a ceremony in San Francisco as one of six recipients of this year's $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the "Green Nobel."

Among the other winners are former corporate lawyer Helen Slottje who fought fracking — pumping chemicals and water underground to break open shale rock formations — in New York state and South Africa's Desmond D'Sa who closed down one of the country's largest toxic dumping sites. The award was established in 1990 with a grant from philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to honor grass-roots environmental activists in the six regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and Latin America.

"This is the biggest milestone in my life," Agrawal said of the award, which he flew to California to receive. "But it also makes me sad, that someone in a foreign country who I don't even know is willing to do so much for us, while so many people here don't even know us or want to help."

Activists, lawyers and analysts in India say that's changing as hundreds if not thousands of small, scrappy movements are challenging building and mining projects that local residents believe will damage the environment, undermine their livelihoods or even uproot them from their homes.

"People are gaining confidence and losing patience," environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said in New Delhi. "These are not established activist groups or nonprofits like Greenpeace campaigning on global issues like climate change. These are regular, everyday people worried about their survival, and their voices of dissent are forcing India to change."

Villagers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh have won national TV coverage for their cause by standing neck-deep in water for days to protest large hydro-power dam projects that would flood their farms and homes. Apple growers in northeast Himachal Pradesh are suing dam builders who they say have tunneling plans that will damage their orchards.

"People used to say, 'You can't fight with the big guys.' But once we started winning a few cases, people started believing in themselves and believing in this country again," Agrawal said.

India's rapid economic growth over the past decade has boosted the incomes and living standards of millions, mostly city-dwellers.

But the environmental impact has often been ignored, and the rural poor largely left behind. The 400 million Indians who live on less than $1.25 a day are dubious about their economic prospects, particularly those who have lost their land or been forced to live with poisoned groundwater, dirty air and fetid rivers.

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