The industrialist-politician Naveen Jindal will not be pleased to learn that Ramesh Agarwal, an environmental activist and internet café owner in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, is one of the winners of this year’s $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. Agarwal began his activism in 2005 and won his first legal battle in 2010 when he managed to prevent the expansion of the mining company Scania Steel & Power Ltd. in Chhattisgarh. He has been a thorn in Jindal’s side since 2010, and has taken him to court for irregularities in mining, power and coal projects planned by his company, Jindal Steel & Power Limited. In this extract from our March 2013 profile of Naveen Jindal, Mehboob Jeelani travels to Raigarh to meet Agarwal and learn about his fierce battle against the corporate colossus, as well as the terrible price he paid for his activism.
Back in Raigarh, I walked through an old neighbourhood called Itwaari Bazaar, past little tarpaulin-roofed shacks selling clothes, plastic utensils, socks and bags. After 10 minutes, I came to a two-storey concrete house with two security guards, wearing commando uniforms and carrying automatic rifles, posted at the entrance. The guards had been deputed by the state government to prevent any further attack on Ramesh Agarwal, a local environmental activist and Jindal’s most determined foe.
Inside, Agarwal was lying on a bed with his left leg wrapped in a bandage; two steel rods had been inserted through his ankle and knee. “Two bullets,” Agarwal said, softly. “They shot at me thrice.”
Agarwal’s confrontation with Jindal began in 2010, over the new power plant I had seen under construction in Tamnar. In March of that year, Agarwal sent a letter to Jairam Ramesh, then the Union environment minister, alleging that Jindal had begun building the plant without securing an environmental clearance. Agarwal fed the letter to the local press—Jindal’s friend, Sunil Kumar, published it in Daily Chhattisgarh—and Ramesh dispatched a team of investigators to Tamnar, where they confirmed Agarwal’s allegations. In June 2010, the environment ministry directed the Chhattisgarh government to withdraw its approval for the power project.
For the time being, Jindal remained silent, though Kumar told me he received an anguished phone call from Jindal after publishing the letter. “He said, ‘Sunilji, your story has damaged us beyond repair. We had been good friends, and I respect you so much. Why are you hurting me?’ I said, we have carried the factual details, which have been established by the ministry. Our story is correct. He listened to me quietly and then hung up.”
Jindal appealed to the environmental ministry and managed to get the decision reversed, but his fight with Agarwal was just getting started. A year later, in May 2011, the police arrested Agarwal at his home, on the basis of a criminal defamation complaint Jindal had filed in June 2010, over remarks Agarwal had made at a public meeting on the power plant expansion. Agarwal spent about 60 days in jail, while the district court and high court refused him bail, which was finally granted by the Supreme Court. “The words he is alleged to have said in public are ‘hum Jindal ko ukhaad deingay yahaan sey (we’ll uproot Jindal from here)’,” said Ritwick Dutta, Agarwal’s lawyer, who runs a Delhi-based law firm called Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment. “If this is the grounds to put him behind bars, then half of north India’s population should be in jail. Such stuff is said in everyday dealings.”
In April 2012, the National Green Tribunal took up a complaint that Agarwal had filed three years earlier, challenging Jindal’s environmental clearance for a mining project and coal washery in Tamnar. The crux of Agarwal’s complaint was that the required public hearing had been conducted improperly: after the meeting was dispersed by police who had arrived to break up angry protests, the district magistrate continued the hearing, recording the remarks of a tiny number who supported the project. The tribunal’s decision was unusually harsh; after reviewing video evidence, the bench of two judges declared the hearing “a farce” and “a mockery of the entire process of public hearing”. The tribunal cancelled the environmental clearance, and Jindal suffered another setback at the hands of Agarwal’s activism.
On 7 July 2012, Agarwal was at the cyber café he owns, a hundred metres from his home. A motorbike pulled up to the shop and two men came inside. One asked Agarwal about the price of a computer, and the moment he looked toward the machine, he heard gunshots. “I saw blood flowing down my trousers,” Agarwal told me. “I cried for help, and they ran away.” Agarwal believes the gunmen were sent by Jindal, and that a retired army brigadier named KK Chopra, who Agarwal described as the head of security at Jindal’s plants in Raigarh and Orissa, plotted the attack and hired the shooters.
According to SK Banerjee, the investigating officer on the case in Raigarh, a chargesheet has been filed naming seven accused, including Chopra and his associate SN Panigrahi, who run a security agency called Superior Fire and Security Service, which provides security for JSPL’s Raigarh plant. “During the interrogation they didn’t confess to be involved in the shootout,” Banerjee said. “But we have collected physical evidence that says the two shooters had met Chopra and Panigrahi before and after the crime took place.”
When I asked Pradeep Tandon, a JSPL executive who runs the company’s operations in Raigarh, about the shooting, he described Chopra as “one of the guys who was working in our security agency before.” “He was not with us anymore—he was previously with us,” Tandon continued. “By the time Jindal came to know about the shooting, the police had already arrested them.” As for Agarwal, Tandon said that JSPL had filed the original criminal complaint, which led to his arrest, because “he used to keep blackmailing us. He was asking for a bribe of five crores, and we said we will not give money.”
Last July, about ten days after Agarwal had been shot, the Congress MLAs staged a walkout from the state assembly to protest the speaker’s refusal to allow a discussion of the incident. Chhattisgarh’s Congress politicians remain wary of Jindal, whose business interests in the state have led him to forge an alliance with the BJP chief minister, Raman Singh. Jindal often invites Singh to the inaugurations of new facilities at his plants; on several occasions when the chief minister’s helicopter has had technical problems, Jindal offered to send one of his private jets for Singh’s use.
VC Shukla, an octogenarian Congress leader and former Union cabinet minister who befriended Om Prakash Jindal when they served in the Lok Sabha together two decades ago—is now among Naveen’s most vocal critics inside the Congress; he argues that Jindal’s pursuit of his own business interests inside Chhattisgarh have blackened the reputation of the party. “His deeds have given a bad name to the Congress Party,” Shukla told me when I met him at his New Delhi residence. “He manipulates the village council meetings. He bribes the local officials, right from a pathwari level. When people protest against him, he asks police to lathi charge them. I mean, this is insane. We could have controlled him but he has never attended Congress meetings here.”
An extract from ‘The Price of Power,’ published in The Caravan’s March 2013 issue. Read the story in full here.
Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.