Arrest of an activist raises
Supriya Sharma, TNN | Jun 4, 2011, 10.47am IST
A week ago, Agrawal and Patel were arrested in Raigarh based on a complaint filed by Jindal Power Limited. A sessions court denied them bail on Thursday. In his order rejecting bail, sessions judge R C S Samant wrote, “An offence under section 505, the act relates to disturbing public tranquility, which could have serious consequences.. the government objection is that the applicant is involved in such activities”.
So what activities are Agrawal and Patel purportedly involved in? And what led to their arrest?
Agrawal is the most visible face of environmental activism in Chhattisgarh. He runs a group called Jan Chetna, based in Raigarh, a district with considerable coal reserves, and a major destination for power companies. Known for his ability to dig out inconvenient facts using RTI, Agrawal is a regular fixture at mandatory public hearings held to seek the opinion of the local communities, before environmental clearances are given to projects.
On May 8, a hearing was held in Tamnar block in Raigarh, where Jindal Power Limited proposed to build a 2400 MW power plant, as part of its expansion plans. Both Agrawal and Patel spoke at the hearing. A practising doctor and activist, Patel is also a resident of the area.
As a recording of the proceedings shows, standing behind a wire mesh, bespectacled Agrawal thundered into a microphone, running through a series of past violations of the company, which has been operating coal mines and power plants in Raigarh since the nineties. He spoke about the potential perils of its latest project on air, soil and water. And then, he pointed out a major violation : the company had already started construction at the site, even before it had received clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Based on Agrawal’s complaint, a team of MoEF officials visited the site. The Ministry cancelled the clearance and asked the state government to take action against the company.A few months later, another case surfaced, where the company had allegedly begun construction, again before receiving an official go ahead. This prompted a local court to order that a case be registered against JPL. It also asked three senior officials, including the Vice Chairman to appear in court. All three were given bail.
However, one year later, Agrawal and Patel have been denied bail, based on the company’s complaint. The charges range from defamation, insult, intimidation and inciting the public.
In the recording, Agrawal loses his composure once when he says, “if they (JPL officials) are sons of their fathers, they should come forward”. Lawyers say that at best, this constitutes insult and intimidation. Both are bailable offences. The only non bailable charge against him is section 505 : statements relating to public mischief.
Speaking out against the violations of a company does not amount to ‘public mischief’ but ‘public interest’, say activists. “Both Agrawal and Patel had been raising concerns about the social and environmental impacts of rapid and indiscriminate industrial expansion in the district for the last several years,”environmentalists Ritwick Dutta and Kanchi Kohli have written in an appeal, circulating on the internet.
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