#WorldEnvironmentDay: A visit to RLEK, the cradle of environmental litigation in India

Aditya AK June 5 2017

If you blink, you will miss it.

There is absolutely nothing special about the building that houses the office of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) located off Rajpur Road in Dehradun. It virtually melds into its surroundings, making it rather difficult to find. However, this unassuming edifice is a piece of history.

It is to here that the origins of India’s first ever environmental litigation in the Supreme Court can be traced. But, much like its headquarters, the many victories RLEK has achieved in the courts have gone largely unnoticed.

RLEK’s success over the years is largely down to the untiring efforts of one man, Prof Avdhash Kaushal. A Padma Shri awardee and former faculty member at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Prof Kaushal has been at the forefront of it all, soldiering on in an effort to make his world a better place. He starts at the beginning.

“We started in the early 70s, mainly to introduce a legal aid programme in the state. The government was not thinking on those lines at that time. We filed Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court. Though we were unregistered at the time, the court appreciated us in its judgments.”

It is with great pride that Prof Kaushal opens up an old SCC tome and points to a paragraph written by Justice PN Bhagwati. It reads,

“We must place on record our appreciation of the steps taken by the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra. But for this move, all that has happened perhaps may not have come. Preservation of the environment and keeping the ecological balance unaffected is a task which not only Governments but also every citizen must undertake.”

That paragraph was from a judgment passed in 1986, in what was the first environmental litigation filed in the Supreme Court. Prof Kaushal takes us through the details of the case.

They argued that the citizens’ right to water, which comes under the Right to Life under Article 21, was being violated.

“The Doon valley is known for its abundance of water; rains happen four times a year here. In Mussoorie, the government gave 101 mining companies licences to do open cast mining, which involves removing the vegetation and the topsoil, and blast the ground to search for limestone. These mining companies destroyed the entire hydrosystem, resulting in a shortage of water in the area.”

RLEK would first approach the Allahabad High Court, which had jurisdiction over the area at the time. They argued that the citizens’ right to water, which comes under the Right to Life under Article 21, was being violated. However, the High Court would dismiss the petition and allow the mining companies’ licenses to be renewed. That is when they decided to approach the Supreme Court. Prof Kaushal recounts that experience:

“There were 200-300 advocates against us! After a very long battle for almost nine years, we won the case, and all the mines were closed.”

That win would only be the first of many across different fields for Prof Kaushal and RLEK. Their efforts to abolish bonded labour resulted in the passing of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976.

“There was no law related to bonded labour at that time. I was a member of the Drafting Committee of the Act. After our efforts, the existence of 19,000 bonded labourers in the state was accepted by the government. Most of them belonged to Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Now, we have started schools for their children.”

RLEK also runs a women empowerment programmed called PRAGATI, wherein the tribal women of Uttarakhand and Haryana are taught to stand up for their rights. And this is essential, given the problems of domestic violence and alcoholism plaguing the states. Says Advocate Pallavi Bahuguna, head of the legal team,

“The women feel that since they are not earning, they are worth as much as a piece of furniture. We try to educate them about their self-worth and how they can be independent.”

The Snakes and Ladders game used to teach the women

PRAGATI has developed creative methods of instruction for their legal literacy programme. One of the methods is to teach the women through games likes Snakes and Ladders. Through this, they are shown the impetuses that further their empowerment and the pitfalls that hamper it. Bahuguna and her team have also designed easy-to-read pamphlets on various laws like the Right to Education Act, Domestic Violence Act, etc. She says,

“They first have to realise that injustice is being done to them. They don’t understand the concept of mental harassment and denial of rights. Only if something physical happens, they feel wronged.”

Another pet project of the organisation is the displacement of the Van Gujjars, the tribal people from the hills. Prof Kaushal says that the forest department is hand in glove with government officials in undermining the rights of the tribals.

“The Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers Act clearly mentions that people living in any kind of forest or sanctuary cannot be displaced. The Act also allows them to have up to four hectares of land. For this, they have to prove that they have been living there for three generations. If they cannot provide proof of this, it is sufficient if the oldest member of the community says so.

Unfortunately, what is happening is that the forest department gets money to throw them out, and they don’t follow this Act. In Uttarakhand, seven tribal communities are facing this problem, because of the nexus between the politicians and the forest department bureaucrats. We are fighting many cases against the forest department.”

Prof Kaushal is not one to back down when it comes to taking the government head on. He is an old warhorse, immune to the authorities’ intimidatory tactics after all these years.

“They have filed complaints, not only against RLEK, but against me as well. But I am not worried, we always win.

Prof Avdhash Kaushal

Our policy is to remain a POP – a permanent opposition party. Most NGOs support whatever ruling party that comes into power. We have a love-hate relationship with both the Centre and the state government. When we do their work, they are very happy. When we fought the case against mining in Mussoorie, we were heroes. But when we fight for indigenous communities, we are enemy number one!”

Despite all these victories under their belt, Prof Kaushal admits that it is a particularly difficult time for NGOs like his.

“Like all NGOs, we are troubled, but we live for today.

We do not have any corpus fund. Yet we run schools of children of the tribal communities, those of bonded labourers, and those who were born in red light areas. We are able to run these schools for free thanks to the Solomon Foundation. For the last two years, the Baptist Church has been paying the salaries of the forty-five teachers in our fifteen schools.

For a few years, we have been a resource agency for the United Nations Development Programme, for legal and political empowerment. Unfortunately, now the UNDP is also facing a lot of funding problems. So, naturally, we are also facing these problems. We have sent our FCRA application on time, but the government is still sitting on it. Maybe because we fight against them (laughs). We used to get some support from the HRD Ministry, but that also is facing some problems.”

So how do they find the wherewithal to approach courts and fight cases?

“Almost every year, we get some cash awards, like the GD Birla award for Rural Development. Last year, I got the Nani A Palkhiwala Award. This year, we received the Satpal Mittal award. We have been shortlisted for the Bhagwan Mahaveer award, which is 10 lakhs. None of our board members takes any money.”

Towards the end of our meeting, Prof Kaushal reveals a glimpse of what it truly takes to effect change. One hundred per cent selflessness.

“I survive on the pension I get from the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. I do not have a house of my own, I don’t go cinemas or anything like that.”

His hearing may have become suspect as the years have passed, but his spirit carries on, stronger than ever. What keeps him going after all this time?

“It has become a habit. Some people are interested in making money, others are interested in helping others.”

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