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In Right Livelihood Award for LIFE, a Spirited Path to Environmental Democracy

In Right Livelihood Award for LIFE, a Spirited Path to Environmental Democracy

Rahul Choudhary (L) and Ritwick Dutta. Photo: LIFE/Right Livelihood

  • The Indian nonprofit organisation LIFE is one of the recipients of the prestigious Right Livelihood Awards of 2021.
  • LIFE played an influential role in the establishment of the National Green Tribunal in 2010, and in a slew of cases that have set the bar for the protection of environmental rights.
  • Its two heads also travel extensively to understand ground realities of the cases they handle and the adverse impacts of the projects on the lives and livelihoods of the local people.

In the last week of September, the nonprofit organisation Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE) in India was announced as one of the recipients of the Right Livelihood Awards of 2021. This is a prestigious award conferred every year on people and organisations “working for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world for all”.

The citation for LIFE specifically said it was receiving the award “for [its] innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.”

In the late 1990s, TRAFFIC, the wildlife-trade monitoring unit of WWF India, was a happening place. We encouraged good researchers. One afternoon, Ritwick Dutta, a lanky, soft-spoken law graduate studying at the WWF’s Centre for Environmental Law walked into our office looking for interesting work.

He worked diligently to research and produce a small publication on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). He also later assisted us with researching the trade in medicinal plants.

Soon, I left TRAFFIC to attend to my bureaucratic calling in the newly created state of Chattisgarh. But destiny had other ideas, and just as quickly I found myself back in Delhi, free of the shackles of a government job.

Both Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, another lawyer (who had also, incidentally, researched medicinal plants at TRAFFIC for some time), started as rookies at the Human Rights Law Network, set up by eminent senior advocate Colin Gonsalves. They tracked human-rights issues in Uttarakhand and a few other places. When they realised that human and environmental rights were inextricably bound together, they founded a nonprofit organisation called the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE) in 2005. Its first office was in a barsati[footnote]A small lodging on a roof[/footnote] atop Ritwick’s family house in Noida.

Our paths crossed in 2007, when the Noida Toll Bridge Company Limited, the Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation and an entertainment company organised the ‘Times Global Village’. They erected the structures for this shopping extravaganza bang on the Yamuna floodplains, and this brought LIFE and me together. At this time, I had set-up an NGO and was doing odd projects.

The terms of this ‘village’ were directly in the teeth of the Delhi high court’s directions about encroachments on floodplains – specifically, that they aren’t allowed within 300 metres of the river. LIFE, on behalf of Anand Arya and myself, filed a case at the high court, and this sufficed to establish the wrongness of the ‘village’ as well as prevented it from becoming an annual affair, as its promoters had intended.

Soon, more legal challenges to the plans of the Commonwealth Games village and the Delhi Metro depot, both planned again in the floodplains, followed – and also sealed my association with Ritwick and Rahul.


The 21st century brought both hope and risk. The economic liberalisation of the 1990s found a fuller expression in rapid urbanisation, high economic growth and consumerism. State encouragement of private capital and enterprise had become the norm, and the state agencies were not averse to bending laws, rules and regulations to favor economic growth at any cost. So forest, coastal and agricultural land came under developmental pressures, resulting in disputes and conflicts sometimes violent.

There was a clear need to legally support the people who were at the receiving end of these excesses, and this is where LIFE, with its resolve to never stand with corporate or exploitative state-interests, made a mark.

Fortunately, ‘developing’ India has legal instruments like the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Coastal Regulation Zone notification, the Biological Diversity Act 2002, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification and the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005. In the Godavarman case, the Supreme Court had also instituted the Central Empowered Committee to look into forest related matters.

All these instruments came handy to LIFE.

Also read: A Healthy Environment as a Human Right

Initially, the new EIA Notification in 2006 kept Ritwick and Rahul busy at the NEAA, where the bench’s intransigence resulted in them losing appeal after appeal against environment clearances granted to all sorts of developmental projects. Their clients came from different corners of the country, often from tribal areas with hardly anything to offer in return. Sometimes LIFE also had to arrange for their clients’ stay in Delhi.

What struck me most then was the equanimity with which the duo faced failures even as they tried, in vain, to make the bench appreciate the illegalities, wrongness and lack of application of mind by authorities that had granted the clearances. The times were certainly hard and testing.

But in hindsight, their experience was likely to have been educational, especially about the intricacies of environmental laws and court craft. Sanjay Parikh, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, has been a friend, philosopher and guide to LIFE and helped whenever cases went to the higher courts.

On the back of these efforts, LIFE played an influential role in the establishment of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2010.

The NGT is special. It wears three hats. One is as a quasi-judicial appellate body on environmental matters. Second is its original jurisdiction as a court in larger environmental issues. Third, it has the power to adjudicate on matters of relief and compensation to victims of environmental disasters. In its 10 years of litigation work, LIFE has dealt with cases relating to all the three roles of the NGT.

For example, LIFE was there when primitive Dongria Kondh tribes in Niyamgiri, Odisha, wanted to save their revered hill from bauxite mining; the Kotli Bhel IA, IB and II hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and Teesta III in Sikkim needed to be challenged by local people for irregularities; runaway mining in Goa was wreaking environmental havoc; thermal power plants in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra required critical review; the Yamuna and Ganga gasped for breath; a young girl wanted government to initiate actions to address climate change; and when 600 victims of floods made worse by a dam in Srinagar (Uttarakhand) sought specific financial relief. The list of cases is long.

The secret of success of LIFE has been the amazing team work of Ritwick and Rahul[footnote]Ritwick is also a regular contributor to The Wire Science.[/footnote]. And litigation apart, both men travel extensively to understand ground realities of the cases they handle and the adverse impacts of the projects on the lives and livelihoods of the local people.

This hands-on approach has catapulted LIFE into investing significant energies and resources in capacity-building among the local people as well as among officials who, with better knowledge and understanding of the laws and regulations, could improve their decision-making. Ritwick is also a regular speaker at refresher courses held at the training academies for Indian and State Forest Service officers.

Another major impact of LIFE’s work has been on judicial processes and environmental jurisprudence. LIFE set up an ‘EIA Resource Centre’ to prop up its research and analysis capabilities, with a focus on facilitating access to justice, improving the quality of environmental impact assessments and protecting India’s forests and wildlife. Its work to democratise the largely ignored Biological Diversity Act 2002, by helping establish through litigation around 2.5 lakh biodiversity management committees, is impossible to understate.

There is a lot more that LIFE does at the Central Empowered Committee, high courts and the Supreme Court. And all together the organisation very much deserves the 2021 Right Livelihood Award that it has won along with three others, out of some 206 nominations from 89 countries.

Manoj Misra is a former member of the Indian Forest Service and has been convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign for a Living Yamuna) since 2007.

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