Please tell us about yourself

For India Inc, 39-year-old environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta is a perennial nuisance, someone who has been obstructing, slowing and litigating against the industrialisation of the country. But for tree huggers, he’s Captain Planet trying to save the earth from mindless destruction.

Dutta, a Supreme Court lawyer for more than a decade, has blocked big projects like bauxite mining by Vedanta Resources and Posco’s steel project in Odisha. He fought 350 cases against behemoths like Posco, Vedanta, Jindal SteelNSE -2.67 %, and government-backed NTPCNSE 0.90 % in the past 10 years, making him unpopular with Corporate India.

“A substantive amount of our industrialism is happening at the cost of the livelihoods of people,” says Dutta. “The locals are saying that they’ll get jobs as watchmen, guards, but top jobs will go to engineers from outside. It is a real issue of livelihood loss.”

In the last few decades, one of the shining beacons for India’s beleaguered forests and wildlife has been the Supreme Court of India. That is because lawyers such as Ritwick Dutta have had grit to challenge some of the most powerful people in the country. Ritwick is a rare ‘species’ in a country that boasts of several environmental and conservation organisations and activists, but few full-time environmental lawyers.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

It was Ritwick’s early interest in protecting wild India that spurred him to become an environmental lawyer. Armed with a graduate degree in Sociology, an LLB from the University of Delhi and a diploma in Environmental Law from The Centre of Environmental Law, WWF-India in 1996, he travelled around the country to understand the issues at the grassroots level. He believes this was his ‘real’ training ground, which exposed him to the environmental degradation caused by dams, mines and deforestation.

Tell us about your work

A law graduate from Delhi University, Dutta, 43, started pursuing environment law in 2001. His first case was against Vedanta, the mining company, where he represented the Dongria Kondh tribals seeking a ban on bauxite mining in the Niyamagiri hills in south-west Odisha, considered sacred by local communities.

Dutta has, since, taken on cases against other mega mining projects too–the Rs 9,000-crore Polavaram multi-purpose irrigation project in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh and the Lafarge lime mining project in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. Dutta also fought for the Ratnagiri farmers whose mango orchards would have been affected by JSW’s thermal power plants.

India, ranked among the bottom five nations in the global Environmental Performance Index (EPI) list released in January 2018, has moved down 36 places in two years. Multiple studies conducted recently have shown that India is dealing with an environmental crisis.

Consider the following findings:

  • None of the 280 Indian cities surveyed in a recent Greenpeace study met the World Health Organization (WHO) standards for clean air, with capital city Delhi ranking worst, as IndiaSpend reported on 5 February, 2018;
  • Yamuna, which runs through Delhi, has 16 million faecal coliform parts per million (PPM). The standard is 500 PPM for potable water;
  • Bengaluru’s lakes often catch fire because of the waste and untreated sewage dumped in them.

The government does not appear to be worried about India’s poor showing in environment protection. The minister for environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) Harsh Vardhan has dismissed them as “just rankings”.

“The green tribunal is now the epicentre of the environmental movement in India,” environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta told IndiaSpend. “It has become the first and the last recourse for people because their local governments are not doing the job of protecting the environment. But political apathy, indeed deliberate action, are rendering the NGT ineffective.”

Tell us about a few cases

He fought his first case at the age of 28 against Vedanta, representing the Dongria Kondh tribals of Niyamgiri, who wanted to stop the London-listed giant from mining bauxite. Dutta fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which then asked Vedanta to get approval from the tribals to start mining.

The tribals rejected the request, and the hills remain untouched. “Virtually 330 acres of forest land is diverted every day in India, according to the ministry of environment,” says Dutt ..

In one such case I attended with Ritwick Dutta, he was appealing to the courts to enforce a law meant to protect Asiatic lions in the Girnar Sanctuary. Dutta’s client, the Gir Nature Youth Club, had used India’s Right to Information Act to obtain information about the building of an Ashram on land designated for wildlife. Through the petitions process, the club discovered that the Ashram had in fact been encroaching on protected forest lands for years, even after the courts had ordered them to stop.

The impact of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Ashram had taken a huge toll on the land, the wildlife in the area and the local community. Even though the courts had previously decided in favor of the Youth Club to preserve the land, local ministers had overruled them and allowed for the encroachment, undermining the purpose and intent of the protected area.

Our session in court that day, like so many others, ended without a final decision. When Ritwick and I returned to the LIFE office, I asked what motivates him to take on cases that can often drag on for years. “It’s interesting and challenging work,” he said. “I want future generations to be able to appreciate how beautiful India truly is. The environment has an inherent right to exist in the form in which it has been created. Since we are not the creator we should not be the destroyer.”