Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE)

Awarded 2021

India

For their innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.

Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) is an organisation working to protect the environment in India through the creative use of law and legal processes. LIFE works with communities through a grassroots approach: it assists and empowers often vulnerable populations to stand up against powerful interests and have a voice in the decision-making process, while also strengthening institutions and reforming laws.

Noticing a lack of judicial access regarding environmental issues, LIFE was founded by lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary in 2005. Today, the organisation’s attorneys are among India’s leading public interest lawyers. LIFE has helped communities fight against some of India’s most significant environmental threats: the construction of ecologically destructive projects in violation of the law, preventing deforestation and making industrial polluters pay for the damage caused to the environment and public health.

One of the early successes of LIFE has been a case against the British mining company Vedanta in the state of Odisha, which became a precedent-setting judgment. India’s Supreme Court recognised that the local community’s consent was required for such a project to commence.

Since then, LIFE has continued to stand up against powerful interests threatening the wellbeing of people and nature, securing better environmental protections for communities across India.

The Award will help us increase the impact of our work, empowering more people to protect nature and livelihoods.

Ritwick Dutta, co-founder of LIFE, 2021 Laureate

Biography

Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) aims to protect the environment through the creative use of law and legal processes in India. Fighting alongside communities and grassroots organisations, LIFE has taken on some of India’s most significant environmental threats, securing precedent-setting rulings. Through litigation, capacity building and pushing for more effective judicial structures, LIFE has significantly increased environmental protection for people across India.

India has a robust environmental law framework and an active civil society; however, access to justice for those intending to protect India’s remaining forests and biodiversity is often limited. The high cost of litigation and the long time required combined with the technical nature of the subject matter have made it difficult for people to bring even blatant cases of violation before the courts.

LIFE was created to bridge this gap between India’s justice system and those striving to protect the country’s natural resources and wildlife. The organisation’s founders, Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, met in law school. After working in the NGO sector, including at 2017 Right Livelihood Laureate Colin Gonsalves’ Human Rights Law Network, Dutta realised that there was a lack of organisations focusing exclusively on environmental litigation. LIFE was set up in 2005 to fill this need. Dutta is its Managing Trustee, while Choudhary is LIFE’s founding Trustee.

An important aspect of LIFE’s approach is its focus on working alongside affected communities. For this reason, LIFE is never the litigant. Instead, the organisation sees itself as providing legal and scientific support for grassroots groups fighting on the frontlines of environmental protection.

LIFE understands its work as promoting “Environmental Democracy,” which entails empowering communities to raise their voices and demand an active role in decisions concerning the environment on which their livelihoods depend. This comes from the realisation that India’s forests and biodiversity are critically dependent on the protection of the rights of marginalised communities such as tribal people, forest dwellers, farmers and traditional fisherfolks. As a result, LIFE also focuses on supporting and training communities struggling to protect their livelihoods, culture and natural resources on which their whole identity and survival depend. LIFE’s strategy has been to work with a range of actors – human rights groups, wildlife conservation organisations, grassroot activists and the government to secure environmental justice and uphold the environmental rule of law.

Victories for environmental protection

LIFE has been associated with some of the most significant Indian environmental campaigns in recent times. In 2010, LIFE helped stall a large-scale bauxite mine project by Vedanta, a British company, in the eastern state of Odisha. With help from LIFE, the case was brought by the Dongria Kondh tribal people, whose land would have been devastated by the mine. India’s Supreme Court ruled that the community’s consent was mandatory before a mining permit could be granted to Vedanta. The case is often cited as the most significant victory in the history of environmental lawsuits in India. Subsequently, in what became India’s first environmental referendum, the Dongria rejected the proposal for the mine.

In April 2016, LIFE attorneys represented local communities and helped in securing a court order to halt a hydro-power project in Tawang, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the ground that the project developers misled the government by concealing crucial material information. The case was ground-breaking because it was the first time that a project was ever stalled in India purely on wildlife and cultural grounds. LIFE attorney Dutta successfully argued in this case that the project would threaten the existence of the vulnerable black-necked crane, which is revered by the local Monpa tribe.

In 2018, Dutta represented the tribal communities of Lippa in remote Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh and succeeded in securing a judgment from India’s National Green Tribunal making it mandatory for an entire proposal for building a dam to be placed before the village council for its approval under India’s Forest Rights Act.

Ensuring clean environment

LIFE has been focussing on the need for proper scientific environmental impact assessments, including meaningful public consultation before projects are approved. LIFE prepares detailed critiques of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, which are shared with local communities. These critiques show how poor the assessments and studies are. These assessments have been the basis of various judicial decisions leading to either cancellation of socially and ecologically destructive projects or directions for further studies and public consultations. Concepts such as “cumulative impact assessment” have become an integral part of EIA’s largely because of such interventions.

In litigation spanning ten years, LIFE’s critique of an EIA study was used by local communities to stall the construction of a proposed 2,640-megawatt coal-based thermal power plant. The project would have severely impacted the livelihoods and environment of farming communities in Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh. Showing that crucial information was concealed in the project’s EIA report, LIFE was able to receive a judgement in 2013 in favour of the community. Even though the project was subsequently granted a new permit by the Indian government in 2015 based on a fresh impact assessment, it was immediately challenged in court on the ground that the studies were deficient, and construction never began. The permit eventually expired in March 2020, leaving no basis for work to begin any time soon.

Democratising biodiversity conservation

LIFE has also helped ensure that the provisions of India’s 2002 Biological Diversity Act were fully implemented. Under the law, each local body is required to have a Biodiversity Management Committee and the local people are required to prepare a People’s Biodiversity Register, which is a documentation of the biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge of the area. However, before litigation was initiated by LIFE, only about 5 per cent of India’s around 255,000 local elected bodies had Biodiversity Management Committees. As a result of 4 years of litigation supported by LIFE, today about 254,500 such committees have been set up and the process of preparing People’s Biodiversity Registers is nearing completion. A process of democratising biodiversity conservation has thus been initiated in India.

The National Green Tribunal

LIFE has been instrumental in calling for a specialised court to deal with cases of environmental protection. In 2010, the National Green Tribunal was established by the Indian government to adjudicate cases relating to the environment and the protection of natural resources. LIFE played a crucial role in giving shape to the Tribunal. The court, which is equipped to handle complicated, multi-disciplinary cases, is mandated to reach decisions within a set timeframe, thus speeding up the judicial process. Since its establishment, LIFE has been involved with litigating several cases at the tribunal daily.

Through its creative mix of litigation, capacity building and pushing for more effective judicial structures, LIFE has significantly raised the bar of environmental protection for people across India.

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