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I am like a doctor who sees patients die: Ritwick Dutta
By d-sector Team



At a relatively very young age for Supreme Court lawyers, Ritwick Dutta has earned a distinct mark for himself as an efficient environmental lawyer. Today, for his commitment, focussed approach and research on wide range of issues concerning environment, he is widely respected by civil society, judiciary and government alike.

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Among the hyper sensitive environmental activists susceptible to rhetoric, Ritwick Dutta stands out for his no-nonsense approach. Having authored and edited many books and journals on environmental law within a short span of time, Ritwick has done a lot for environment protection than many of his predecessors could do together. He is frequently on the move meeting project affected people, fighting legal battles in courts, training bureaucrats and forest officials and attending meetings and seminars on environmental issues. Discarding the obvious questions, d-sector.org tried to put the highly efficient lawyer on the backfoot on the eve of the world environment day. Here are the excerpts of the conversation with Ritwick Dutta:

Q. As a lawyer where do you locate yourself in the environment movement today? Do you see yourself fighting court battle till your hair become grey?

A. My hair have already started turning grey and rather prematurely! I feel that my role is essentially one of providing legal support to affected communities and groups across the country. Litigation is not an alternative to activisms and grassroot movements, it is only complementary. I am happy that more groups and communities are now willing to challenge projects through the Courts of law and are gathering strong evidence.

Q. Don't you see yourself working at cross purpose with the growth agenda of the country and yet being a beneficiary of it?

A. Yes, if being resident of Delhi means enjoying fruits of economic growth, I am surely a beneficiary of the same. But I can't forget the fact that someone, somewhere is paying the price for this growth rate. The issue is not about need of development, of more electricity, roads etc.

The issue is how and where we do it. Highways are needed but should it be allowed to cut through prime wildlife habitat. We need power, but should it be at the cost of coastal fisheries and agricultural production? Should we not be looking at how to efficiently use existing resources before opening new power plants, mines etc? The rate of approval of industrial projects is alarming. Rarely is there a case of industrial projects rejected by the Ministry of Environment, however negative its impact on people and environment.

I will be the happiest person in the world if there are no violations. For the last seven years all my visits to National Parks and Sanctuaries and forests have only been to see violations!

Q. What excites you in your work? If there were no environmental violations what will you do?

A. The sheer absurdity in the Government decision making process, which can make you laugh at times, and the arrogance and over confidence of the corporates keep me motivated and add to the excitement. But it is also a sad reflection on the present state of environment and I feel bad for those who suffer its consequences.

I will be the happiest person in the world if there are no violations. For the last seven years all my visits to National Parks and Sanctuaries and forests have only been to see violations! I must have visited Corbett Tiger reserve over a dozen times, but never to see wildlife but to see illegal construction of roads, felling of trees, mining on river bed etc. I am like a doctor seeing patients die…it is not really the best work in the world and therefore will be happy to see no violations.

I feel that only category of people who will be affected adversely, …. if there are no environmental violations, .. will the lawyers representing the corporate violators. They earn the most in the whole process of litigation. And sadly though I might have helped them earn crores in legal fees none of them have ever thanked me!

Q. Are you not having the best of both the worlds? Corporations keep you busy by violations and civil society is your bastion as you are their saviour?

A. Firstly, the Corporates consider me as a nuisance. As far as Civil Society Groups, I am largely known as the lawyer who has lost the maximum number of cases! In fact in environmental issues you never ever win a case. You only buy time. So if the EIA is not done, the Court will order it to be done. If public hearing is not done, the Court will order it to be re-conducted. However, the Courts will not say that the project should not be set up at all. However, if you lose a case, the destruction will take place and there is no victory later. Say, if you lose a dam or mining case, both the dam and mining will start before you ask for a review or appeal against the decision. Therefore, I really don't think that Civil Society considers me a saviour.

Q. Would you recommend a green coat for environmental lawyers?

A. Not really, I would like the black coat to serve a green purpose instead.

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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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