I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a world-renown activist in flight and am holding on for dear life! My first day with the famous and wildly inspiringly infamous Medha Patkar was no less than exceptional: a conference on government corruption in Delhi was our meeting place, then off to a meeting with the national Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), a brief reprieve at an activist bat cave, and finally, an overnight train to Indore, getting us closer to the homeground of Narmada Bachao Andolan. A bit of background in case you missed it:
But I digress. The coup d’etat of the day was definitely the meeting with the Ministry. And it would have made Sam Mygatt proud.
Sam Mygatt, lawyer extraordinaire, former Peace Corps volunteer and short-lived corporate lawyer, was my first boss out of college. He had been head of a state-wide environmental agency that approved or denied large-scale development projects. I worked for Sam after this, when he served as an advisor to companies on what they could and could not do under the letter of the law. As the former gatekeeper and the person who had fortified the walls, he knew only too well what could be approved. And he kept his clients in line. Sam understood that development was going to happen and worked tirelessly to ensure that it happened conscientiously, legally, and responsibly.
Ten years after my job as an environmental consultant, I found myself on the other side of the table with Medhadidi, fighting a large-scale development by a company known as Lavasa.
Like the US, India has an environmental protection law requiring companies to do environmental assessments before they can proceed with work. Like many US companies, Lavasa avoided national environmental review and received instead, the minimal approvals possible. Unlike the US (one hopes), it had been flagrantly conducting large-scale construction activities, causing significant environmental harm way beyond the reach of its approvals.
Bringing this company to task has been an ordeal. Local community residents have had the burden of proof on their shoulders, surveying and documenting the construction activities over several years now. Misinformation, government corruption, and multiple levels of bureacracy have made the task of executing the law that much more challenging.
However, the slow and steady fight is starting to pay off. Based on the mounting evidence, last month the High Court of Mumbai ordered all work on the project to be stopped.
Lavasa, attempting to scuttle the process once again, asked to speak to the Ministry of Environment directly before having to take the “drastic action” of stopping all work. To ensure misinformation did not continue, environmental and community advocates also requested to address the Ministry at this same meeting.
Under these conditions, I watched as a nigh 15-member team of consultants, planners, lawyers, and communications experts presented the Lavasa project to the Ministry. They attempted to justify the large-scale construction project by over-inflating their “corporate social responsibility” efforts. They spoke for over an hour and rarely answered the Ministry’s questions directly. This was green-washing at its best. Or rather worst.
Medha Patkar, and her fellow advocates, Sunithi S.R., and Vishwambar Chaudhary, presented the counterargument to Lavasa’s drawn out and meandering presentation in less than 15 minutes. They presented an irrefutable argument: that Lavasa’s project, in its entirety, was essentially illegal. And backed it up with proof from local residents.
Here’s a snippet of the press coverage:
This week, we learned that the MoEF agrees. Lavasa’s work is to remain stopped!
And unless it can prove otherwise, Lavasa will be subject to full environmental review.
Sam Mygatt passed away last year. Watching this unfold, I couldn’t help but think of his work for the environment and how much I learned from him. About not only using the law to its fullest extent, but rather insisting on it – to protect our natural resources, our ways of life and our communities.
Wherever he may be, Sam must be smiling.