NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian environmental activist Ramesh Agrawal, who helped villagers stop a massive coal mining project, is among six people around the world to be awarded the prestigious Goldman Environment Prize, the organisation said.
The annual prize honours outstanding grassroots environmentalists for their sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.
The individual cash prize of $175,000 makes it the largest award of its kind.
"With a small internet cafe as his headquarters, Ramesh Agrawal organised villagers to demand their right to information about industrial development projects and succeeded in shutting down one of the largest proposed coal mines in Chhattisgarh," a statement from the Goldman Environment Prize late on Monday said.
Agrawal’s work made him a target for mining industry supporters, the statement said. Shortly after Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) coal mining project was abandoned, gunmen broke into Agrawal’s shop and shot him in the leg, severely injuring him.
Agrawal survived the attack, but faces a long road to recovery. His attackers have yet to be brought to justice. Despite his limited mobility, Agrawal is helping villagers to assert their rights as landowners and apply for mineral rights to the coal buried under their properties, the statement said.
India is desperate for power, and coal is expected to remain at the heart of its energy security for decades. Up to 40 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity.
Led by grassroots activists like Agrawal and campaigning environmental groups, villagers across India have become increasingly aware of their rights and are blocking mining projects which they say will destroy not only the environment, but also their livelihoods.
Many are now using laws such as the Right to Information Act and the Forest Rights Act to stop mining projects which they believe are not following due process.
Environmental group Greenpeace - which is supporting lobbying against a coal project planned by the Mahan Coal Company in the central state of Madhya Pradesh - said Agrawal’s prize would embolden others fighting the mining industry in India.
"It's wonderful to know that the body of ground work that Ramesh Agarwal has put in in questioning mining interests in Chhattisgarh against great odds has been recognised by awarding him the Goldman Prize," said Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace India's Climate and Energy Campaigns Manager.
"This should certainly come as a shot in the arm to people on the ground questioning the destructive impacts of mining and the manner in which big corporate interests run roughshod over legal processes at the expense of the environment and people."
Other Goldman winners were South Africa's Desmond D'Sa for helping disenfranchised communities shut down a toxic waste dump, Russia's Suren Gazaryan for leading numerous campaigns exposing government corruption and illegal use of protected forests, Indonesia's Rudi Putra for dismantling illegal palm oil plantations, Peru's Ruth Buendia for a powerful campaign against large-scale dams and the USA's Helen Slottje for providing pro bono legal help to towns wanting to ban fracking by oil and gas companies.
The prize was established in 1989 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman and winners are selected by an international jury.