In a country facing an acute environmental crisis as it rapidly industrialises, his assassination was no stray incident but one of a rising number of attacks on activists. The headline-grabbing decision to ban the British mining company Vedanta from opening a bauxite mine on tribal land in eastern India was only achieved after an unprecedented amount of national and international media attention.
Elsewhere decisions have not been so favourable. Recently approved plans for a new airport in Mumbai will destroy 170 hectares of critically important mangroves. Conservation groups say alternative sites were not properly considered and that their objections were given little consideration. But being ignored is perhaps better than the fate many environmental activists face in India today.
In January 2010, Satish Shetty, a whistle blower and anti-corruption campaigner, who brought to light land scams in West Indian state Maharashtra, was murdered, while Shanmughan Manjunath suffered the same fate after exposing petrol pumps that sold adulterated fuel. Activists say that in contrast to the image India portrays - of a nation that prioritises environmental issues - the reality is in fact very bleak.
‘Activists in India are constantly at risk. Stories of activists being killed are a moral setback to all of us. Ruffle the wrong person’s feathers and it could be you next,’ says Stalin D, project director at the environmental NGO Vanashakti. Ravi Rebbapragada, executive director of Samata, a tribal rights and environmental NGO, believes that as India continues its rapid industrialisation, things are likely to get worse, ‘as the stakes go higher the risk to the activist goes higher,’ he says.
Anti-mining activist killed
At the time of his death Amit was campaigning to protect against forest encroachment. He was heavily involved in the Gir National park, the only home of the Asiatic lion and a protected forest area in western India that covers more than 1,400 km sq. His efforts to expose illegal mining in the forest were rewarded last week with a special posthumous award. Before his death he had filed a lawsuit (Public Interest Litigation) against illegal limestone mining in the buffer zone around the National Park. His application had named a local MP Dinu Solanki from India’s Hindu Nationalist Party and the case was said to, ‘openly expose his link with illegal mining operations’.
Amit was well-known for standing up for environmental issues and had even taken on Bollywood actor Salmon Khan for shooting an endangered Blackbuck. As such he had many enemies in the government, according to his friend and environmental lawyer Manish Vaidya. His family and friends say he had been under threat ever since he started investigating illegal mining operations in and around Gir National Park.
‘A couple of years back, Dinu Solanki’s men physically assaulted Amit at a family wedding,’ recalls Alpa Amit Jethva, his widow, who says Amit had complained to the police after one incident but nothing happened. Dinu Solanki was unavailable for comment but a police investigation since Amit's death found that he had ‘no role to play’. The police confirmed to the Ecologist that his nephew Shiva Solanki has been charged with conspiracy to assassinate Jethva and a second man with his murder.
Lack of support from police
Activists in India say support is often lacking from the police when they try and initiate proceedings against their attackers. In March 2010, while exposing illegal sand mining in the state of Maharastra, Sumaira Abdulali, a trustee of the Awaaz Foundation, an environmental NGO, was followed, threatened and physically attacked by mafia linked to sand dredging in the area. Sumaira and her team went out on a boat to photograph illegal sand mining in an ecologically sensitive creek, where they saw over fifty dredgers within a span of one kilometre. After they took the photographs and left, they were followed by thugs.