Priya Pillai is a lawyer by education and a social and environmental activist by practice. She has been working on rights of tribal communities and other forest dwelling communities living in mining areas, especially in coal mining and energy related issues. In this interview with she has shared her experiences.

What motivated you to pursue law as a career?

(Priya went to School of Indian legal thought for a 5 year LLB course and did her LLM from Government Law College in Trivandrum.)

I’ve always been somebody who kind of had a very strong sense of justice within me. A sense of what is right and just, so it kind of encouraged me to study law. I finished my LLM in international law with special focus on environmental law and human rights law.

I think as a lawyer once you study law it makes you confident as it strengthens your belief in the whole aspect of Justice. This belief in the system of justice really helped me in deciding my career. And also the way law operates that on one hand you have human rights and constitutional rights or guarantees to the people especially communities and on the other hand, if you look at the ground reality, there is a gross violation of these rights and justice is being totally denied to the people. Law is not what you learn in theories or what you believe as a law student about the law.

So I think that interface between what law actually is and what it actually guarantees to give you vis-a-vis what actually happens and how the law is actually implemented on the ground are two very different things which are worlds apart.

There is no element of justice; there is no element of any form of human rights acknowledgment or understanding on the ground. You will find that law enforcement officers, whether it is administration or police or any authority that is supposed to implement the law, are themselves violating the law. They are themselves falsely implicating people using the same laws which are meant to help people. So this gap pushed me to work for these communities.

What kind of exposure, life, and aspiration you had during your school days?

I studied in a convent school and since I came from a middle-class family, my exposure to a lot of these things that I today stand for was very limited. My only exposure to these kinds of violations and injustices was only after school when I was in college and that too from what I read. Reading something was again very different from ground reality. So my exposure, I must admit was very limited during my time at school and college. My aspirations at that point of time were very limited. I just limited myself to academics as I always thought that I would finish my law degree and Ph.D. in law and come back to teach law as a subject. So, my aspirations were very academically oriented.

What was your first job and how was your experience there?

My first job in this sector was on the Right to Food Campaign. I worked in Madhya Pradesh, which involved traveling across 42 districts of Madhya Pradesh and collecting evidence of malnutrition and maternal mortality and related issues. It was a very extensive travel in the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh and it opened me up to a lot of other issues including the right of tribal communities, Dalits, and women.

After that, I went on to work with Women Right Resource Centre for two years during which I was exposed to a lot of women related issues. The way the patriarchal society operates and what is the actual situation of women in India.

My first job gave me quite a bit of exposure and an opportunity to go on the ground and do ground research, understand what the real situation is and that is the period when I started realising the gross violation and injustices that are rampant among the communities; before that what I had was the understanding because of my reading.

How were your experiences working with Oxfam India?

I have worked for the Economic Justice Campaign which has climate change and livelihood issues of the communities as an agenda. While doing that work, I collaborated with a lot of communities and studied how communities are impacted and how their lives and livelihoods are affected by climate change. I was particularly trying to research and document strong instances of Climate Change.

We were also studying how climate change was affecting the communities and how they managed to overcome it. From that framework, I have also worked around the international negotiations on climate change like Bali Conference and Copenhagen Conference.

So basically, my work at Oxfam India involved working around climate negotiation and trying to mobilize support in favor of the communities affected by climate change.

Would you like to educate us about the ongoing conflict in the Mahan forest?

Mahan is basically the last remaining forest in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh. It is a small district that was formed in 2009 and there are 11 mines and 9 thermal power plants in this district. It is more of an industrial cluster in the Central Indian belt and produces 10% of the total coal based energy of the country.

Another interesting fact about this district is the fact that Singrauli is the third most polluted industrial cluster in this country according to CPI. Singrauli is not at all a picture of development, as promised by the government but is rather an oxymoron. There is a lot of air pollution and most of the forest in this region has been cut down except the Mahan forest which is intact for the time being.

When Jairam Ramesh was the Environment Minister there was a proposal by Essar and Hindalco to start Mahan Coal Limited. They proposed that the mines in the forest (which was 1182 hectares) would be diverted for coal mining. There are 54 villages in this area and thousands of people are dependent on these forests for resources. The coal mining project meant the displacement of a huge number of people and cutting off more than 5 lakh trees. There was not just a huge environmental cost. There were gross human right violations also.

This is the background of the situation in which we started working in 2010. We gathered communities under the banner of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti. It is a non-funded and non-registered people’s movement which consists of communities living in and around the Mahan forest who stood up and raised their voice against the proposed mine.

During our work, we found out that the forest and environmental clearance for the mines obtained by Essar and Hindalco were obtained fraudulently.

Under the Forest Act, there is a clear provision for the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes. The law lays down that in these villages, there has to be a Gram Sabha and only if the community with the required quorum in the Gram Sabha, gives its consent for the mining purposes, then only a mine be built in the forest.

A Gram Sabha was duly constituted for this purpose but it was fraudulent and the decision was forged. The meeting of Gram Sabha was attended only by 180 people but there were more than a thousand signatures on the document. And based on this forged document, Essar and Hindalco obtained the clearances for the mine.

We challenged this in the National Green Tribunal and we used this document to state that the company was violating the rights of the people living in the forests. Seven people were killed on the day of the meeting of the Gram Sabha. We have the death certificates of all those people. Two people were in jail on that day and a lot of people did not go to the Gram Sabha and their signatures were forged. There was a violation of the clearly laid down law.

This is not just happening in the Forest of Maha. These kind of things are happening in various other parts of the country. The very laws which are made for the protection of the communities are actually being used to take away the rights of them because of the strong Nexus between the company and the government. They operate hand in gloves with each other.

And in the middle of it, there are people who are struck and whose rights are actually being denied. They have little choice but to fight and stand up against the violation. We were working for the rights of the tribal community but many people who were working to enforce the law were thrown in jail for crimes they never committed.

Finally in 2015 Ministry of Environment and Forest recommended that the Mahan Coal Mining should be deallocated.

Do the mass of our country bothered about it? 

The middle-class people are not interested because it doesn’t affect them as it’s not their land or forest which is being encroached by the corporate houses. They are not the ones who get up in the morning and go into the forest to collect resources. So you will find that the middle-class people aren’t really bothered.

But if you move out of that middle class and go to the rural areas across the country, you will find that there are so many communities fighting for their rights. Whether it is in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh or in Odisha. In Odisha people are fighting against POSCO, people in Kunkakulam are fighting against the Nuclear Power Plant. So if you see the ground reality, you will find that people are protesting against these gross violations.

Greenpeace’s account has been frozen. So, how it operates now? From where does it get its funding?

Greenpeace operates mostly on individual fundraising. It does not take money from the government or from corporate houses. All the money and resources which Greenpeace has, has been collected from individuals.

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Although Delhi High Court ruled in your favor in PRIYA PILLAI VS. UNION OF INDIA AND ORS, there is a general perception of the people in our country that one should not speak about the shortcomings of anything, whether it is their college or any other institution for that matter. They think that if you let out the negatives of the institution it would tarnish the reputation of the institution. How do you look at it?

I think human right violations and environmental violations do not know any geographical boundaries. Because human right violation is a violation. No matter where it happens, in which country, in which place, and that needs to be spoken about.

I personally believe that people should stand up and speak up against injustice and violation irrespective of the fact that where it has been happening. In the past as well, we have seen many kinds of violations and all these violations have only been stopped when people have raised their voices against them.

We know that law is the instrument of change but how will it work when we will not raise our voice. There was a time when people spoke up against practices like Apartheid, Sati, and domestic violence and as a result, it was abolished. So at any given point in time, there will be practices that are justified by anyone group of people, so that does not mean that people should remain quiet about it. The inhibition to speak against your college or country is superficial. The yardstick is the injustice that is being done and not where it has been committed.

What would be your message to the students across India?

I think in today’s political atmosphere it is very important for students across India to understand that there is a huge role that they can play in shaping the country. Students have to understand that they need to stand up and speak against things which involve violation of rights.

The government which dictates people as to what they should eat, read, watch and wear curbs the civil rights of individuals. It is the time for students to decide what they want and they should speak up and stand up against the people who are becoming an impediment to their rights because it is their future.

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