In­dian Girl De­mands Jus­tice from Her Gov­ern­ment in En­vi­ron­men­tal Court

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At an age when other chil­dren around the world might choose to spend free time play­ing, 9-yearold Rid­hima Pandey is su­ing her gov­ern­ment to force im­me­di­ate ac­tion about cli­mate change.

The at­tack she has filed is about as se­ri­ous as it gets. Her law­suit, filed on her be­half by at­tor­ney Rahul Choudhary, says the gov­ern­ment of In­dia, the third worst con­trib­u­tor to green­house gas emis­sions in the world, is guilty of just stand­ing by while com­pa­nies, in­di­vid­u­als, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies con­tinue to dump toxic ma­te­ri­als into the earth, wa­ter and air. It de­mands im­me­di­ate ac­tion by that gov­ern­ment to do some­thing to start act­ing re­spon­si­bly, en­force the en­vi­ron­men­tal laws which are al­ready in place, and find a way to make In­dia a health­ier place to live.

As she said dur­ing a re­cent interview with the UK news­pa­per the In­de­pen­dent, “My gov­ern­ment has failed to take steps to reg­u­late and re­duce green­house gas emis­sions, which are caus­ing ex­treme cli­mate con­di­tions. This will im­pact me and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

With her fa­ther be­ing Dinesh Pandey, an ac­tivist who has worked for 16 years for an en­vi­ron­men­tal NGO in the Hi­malayan state of Ut­tarak­hand, Rid­hima has grown up in a home where con­ver­sa­tions about en­vi­ron­men­tal causes are as much part of her home life as are top­ics like school­work and tak­ing care of fam­ily. She also had the sad mis­for­tune of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­ri­ous flash floods and land­slides in her home re­gion over her life­time. The worst of those hap­pened in June 2013 after the most pow­er­ful mon­soons in modern his­tory slammed into the Hi­malayan foothills. That storm turned the nor­mally beau­ti­ful rolling hills of the re­gion into cas­cad­ing mud­slides which killed hun­dreds of peo­ple and dis­placed 50,000 peo­ple or more from their homes. The bod­ies of many who dis­ap­peared in that storm have never been re­cov­ered.

But the mem­ory of that storm stuck vividly in the mind of then 5-year-old Rid­hima, lock­ing in the im­age of death and de­struc­tion from an en­vi­ron­ment al­lowed to run out of con­trol.

Since that time, the girl has seen more storms and learned more about what cli­mate change means in ac­tion.

De­spite there al­ready be­ing tough en­vi­ron­men­tal laws in place in In­dia both re­gion­ally and na­tion­ally, a Green­peace re­port pub­lished in Jan­uary 2017 showed how dam­ag­ing the ef­fects of the coun­try’s in­ac­tion to en­force them had be­come. It noted that, while air­borne pol­lu­tants in China, the US and Europe had dropped by 15% or more from 2010 to 2015, in the same pe­riod pol­lu­tants in­creased in In­dia by 13% in the same time­frame.

Be­sides the dam­age from such pol­lu­tion to the world, these emis­sions have un­for­tu­nately se­cured

In­dia four of the top ten spots in the list of the most pol­luted ci­ties in the world. These in­clude: Gwalior, lo­cated 319 kilo­me­ters (or 198 miles) south of Delhi, In­dia’s cap­i­tal city Al­la­habad, in the In­dian state of Up­per Pradesh and the ad­min­is­tra­tive head­quar­ters of the Al­laba­had District Patna, the cap­i­tal and largest city in the state of Bi­har, along the north­east­ern border of the coun­try Raipur, the largest city in the In­dian state of Ch­hat­tis­garh

The sit­u­a­tion in In­dia is so bad that, based on data Green­peace pulled to­gether from state pol­lu­tion con­trol boards and other sources, “there are vir­tu­ally no places in In­dia com­ply­ing with World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and na­tional am­bi­ent air qual­ity (NAAQ) stan­dards, and most ci­ties are crit­i­cally pol­luted.”

Green­peace went on to cal­cu­late that as many as 1.2 mil­lion In­di­ans die ev­ery year from these pol­lu­tants, from ex­po­sure to ev­ery­thing from mold spores to poi­sonous ar­senic, lead, nickel and chromium, a known car­cino­gen.

One might think the gov­ern­ment of In­dia would take this more se­ri­ously, with much of its ur­ban land­scape cur­rently un­in­hab­it­able just from the lev­els of pol­lu­tion alone. In­dia is also a key sig­na­tory of the 2015 Paris agree­ment on cli­mate change. It has fur­ther stated pub­licly its in­tent that non-fos­sil-fuel (or re­new­able) en­ergy sources gen­er­ate at least 40% of its elec­tric­ity by 2030.

After fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion, it is clear many of the gov­ern­ment’s claims of car­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment and pledg­ing to do some­thing about it are only so much win­dow-dress­ing. In re­sponse to that same Green­peace 2017 re­port about the state of poi­sonous pol­lu­tion run­ning ram­pant in the coun­try, for ex­am­ple, the en­vi­ron­men­tal min­is­ter of In­dia fa­mously said, “There is no con­clu­sive data avail­able in the coun­try to es­tab­lish direct cor­re­la­tion-ship of death ex­clu­sively with air pol­lu­tion.”

Such camel-like head-in-the-sand at­ti­tudes are not go­ing to save the coun­try and the world from the con­se­quences of what In­dia is al­low­ing to hap­pen.

For her law­suit to force the gov­ern­ment to do some­thing about all this, Rid­hima and her at­tor­ney se­lected the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal, a spe­cial court In­dia has set aside for en­vi­ron­men­tal-re­lated is­sues.

That court, which was en­acted into ex­is­tence under the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal Act 2010, de­scribes its pur­pose as:

“for ef­fec­tive and ex­pe­di­tious dis­posal of cases re­lat­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of forests and other nat­u­ral re­sources in­clud­ing en­force­ment of any le­gal right re­lat­ing to en­vi­ron­ment and giv­ing re­lief and com­pen­sa­tion for dam­ages to per­sons and prop­erty and for mat­ters con­nected there­with or in­ci­den­tal thereto.”

The court is fur­ther set up with the idea that its “ded­i­cated ju­ris­dic­tion in en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters shall pro­vide speedy en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and help re­duce the bur­den of lit­i­ga­tion in the higher courts. The Tri­bunal is man­dated to make and en­deav­our for dis­posal of ap­pli­ca­tions or ap­peals fi­nally within 6 months of fil­ing of the same.”

In her pe­ti­tion, Rid­hima asked for the tri­bunal to or­der the gov­ern­ment “to take ef­fec­tive, sci­ence­based ac­tion to re­duce and min­i­mize the im­pacts of cli­mate change”.

It fur­ther de­mands the In­dian gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately put in place car­bon bud­gets to limit car­bon diox­ide emis­sions, re­quire as­sess­ment of all in­dus­trial projects for cli­mate-re­lated im­pacts, and cre­ate a plan for na­tional cli­mate re­cov­ery.

Will her law­suit work? It is al­ready gain­ing press at­ten­tion from around the world, ex­pos­ing the id­iocy of a gov­ern­ment per­haps only sec­ond to China in so vis­i­bly de­stroy­ing the ur­ban air and poi­son­ing its cit­i­zens.

It also builds on some of the same is­sues filed in a case filed by 21 chil­dren aged from 9 to 20, in a fed­eral court in Eu­gene, Ore­gon, in 2016. In that law­suit, the chil­dren claim the U.S. Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and fos­sil fuel pro­duc­ers con­spired to pro­mote fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion and use. It says the gov­ern­ment and the fos­sil fuel mak­ers also knew about the dam­age pol­lu­tion from these fu­els would do to the en­vi­ron­ment, and pro­ceeded any­way. It then holds them ac­count­able for the dam­age al­ready caused to the health of the cit­i­zens of the United States, and de­mands they take im­me­di­ate ac­tion to rec­tify that dam­age.

That case has al­ready made it through mul­ti­ple le­gal chal­lenges from the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies to stop it.

Rid­hima’s pe­ti­tion also builds on the process fol­lowed by other law­suits filed by sim­i­lar groups which were al­ready won in Pak­istan, South Africa and Aus­tria, and which are still in process in Bel­gium and New Zealand. A court in the Nether­lands eval­u­at­ing yet an­other case like this even re­cently or­dered the gov­ern­ment to re­duce car­bon emis­sions by 25% within 5 years.

There is there­fore hope for the cause and pe­ti­tion cham­pi­oned by 9-year Rid­hima Pandey.

The law­suit asks for In­dia to re­spond to the pe­ti­tion within 14 days.

Photo by Rob Bye, CC

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