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MILESTONES

Lime Stone Quarrying : The Doon Valley once had numerous limpid water streams emanating from lime stone aquifers. Abundant growth of bushes held the soil together. Unscientific mining and unbridled cutting of trees wrought havoc with local conditions and greatly altered the ecosystem. Limestone mining operations in the Doon Valley became widespread during the decade between 1955 and 1965 with many leases being granted in 1962. In the decade after 1965, the depre­dations of uncontrolled mining began to be felt. By the early 1980s, the Valley had not only lost its natural beauty but had become prone to landslides, flash floods, water shortages, rising temperatures and failing crop production. In short, it was a chilling forerunner of what the damaged Himalayan eco-system would gradually wreak on the entire Indo-Gangetic Plain.

The lime stone quarries case fought by RLEK was the first environment case in the country to be heard by the Supreme Court. Few public interest lawsuits generated as much concern and curiosity as petition No.8209 of 1983. During the five year period from July 14, 1983, (when the court first directed registration as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution – Right to Life), to August 30, 1988 (when the final judgment was pronounced for closing of the 101 mines in the area), the issues of economic development and environmental preservation was subject to the most incisive examination. This was the first event of its kind in India. A fierce legal battle was fought between the affected citizens on one side, and the rich lime stone contractors, powerful industrialists and even the government, on the other, bringing into sharp focus the conflict between development and conservation.

The arguments used by RLEK before the Supreme Court were instrumental to passing of the Environment Protection Act in 1986 and were a precursor to similar ideas discussed and given importance later, at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development at Rio De Janeiro in 1992.     This was the first environmental public interest litigation filed in the country and led to the evolution of environmental jurisprudence in India

This case was argued at great length for several reasons: First, a large number of leases for limestone quarrying were involved and each lessee had painstakingly and exhaustively, canvassed his factual and legal point of view; Second, as this was the first case of its kind there was no established precedence; Third, the questions arising for consideration were of grave importance and significance not only to people residing in the Mussoorie hill range, which forms part of the Himalayas, but also because of their implications to the general welfare of the Indian populace.

It served to emphasise the need to reconcile the conflict between development and conservation in the larger interest of the country. Voluminous material was placed before the court and momentous issues rose for decisions.

Reclaiming Quarried Lands

RLEK promoted reforestation in the Doon valley. The afforestation programme of RLEK became a feature of many a ‘school curriculum’ as groups of children dug pits, planted saplings and fenced areas. After some years, the ecological balance of bare hillsides, including the Sahastradhara springs in the Dehradun district, was partially restored.

After having won the historic environmental battle in the Supreme Court, RLEK decided to harness the energies of youth to rejuve­nate the abandoned mines and denuded foothills. With the volun­tary help of both local and outside volunteers.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this particular case fought by RLEK set a precedent for enabling citizens to file a case against a polluting unit irrespective of whether the unit is complying with or violating specifications of the Air Pollution Act. The polluting units were closed by the Court’s order on the intervention of RLEK.

Right to Breathe : ARC, Aditya Chemicals, UPCCL, and other cement factories located in Dehra Dun district were causing serious damage to the health of the people and adversely affecting the ecological balance due to high level of toxic emissions. The U.P. Pollution Control Board had withdrawn permis­sion to these factories to continue production because of their failure to comply with the Pollution Control Rules. Despite this, and the Prime Minister’s personal intervention, the factories continued to blow out clouds of smoke that obliterated visibility in the area and choked the lungs of local citizens.

In response, RLEK successfully went through the lower courts to the Supreme Court of the country demanding the closure of the polluting factories that were violating the Fundamental Rights of the local people under Articles 19 and 21 (Rights to Life and Personal Liberty) of the Constitution.

Freeing Bonded Labour/ saving communities from the clutches of slavery

Though the Government of India passed the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act in 1976 after strenuous lobbying by RLEK; many were still deprived of freedom because of lack of awareness and inaccessibility. The Koltas dwelling in the Jaunsar Bawar region was one of these groups. Age-old traditions and practices and a low level of civic consciousness accounted for the oppression by rich landlords, often higher caste Rajput and Brahmins, who denied these people their rights. These higher classes were most often the richer, and therefore, more able to lend out money to the poorer lower castes in times of need. To clear these debts which included interest at usurious rates, the lower castes often had to serve as bonded labourers in the former’s fields or houses without any sort of monetary compensation. The practice was de–facto slavery.

It was due to RLEK’s untiring efforts that the presence of 19000 bonded laborers/ slaves was officially accepted by the Government and they were released. These communities were serving as salves not to Britishers or other colonial powers but to local muscle men and the affluent class. This made it even more difficult and the organization is still working with the communities to rehabilitate them and make them a part of the main stream through various innovative endeavours.The women from these communities were also coerced into prostitution and RLEK rescued them and provided them brighter future prospects.

RLEK led an initiative to help free large groups of such bonded labour. Volunteers of the organisation were accompanied by sensitised youth from the Jaunsar region in an effort to reach all settlements in the locale’s rough terrain. All topographical and geographical impediments were overcome to spread awareness of laws through printed and oral media. The grapevine carried the ‘memorandum of freedom,’ to the furthest corners. RLEK led an informed population to justice, and ensuing deliverance.

In addition to the male members serving as slaves to the higher castes in Jaunsar Bawar, their women were being coerced into prostitution in inhumane conditions at brothels and red light areas of the larger cities in northern India. RLEK rescued these women from this work. There were several obstacles created by corruption and inefficiency prevailing in the political and administrative systems. RLEK after securing search warrant from the court rescued these women from this work and now all women trafficked in this inhumae trade from the region have been freed. RLEK’s vigorous campaign helped to free many women and provide new prospects for their future.

Land Ownership Rights :

RLEK filed a case before the Supreme Court regarding non-allotment of land to freed bonded labourers and the Supreme Court ordered the State government to facilitate the allotment of land to the freed bonded labourers.

Bonded labourers freed in the area were given land by the government in 1976. However, due to a high level of ignorance, the same land was often taken away from them in the name of development activities by the same government, without any provision for compensation.

RLEK carried out a comprehensive study in the Jaunsar area and came across 128 instances of such injustice. In nearly 30 years hardly any land settlements had taken place. The rightful owners were denied claim over their land and ownership was given to the wrong people. The bonded labourers could not take possession of the allotted land.

This intervention of RLEK which it undertook by approaching the court of law led to the passing of the “Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act” in 1988. This Act introduced severe punishments and fines on those who committed such offences. Now, poppy cultivation has stopped and the villagers have taken to farming of alternate agricultural crops.

Illegal Poppy Cultivation : The tribal area of Dehradun had the wide-ranging practice of poppy cultivation which was processed as narcotics for smuggling to the national and international market. The real beneficiaries were the rich and influential classes who coerced the poor indigenous families to indulge in this illegal activity. Drug addiction also created many social problems among the youth of these tribes. No laws had been introduced until the late 1980’s in the Indian system to combat the evil consequences of narcotic consumption. RLEK took up cudgels for survival of the exploited community. A suite (Case No. 2664) filed by them in 1986, led to the passing of the “Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act” in 1988. This Act introduced severe punishments and fines on those who committed such offences.

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