Before environment lawyer-activist Ritwick Dutta was booked by the CBI, an income tax department report had last year accused him of opposing overseas projects led by Indian entities, including the Adani Group. It had also accused him of using foreign money to partner with domestic NGOs, including an RSS affiliate.
Dutta and his Lawyers Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE proprietorship) have been accused of using foreign money to “stall coal projects in India”. They have been accused of receiving funds to the tune of over Rs 22 crore during 2013-14 and from 2015-16 to 2021-22 from Earth Justice – a US-based group involved in litigation in environment cases across the world. The CBI last week filed a case for alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010.
Before the CBI case, the income tax department had on September 7 last year “surveyed” Dutta’s office in Delhi. It prepared a report in two months and forwarded it to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. In March this year, the MHA issued an order asking the CBI director to file a case against Dutta.
Among the allegations in the IT report and the MHA order was the claim that foreign contribution is used to “target and stall” coal projects and “it impacts economic security of India”. It was also alleged that Dutta informed the Earth Justice about litigation related to thermal plants in India and that he received foreign contribution for litigation even when EJ is not a litigant.
Further, a farmers’ group represented by Dutta, Kheti Vikas Seva Trust, was accused of being involved in public interest litigation against the Gujarat government and Adani Enterprises. It was also alleged that Dutta uses the media to level allegations against the government.
According to the tax department and the MHA order, the foreign funds were used for “partnerships” with 14 domestic NGOs, including the RSS tribal wing Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram to bypass FCRA.
It said the purpose behind the foreign fund transfer to 34 individuals, including activists, by LIFE Trust needs to be investigated.
His battle against the corporate world
Dutta, an environment lawyer for 22 years and with over 1,000 cases under his belt, is among the few advocates who took on the corporate sector across India over alleged environment violations. Dutta has continued his battle regardless of the party in power.
A member of a government committee on the Forest Rights Act, his first case was against British giant Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills – he won it. With lawyer Rahul Choudhary, he founded LIFE in 2005. Both of them had won the Right to Livelihood award in 2021 for their “grassroots approach of empowering vulnerable communities to protect their livelihoods and claim their right to a clean environment”.
Union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav, a friend of Dutta, was among the few from the government to congratulate the duo. Dutta has attended meetings of the RSS legal wing Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad when Yadav was its general secretary. The West Bengal-born lawyer has also advised the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram on policy issues and represented it in court.
Coal, thermal plants and Adani
“Adani” features at least two times in the IT report. The report says that Kheti Vikas Seva Trust, a farmers’ group in Gujarat, was litigating against the Gujarat government and Adani Enterprises. The case filed in the National Green Tribunal is subjudice.
The petitioner, through Dutta, in 2020 challenged “the legality and correctness of the environmental clearance” for a greenfield copper plant of Adani Enterprises in Kutch. In the last hearing in February this year, the petitioner requested to withdraw the case. Be that as it may, the NGT said it would continue to hear the matter.
There are not many cases against Adani argued by Dutta or his colleagues at LIFE. The last prominent case was related to violation of coastal zone regulation in Chennai. In 2020, NGT directed demolition of an edible oil storage facility by KTV Oil Mills Private Limited and KTV Health Food Private Limited – a joint venture between KTV Group and Adani Wilmar Limited. The Supreme Court upheld the judgment.
“People can borrow money from abroad and create debt for the nation, and destroy the environment. Now is it wrong to take foreign money to protect the environment? It’s nothing but witchhunt to shoot the messenger who is raising the voice of the forest dweller and the tribal community,” claimed D Stalin, a Maharashtra-based activist and a prominent face of the Mumbai’s Save Aarey Movement.
The IT report alleges that litigation against overseas Indian entities, including Adani in Australia, “denies energy security” to Indian citizens. An environmental lawyer, who did not wish to be named, was perplexed. “At one place the government says Ritwick and others are impacting the economic security of India. Then they talk about Adani in Australia. How is this related to India’s energy security?”
The report has alleged that Earth Justice and Dutta were stalling coal and thermal projects in India.
Newslaundry has looked at around three dozen appeals argued by Dutta and his colleagues against environment and forest clearances in the NGT. We could not find any case related to thermal plants or mining in which NGT has set aside clearances – in a few cases, it has imposed penalties on project proponents or asked them to comply with forest or environment conditions.
In another case which led to NGT directions in 2021, the central government issued guidelines on how to decommission thermal power plants by keeping in mind environmental concerns. Dutta was representing the petitioner.
LIFE also frequently releases reports on wildlife clearances, coal and conservation.
Criticism of government and NGO funds
Dutta has been vocal not only in the courtroom but outside too. His articles on the environment regularly appear in newspapers and online news portals. Almost all of them are critical of the government or its policies on forest or wildlife or biodiversity.
The IT report alleges: “It appears that Ritwick Dutta is involved in criticising government policy and making allegations against the government of India through public media. He appears to have been involved in agitating local farmers against industrialists and industrial policy of the government.”
The report lists names of a few public-spirited individuals or NGOs who “appeared to have given funds” to LIFE for “some other purpose other than consultancy”. IT sleuths singled out one of them: Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, alleging that the movement “appears to have engaged in protests”.
Based in Gurugram, the movement representing students and citizens has been campaigning for protection of the Aravallis for four years. Ritwick and Rahul Choudhary represented the struggle in two cases, and might have received money for litigation. In one case, the Supreme Court directed protection of 30,000 hectares of forests in the Aravallis and Shivaliks, and the second case in NGT is against illegal mining.
Impact on lawyers
The day the media reported about the CBI case, the WhatsApp group of the NGT Bar Association was buzzing with messages about solidarity with Dutta. However, the association has not issued any statement.
In a statement on Thursday, LIFE said it is committed to the cause of environment protection and law, and would cooperate with the CBI.
Notwithstanding the solidarity call, lawyers are concerned about being allegedly targeted for representing specific cases. Supreme Court lawyer Gaurav Bansal said: “None is above the law. It’s my job as a lawyer-activist to fight for the environment. If a person is targeted because of the cases he takes up, it gives a wrong signal. If this becomes a precedent, nobody will be left to raise the issue of environment protection and conservation…It is the court that issues judgments after perusing the case. Does this mean a case can be filed even against the Supreme Court because of unfavourable judgments?”
Supreme Court lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava is “shocked” by the case. “Ritwick is not known as a left liberal. He has been informally associated with the Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Asham, an RSS outfit. He has guided them on forest dwellers and related policy issues. He does not have any ideological leaning to trouble this regime…how can opposition to a project be seen as anti-national?...If (ED and CBI) cases are filed against lawyers because of accepting or litigating cases against government clearance of development projects, this means the government is questioning the court of law.”
“Prima facie, it looks like a case of transaction. I don’t think there is anyone in the Bar who is against him…we stand by him,” said environment lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay.
Another lawyer, who did not wish to be named, said that after the CBI case, a client wanted him to argue a coal case. “He asked me if I would back down if faced with a case by CBI or ED.”
A senior SC lawyer said the case seems “hypertechnical”. “If it’s a professional receipt and I have paid taxes on it, it is up to me how I want to use it.”
Activists remain guarded in their response due to ongoing investigation.
“This will hamper the campaign against the environment…If the government is opposed to any judgment, they should argue in courts,” said an activist.
D Stalin hailed Dutta for making the tribal community a stakeholder in the process.
Claude Alvares said threats are part of everyday life for activists and lawyers. “Whatever he has done so far is within the framework of law by invoking powers given to constitutional authorities.”
Update at 12.20 pm, April 28: Some names have been removed due to concerns about protection of identity.